Image [cc] Ian Harvey

ALM Legal Intelligence released a new survey today called “Turf Wars: Defining New Roles and Competing for New Territories” where they have found that law firm morale concerns have moved away from focusing on layoffs, and moved over to issues of compensation and training. I have not read the report, only the news wire email that they sent to me, but there are a number of things that show up in the press release that make a lot of sense in the post-great recession era.

According to the press release, there are three factors that are common in law firms:

  1. Too much “dead weight” in the firm
  2. Compensation is lower than peer firms
  3. Too much work for current staffing levels

I’m going to throw out #2 on the list and focus on #1 & #3, as they seem to be very much related.

Anyone that has worked in a law firm in the past five years knows that firms took on a “more with less” approach in 2009. Although lawyer headcount may be down at many firms, I think that most of us would agree that the more with less approach has weighed most heavily on the supporting staff at law firms. The trends have been to reduce Secretaries to 4:1 or higher ratios, hiring freezes, or reduction in staff by natural (or encouraged) attrition has caused changes in the lawyer to staff ratios at most firms. At the time, many of us commented that the Great Recession finally forced firms to make reduction in staffing that should have been made years ago. However, according to the ALM survey, did firms end up losing good people, and retaining those that are now seen as “dead weight”?

Firms are now attempting to define the strategy of reducing staff levels to a x:1 ratio. Do secretaries simply keep maintaining their traditional roles and job functions, only with more attorneys to cover? Or, do secretaries become technology specialists or some other ‘new’ function? Do Records personnel now expand into Risk Management roles? Do Librarians become research and resource analysts? Does IT shift to user experience advocates? If so, have firms stepped up to actually train and support these changes?

It would be interesting to see if what the survey is defining as “dead weight” is really those people within the firm that have been expected to take on new roles and responsibilities, but haven’t received the proper training or support to actually succeed in those new roles. Great plans without actual changes in structure and support through training is doomed to fail. I think that is a reason behind firms finding that they face the dichotomy of too much dead weight staff, yet have too much work for the current staff to handle.