Dan:  Recently a number of firms have announced reductions in their secretarial ranks as a means of improving their secretary ratios – which is to say 5:1 is the new 4:1. For those not familiar with this stat – it means that the new goal is 5 timekeepers for every 1 secretary. This approach makes a lot of sense. Technology is, in many ways, displacing the traditional role of the legal secretary. Firms should take advantage of these new technological advancements and reduce their headcount to pass along a cost savings to their clients via lower rates.

Jane: That seems perfectly logical and sensible, Dan…
Dan: Why… thank you, Jane?
Jane: Or, I’m sure it would to someone completely incapable of logical thought.
Dan: Here we go.
Jane: First, you callously assume that legal secretaries do nothing but sit around playing Farmville and buying crap on eBay all day. If that is true in your firm, then you don’t need a target secretary ratio, you need to fire people. 
Dan: I’m not saying legal secretaries are lazy, just that times have changed. Most firms are fully digital. Most attorneys draft their own documents, and send their own correspondence. But we still staff as if everything is done by secretaries.
Jane: So, you think the problem of under-utilized secretaries is exclusively caused by disruptive technologies?  
Dan: No, not exclusively, but in part…
Jane: How typically asinine. The vast majority of technological enhancements in law firms are upgrades to the OS and office suite. Neither of those bring significant productivity enhancements. In fact, some evidence shows that office suite upgrades actually reduce productivity.
Dan: I would expect a technological lightweight like you, Jane, to think that the OS and office suite are the most important technology upgrades at a law firm, but there is much more going on technologically behind the scenes.
Jane: And there appears to be nothing going on behind your scenes, Dan. No single, or even group of technologies, has replaced the services of a single legal secretary.  If secretaries are indeed performing less work, then that work is either no longer being done or someone else is doing it. I know of very few things that firms have stopped doing, so that suggests someone else is doing the secretarial work. 
Dan: Look, you ignoramus, I have never said that a single technology can replace a legal secretary, just that the totality of technological productivity enhancements over the last few years have reduced the need for a firm to have so many legal secretaries.

Jane: You mean, because attorneys are typing their own documents, and sending their own correspondence, and managing their own schedules?

Dan: Yes, exactly.  I believe I said that earlier.

Jane: And because many do their own document editing and formatting, basic data entry, and presentation creation?

Dan: Yes.

Jane: And they answer their own phones and get their own coffee?

Dan: Yes! 

Jane: And they do all of these things better than their secretaries used to?

Dan: Well…

Jane: In less time?

Dan: No, but…

Jane: So, assuming it takes an attorney 3 hours to do a task that a secretary can do in an hour, and you have an attorney to secretary ratio of 5 to 1, rather than 4 to 1, how much more money can the firm bill in a year?

Dan: … 4 to 5, plus…??

Jane: Don’t worry about it, genius.  It’s a trick question.

Photo of Ryan McClead Ryan McClead

Ryan is Principal at Sente Advisors, a legal technology consultancy specializing in innovation strategy and cross-platform solutions and support.  He has been an evangelist, advocate, consultant, and creative thinker in Legal Technology for more than 15 years. In 2015, he was named a FastCase 50 recipient, and in 2018, he was elected a Fellow in the College of Law Practice Management. In past lives, he was an Innovation Architect, Knowledge Manager, a Systems Analyst, a Fashion Merchandiser, and Theater Composer, among other things.