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Changes to our workforce …

August 13, 2010

One of the biggest changes that we are facing is the change to the staffing structure and the workforce reductions during the economic recession. Not a glamorous topic to tackle, but we do need to understand what has happened so that we can wrap our minds around how we are going to modify our skills to meet this change.

The changes

  • Fewer partnership opportunities
  • Partnership tracks extended
  • Reductions and fewer hires for associates
  • Reductions and fewer hires for legal support staff
  • Lateral moves
  • Contract lawyers
  • Demand for different practice specialties

Breaking it down

Let’s start with lateral moves. Several years ago, we started to see associates move between firms. In the last few years, we are seeing partner moves. Each presents its own unique challenge. The associate may come in the door with certain technical expectations, but partners walk in the door with client obligations and deadlines already set without room for change. We can’t expect our traditional new hire programs to fit the schedule of a new partner. Be prepared to be flexible with scheduling, expect to reschedule, work one-on-one and focus on the bare essentials, especially any technology that is guided by firm policy. Offer more hands-on support for a pre-determined amount of time so they feel comfortable asking for your assistance as you build a relationship.

The US Department of  Labor recently reported that 38% of the total workforce will be contract employees by the year 2013.   The  Altman Weil Law Firms in Transition survey describes a “growing enthusiasm” for contract lawyers.  In 2009, contract lawyers were utilized by 39% of the responding firms.  The projections for 2010 jump to 53%.  As part of the “new normal,” 52% expect that they will use contract lawyers as a permanent part of the staffing plans.   Our challenge will be to get contractors up to speed as quickly as possible and find the right balance of what technical information needs to be shared against what they will be expected to know as professional contract employees.

Of course, the economic changes have a direct impact on which practice areas are hot and which are not.   You can check out the list at the Thoughtful Legal Management blog, What’s Hot and What’s Not in the Legal Profession by Bob Denny of Robert Denny Associates, Inc. .

Not all staffing news is gloom and doom, the Cowen Group just released a report indicating that Litigation Support Departments are expected to grow in at least 40% of the major firms.  I found these positive statistics here, but you can also find more information at David Cowen’s blog.

This change is where those business analysis skills we’ve been developing will serve us well.   As our legal professionals shift to new practice areas, we will be prepared to help them master the technical skills required for the new practice area.

I know I keep writing about workflow, but the workforce reductions and moves into new practice areas mean changes to familiar workflows.  And even though law firms have reduced staff, there is still a primary focus on efficiency.  There are fewer non-fee earners producing documents. Attorneys are increasingly the first line of document production, leaving secretaries to finalize documents.   At first glance, it might look like secretaries need fewer word processing skills. But the reality is that they need to become document experts in order to format and troubleshoot documents that probably been created without following best practices.  You can learn more by reading Gina Buser’s (CEO and Co-Founder of Traveling Coaches) article, Doing More with Less.  The article was published in the May/June 2010 issue of ALA’s Legal Management magazine.

Parting thoughts

I think it is important to end by sharing the conclusion from the Altman Weil survey that even after the recent economic challenges the legal profession is still tremendously stable.  They see these changes as  a rational response to market conditions. Our responsibility is to see our legal users through this period by understanding these changes and being ready to assist them. There are likely to be other changes as firms adjust to the new workforce.  Keep your eyes open and observe how teams work together or work apart.

What changes have you noticed?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 17, 2010 10:20 pm

    Another change that I’ve seen with increased attorney-to-secretary ratios is support staff having to cover multiple practice areas, which means they are less able to specialize than they once were. I’ve seen assistants supporting attorneys from 3 different practice areas on a single desk. Gone are the days of having to know how to do EITHER TOAs or cross references. Now, assistants have to know even more than they did before.

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