Operational benefits – why a better operating structure is worth the bother

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The competitive pressures on firms across the UK top 200 are well-documented, the principal war cry being the demand “more for less” from clients. This downward pressure on margins coupled with longer working hours will only intensify and is driving the need for operational change within firms on an unprecedented scale.

Almost daily the legal press highlights the growing adoption of legal process re-engineering. The objective: to dissect the legal process, define the component parts of a transaction or process and deliver each component effectively and efficiently.

At the heart of delivering profitable legal services is the premise that firms should gear up their workforce, with partners pushing work to the right level while delivering the expected quality. This frees partners to focus on business development and improving client relationships while mentoring fee-earning staff. In short, it optimises the value of the partner to the firm as well as the fee-earning talent that sits beneath them.

But what about the administrative services that enable partners and fee-earners to deliver? In most firms, after the cost of property and fee-earning staff, secretaries are the greatest investment. Yet despite secretaries costing up to 50 per cent more than members of support teams such as reprographics or records, the traditional secretary is still often required to spend significant time on procedural tasks including scanning, printing, filing and closing files. The traditional secretary is a one-stop-shop for the delivery of all manner of support to their fee-earners.

Consider this approach when applied to the partner. What if that partner was expected to deliver more than 95 per cent of all legal support required by their client personally, rather than using the cost-effective layers of fee-earners at their disposal?

When commenting on why they want to restructure secretarial and back-office infrastructure, it is in this context that management teams talk. They regularly speak of achieving value. But what does that mean – is it releasing expensive secretaries to focus on more important or complex tasks such as better client liaison and project management, improving the flexibility of the support provided by back-office teams so a more scalable service is provided or matching resource with demand?

Efficiency can be achieved – the question is how.

The challenges

While the rationale behind restructuring your admin support is compelling, delivering results is a challenge.

Within most firms major operational change has been limited and therefore the support given to the firm’s fee-earners – and, indeed, all employees – through a change programme is important.

Before embarking on the change programme:

  • Objectives and vision must be defined as they inform all aspects of the communication; critical in setting expectations during the transition to the new structure
  • Leadership from the senior legal and operational management team is critical; they must be behind any transformation
  • Help people change by engaging partners and fee-earners; help them change their behaviours to get the best from the new services
  • Resource must be plentiful, immediately accessible and experienced in change of this scale
  • Modern management is essential; great employee engagement and development techniques are needed

How do I beat the challenges?

Once a firm has decided to restructure its secretarial and back-office services it typically has two choices:

  • To deliver the change internally, perhaps using some external consultancy to help with the pre-implementation planning; and
  • To partner with a provider that has expertise and experience in restructuring and the delivery of services in the future state to ensure that the objectives of the change programme are delivered

The results can be impressive. The following tangible benefits have been achieved:

  • Within three years the cost of support service per fee-earner decreased by 52 per cent
  • Cost of document production reduced by 63 per cent
  • Word processing speeds improved by 32 per cent
  • Hours of support to fee-earners extended beyond the standard 9 to 5
  • Full-firm e-filing and clear desk policy introduced with 12 months, creating additional fee-earner desk space and improving security
  • Increase in reprographic volumes of 35 per cent with the same team, achieved through cross-training