Client Expectations, Technology Driving Change for Legal Support Personnel

As law firms remain focused on delivering legal services more efficiently and enhancing value to clients, the role of legal support personnel continues to shift and expand. Research conducted for Robert Half Legal’s annual Future Law Office program finds that legal organizations are looking for paralegals and legal secretaries who can perform more comprehensive duties than in the past.

Considering the cost pressures on legal organizations today, the push to drive more substantive work to legal support personnel enables lawyers to spend more time on complex casework while reducing hourly billing to clients.

Steve Wingert, executive director of Marshall, Gerstein & Borun LLP and past president of the Association of Legal Administrators, acknowledges that client expectations have been a key factor in the evolving models for legal support staff. “Clients are pushing back on legal fees and expenses and the natural outcome is for law offices to be more savvy about how work gets done,” he states. “We’re seeing attorneys focus on more effective utilization of support staff – having experienced paralegals and legal secretaries conduct research, draft shell documents and participate on client service teams with increasing client interactions.”

Leveraging Technology

Ann L. Atkinson, past president, National Association of Legal Assistants and Paralegals (NALA), and an advanced certified paralegal (ACP) at Kutak Rock LLP in Omaha, Neb., describes the dramatic changes in the legal support staffing model she’s experienced during her career.

“When I compare how I performed my duties 30 years ago to how I do my job today, one word comes to mind – technology,” says Atkinson. She emphasizes that technology has not only profoundly changed how paralegals, legal secretaries and assistants do their work – but the speed in which they do so.

“Long gone are the days when we had to spend hours at the copier machine, duplicating lengthy legal documents, then packaging them up to send out for delivery,” she explains. “Now, for example, once a document is finalized, we create a PDF, forward it through email to appropriate parties, and then file required materials online.”

As efficiencies are incorporated into daily work functions, legal secretaries are able to support more attorneys. Atkinson recalls the time when each legal secretary would be teamed with three attorneys at the most. Today, however, a legal secretary may support up to six or more attorneys. “We’re also seeing more secretarial arrangements that provide economies of scale,” she says. “The new legal support model is probably as much about the technologies we now use as the fact that most young attorneys, who have grown up using computers, are comfortable creating and editing their own legal document drafts, enabling support staff to take on a broader array of duties.”

Relaxing Hierarchical Boundaries

Wingert explains that one of the key enablers to enhancing client service comes from recognizing that the traditional, hierarchical law office model no longer makes sense in today’s business world. “How work can be most effectively performed is what’s important today,” he says. “Regardless of title, regardless of hierarchy, the question is, ‘How do we get the work done as efficiently as possible to provide exceptional client service?’

“It’s a matter of understanding all the components involved in a particular legal project, and then identifying who is best suited to each of the duties, matching the skill set to the nature of each task,” he adds. “We’re breaking down barriers to create more flexibility and more nimbleness in our work strategies and processes – and our legal teams and our clients are both better served as a result. It's about the right person, with the right knowledge and skill sets, performing the right tasks at the right time. This requires careful analysis of tasks and process, greater collaboration, teams, and willingness to be flexible."

Merging Legal Support Staff Duties

An example of the trend to be less driven by titles in favor of more effective and functional work assignments is the growing popularity of the hybrid or blended paralegal/legal secretary position.

Sixty-four percent of lawyers interviewed by Robert Half Legal said blended or hybrid paralegal/legal secretary positions are more common today than they were two years ago. (Source: Survey of 200 lawyers among the largest law firms and corporations in the United States. The survey was commissioned by Robert Half Legal and conducted by an independent research firm.)

took on added responsibilities, eventually achieving paralegal certification. “Today, we’re seeing that the ‘blended’ position is becoming part of the regular law office support staff model.”

And she points to another major change in legal support staff’s responsibilities – namely, more frequent interactions with clients. “We’ve always worked closely as a team within the firm, but now we’re extending that strong team bond outside the office walls. Clients today are more inclined to work with paralegals and legal secretaries; and they appreciate when we can quickly and professionally respond to many of their day-to-day requests,” she explains. “At the same time, as legal support team members, we feel more engaged and valued and can see more directly how we’re contributing to client projects.”

“For the most part, we’ve found that support staff employees appreciate that many boundaries are breaking down, that they have opportunities to perform higher-value work and play a more valuable and strategic role within the organization,” Wingert says. “Being able to understand the full scope of a client’s project and directly participate in the outcome enhances their overall job satisfaction.

“And we recognize that an integrated team approach to client matters not only strengthens communications and relationships among employees, it contributes to a better work product,” he adds, “and ultimately strengthens the overall value of an organization and the quality of service provided to clients.”

To learn more about current legal trends, download Robert Half Legal’s complimentary Future Law Office report, “ Client Dynamics Driving Change in the Legal Profession .” For additional information on the changing responsibilities of legal support staff, you may be interested in the following blog posts: