Image [cc] Iain Farrell

The theme of “self-help” has popped up in a number of my conversations lately. I’m talking about work that lawyers used to rely upon others to handle, that they are now handling themselves. Whether it is pulling PACER dockets, case law, Shepardizing, filing court documents, or typing up their own documents, it is apparent that lawyers are taking on more of the workload than they did 10 or 15 years ago. Now, you may think that this is a good thing… and maybe it is. However, as I started thinking about workflow processes and project management, I wondered if just because a lawyer can do certain parts of the work, does that mean that the lawyer should be doing that part of the work?

Some of the basic concepts behind Legal Project Management, and the value of alternative fee arrangements between clients and law firms rely upon work being handled by the appropriate level of expertise. A lawyer can quite easily handle processes like pulling a PACER docket or editing the format of a court brief. In fact, in the billable hour universe, it could be pretty profitable to allow the attorneys to do as much self-help as they can. But, we don’t live in a pre-2008 world any longer. If clients begin requiring firms to use project management concepts in how they handle their work… or, partners start capping the total number of hours that associates can spend on specific client work, then the work needs to be pushed down to the lowest appropriate level. If it is pulling documents, then it should go to paralegals, researchers in the library, or others in the firm. If it is basic editing and formatting of documents, then legal secretaries or administrative assistants should be taking on that work. Again, it’s not because the lawyers can’t do that type of work, it is because they shouldn’t be doing that type of work. 
As big firms pushed secretary to attorney ratios to 4:1 or 6:1, the question has to be asked on what this does to the attorney? Are the adjustments in ratios a reaction to the lack of work available to the admin staff, or does it create a situation where basic work processes are being pushed up? Is work that should be taken on by non-billable admin staff, suddenly being pushed to billable workers such as paralegals or associates? Is this fair for the billable staff? Is it fair for the client? 
I have no illusions that firms will suddenly stop looking at admin to lawyer ratios at their firms. As long as administrative functions are viewed through the lens of “revenue – expenses = profits” then there will always be someone at the firm looking to cut expenses. However, law firms (and I’m coming from a big law firm perspective) have admin staff for a reason. For most of us, the reason is that we do certain pieces of the overall work for the client and firm so that the attorneys can focus on practicing law and bringing the best value to their clients. When the concept of “self-help” means that traditional administrative work suddenly becomes attorney work, then you have to wonder what type of value this really brings to the firm or the clients they serve.