The way law firms operate has changed substantially over the past decade. The sector has become more competitive, clients even more discerning, and the use of technology is slowly transforming many aspects of legal service delivery, and in some cases automating work that was previously the vanguard of fee earners themselves!
Support structures have changed also. Gone are the days when traditional secretaries worked on a one-to-one basis with their partners and fee earners. The traditional secretarial role has largely been split into PA, document production and administrative tasks, with specific teams responsible for the delivery of each.
Interestingly, one support function that hasn’t changed radically in the last 10 years is a firm’s central administrative support: the print, mail and courier and records management teams. This is despite the fact that during this period the process of digitisation has meant less hard-copy mail is sent, and fewer physical documents are created or reproduced in paper-lite offices, meaning less tangible storage is needed either onsite or offsite.
Although central administrative support is available to the whole firm, these teams can be geographically removed from the fee earners and PAs who determine where tasks should be sent. Local teams—made up of PAs, administration assistants and possibly document production—often have closer working relationships with their fee earners, established by working with them over a long period of time. As a result of this closer relationship, fee earners are likely to ask local support to do jobs the central office services can, and are supposed to, complete.
In addition, improvements in technology mean that fee earners and PAs are less motivated to send tasks to the central team, as it can be faster and easier to do the tasks themselves. This raises a new and separate problem, how to effectively manage tasks and coordinate them to the right resources. After all, a fee earner’s time is expensive, as is an experienced PA’s, and neither of them should be spending time on administration tasks, especially when there is a dedicated team to action them.
Law firms are being asked to deliver more for less and at a higher level of service than ever before. This is a challenge that necessitates all support functions working together collaboratively and efficiently, so work will not fall to one team or the other and they jointly take as much administration from fee earners as possible.
This is a common position we find firms in—where the central team is being under utilised and the local team is oversubscribed. A re-balancing of roles needs to happen. So how does a firm get this relationship between the central and local support services right?
How to get results from your central services
A common starting point for us when we work with clients is physically relocating at least some of the resources of the central team—the print, mailroom and records management functions—onto the fee earning floors, to raise visibility of the role that the central team plays within the firm. This helps aid collaboration and closer working relationships that helps underpin more work being sent to the central administrative resource.
Truly cross-training the central administrative team is necessary to ensure they are all capable of delivering a wide range of support to the firm. Thorough cross training will help ensure that the team is able to complete a higher volume of work, that the quality of this work will improve both of which will result in greater confidence in the central administrative team’s capability.
Creating a proactive culture
To ensure the central administrative teams are as utilised as possible they must be challenged to be more proactive and more customer service-oriented. They can do this by actively seeking work to do rather than passively waiting for work to be given or sent to them. A proactive attitude shows initiative, which then allows for fee earners to be less involved in the administrative process.
Ultimately, central teams should be seen as centres of excellence and be challenged to develop the skills they need to support the firm. If they do this, then they can challenge the status quo, come up with new and innovative methods of completing the work sent to them, and deliver the tasks in a more cost-effective way.
At Intelligent Office, we know that getting this relationship right is key to running an efficient firm. We’ve worked with many clients who, until we’ve spoken to them about their relationship with administrative functions, have silently accepted that the support they receive is ‘hit and miss’. Making the decision to outsource administrative responsibilities to Intelligent Office means that this is no longer your problem. It’s ours.