Why Staff Reductions at Law Firms to Improve Their Bottom Lines May Hurt Their Clients’ Bottom Lines

“Legal Secretary, a Dying Job: Positions Dwindle as Firms Cut Back; Younger Lawyers Type Their Own Briefs” Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2013

The above headline appeared in a WSJ story that reported on the layoffs at the Weil, Gotshal & Manges firm.  The firm announced it was cutting about 60 associates and 110 staffers, including about 60 secretaries.  The firm follows the trend that I have reported on before in this blog of law firm cutbacks over the past several years as law firms eliminate staff to improve their bottom lines.  Those staff cutbacks mostly have followed a 2 to 1 ratio in terms of the number of support staff to attorneys being laid off.

Of course, the fact that the position of legal secretary is a “dying job” is not really that newsworthy to those of us in the legal field.  In fact, the job of “secretary” would have disappeared from all of the American business scene years ago except for a lone holdout, the legal profession (the bastion of modern office efficiency).

Nevertheless, the position has been undergoing a slow but inevitable death in the legal profession. As older attorneys who grew up appended to a dictation machine leave the profession, they are being replaced by younger attorneys who grew up appended to a laptop and prefer to “process” (i.e., type) their own documents.

I will concede the point that it may be just as quick for attorneys to type their own letters (likely a form, by the way) as it is for them to dictate letters to secretaries.  But legal secretaries do more than type letters.  They schedule court reporters, check court dockets, prepare exhibits, arrange travel, open new client files, close files, and on and on.  Who is going to do all of this work now?

While some of the work from departing support staff can be shifted to the support staff that remains, the WSJ story reports that where legal secretaries supported one or two attorneys in the past, they may now support as many as eight attorneys.  So the capacity in many firms for the remaining non-billing support staff to absorb more work is very limited.

Thus it is invariable that some of this non-billable, but essential work (if not a large part of this work) will shift upward to attorneys or paralegals.  If so, it is quite likely that clients will see tasks being billed for that could have be done by a non-billing legal secretary.  Of course, the ethics of the legal profession as well as case claw is very clear on this point.  Neither attorneys nor paralegals can bill for tasks that can be performed by non-billing support staff. See Missouri v. Jenkins, 491 U.S. 274, 298 (1989).  This is the law even if law firms have made a “business decision” to not have any non-billing staff positions.

The bottom line here is that moves by many law firms to cut back on support staff may help improve their bottom lines will likely wind up hurting their clients’ bottom lines.  To guard against what will inevitably happen, clients will now need to be more vigilant than ever to watch for billing entries by attorneys and paralegals for tasks that could have been done by non-billing support staff.

Not clear on what paralegals can and cannot bill for?   Read my post on how to apply the “Perry Mason Test” to all billed for paralegal tasks.

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