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.
  • Anonymous

    Greg…I agree with your basic premise. However, the workflow of the attorney has completely changed, which can actually make self-help more cost/time-efficient. For example, Attorney Sue has a brief in electronic format on her computer. If her firm has some sort of case pull page, it would probably be easier for her to just copy and past the Table of Cases into the tool and hit 'go', rather than emailing the document with an explanation to someone else and then waiting for the results. Or imagine her firm has Lexis for Office, where everything is displayed simultaneously on the screen. It would be a disservice to the client NOT to use a tool like this.

    Fortunately or unfortunately, many of the tasks you listed are just part of the attorney workflow, and I believe that we should help them use the tools that enable them to be as efficient as possible. This is the 'new' role of the librarian, in my opinion.

  • "Self-help" is a good thing, but what you are describing isn't self-help, it is Do it Yourself (DIY). Self-help "should" be ways that lawyers can gain efficiency by better understanding how firm processes work as well as lawyers getting involved in improving processes. That doesn't always mean that the lawyer should do the work. The current mindset (revenue – expenses = profits) will give way to the realization that the best use of a lawyers time is not formatting documents or pulling PACER dockets. As firms figure out how to pool resources more effectively and lawyers figure out that "sharing their resources" more efficiently means the lawyer will not have to spend time doing those tasks that are better done by non-lawyers, we will start to see a change that makes sense. Lastly, as AFAs become more popular, the emphasis on revenue – expenses = profits will give way to more innovate billing arrangements and we will see less emphasis on "hours billed" as one gauge of effective lawyering.

    Read more about AFA's here:

  • Pulling your own PACER docs and doing your own filing doesn't seem to me to be the best use of a practicing attorney's time. Focus on the best use of your time – there are only so many hours in a day, and wasting those precious minutes on menial tasks is a sure way to fall behind.

    My .02


  • This new workflow becomes interesting when you take small firms or private practice into consideration.

    In some ways, the individuals who go it almost alone have been working in this way for some time, without significant staff assistance.

    Of course, even for those folks, there comes a time when too much billable time spent on extraneous duties begins to price them out of contention.

  • I once went over a billing from a solo without a secretary or paralegal. This solo charged the client her hourly rate of $250/hour to stand over the copier, making copies of discovery requests. I wondered if she had ever heard of Kinko's and access to a runner service?

  • I totally agree with Scott Preston, DIY is important as well and is perfectly related to the subject!