The Costs of Inappropriate Staffing: A Broader View

As I have written about before, the single biggest cost issue I come across in my legal bill reviews can be put under the category of “inappropriate staffing” of cases.

In previous posts, I have written about this issue from an individual tasks perspective such as when partners inappropriately bill for tasks that associates or paralegals could do or when associates inappropriately bill for tasks that paralegals can do. I have also written about paralegals who inappropriately bill for tasks that non-billing legal secretaries can do.

As it is sometimes hard to see the forest for all the individual trees, I want to step back and look at the inappropriate staffing issue from a broader perspective.  In so doing, I want to examine the broader issues of what should be considered as the appropriate mix of staff to work on a case and (even more importantly) what should be considered an appropriate balance of work among whatever mix of staff there is working on a case.

With regard to the appropriate mix of staff issue, an appropriate mix of staff to work on a case should be a partner, associate, paralegal, and legal secretary in all but the most complex of cases. While some smaller firms may not have associates or even legal secretaries, all firms your company hires should have paralegals.

If you are working with a firm that has no paralegals you are working with a firm that cannot cost effectively handle your cases. This is because it is very likely that the attorneys in the firm are billing for tasks that could otherwise be done by a competent and much lower billing paralegal. And just as importantly, if a firm does not employ legal secretaries, it is more than likely the paralegals bill for tasks that a non-billing legal secretary can do.

But note that even if a firm does use both partners and associates to staff a case, there can be a problem if too many partners and/or associates work on a case. Too many attorneys working on a case can lead to “over lawyering” which can then lead to overbilling. See ABA Annotated Model Rules of Professional Conduct (7th ed. 2011) at p. 73 “Too Many Lawyers Working on a Matter” (“Participation by too many lawyers is another form over lawyering that can result in a violation of Rule 1.5(a).”). An example of overstaffing also can be seen in “drop-in billers” who drop into a case, bill for a little work, and then are nevermore seen.

Assuming there is the appropriate mix of staff working on a case, what should be considered the appropriate balance of work among the staff? Because so much of the “legal” work in a case such as reviewing or preparing requested discovery, research, taking and/or summarizing depositions, and preparing form documents can be done by lower billing staff, an appropriate balance of work in a typical non-complex case should resemble a pyramid.

At the top of the billing pyramid in a case that has an appropriate balance of work should be the partner who bills less than the associate who is in the middle of the pyramid who bills more than the partner, but less than the paralegal at the bottom of the pyramid. Much too often, though, what I see when I review legal bills is an inverted pyramid. That is the partner at the top bills more hours than the associate in the middle who, in turn, bills more hours than the paralegal at the bottom of the pyramid.

To gain a perspective on how a case is being staffed when reviewing a legal bill, I always start at the bottom of a legal bill to look at the summary of hours billed. I look to see how many staffers are billing, how many hours each staffer has billed, and the staffer’s rank (i.e., partner, associate, paralegal). If I see an imbalance of staffing or the hours billed, I am then on heightened alert for inappropriate staffing issues as I review the bill.

Finally, on a somewhat related issue to appropriate staffing, I would like to proudly note that at the Indiana State Bar Association’s House of Delegates meeting last month, I and three other attorneys were each made an “Honorary Registered Paralegal.” This was done in recognition for our work to get a Registered Paralegal designation program adopted in Indiana as it has been adopted in many other states.

If you have followed my previous blog posts, you will note that I am a big proponent of using paralegals. Having worked very closely with paralegals, I know how much properly trained paralegals can do and why they should be carrying so much of the load in an appropriately staffed case. And while they may be at the bottom of the billing pyramid, I believe they should always be at the top of the work pyramid in an appropriately staffed case.

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