The pandemic and remote work that followed has caused law firm leaders to reassess firm structures and root out potential inefficiencies that may have burdened them for years. According to a recent article, that restructuring isn’t likely to end, even when the pandemic does.
In The American Lawyer (As Firms Restructure Staffs for the Post-Pandemic Future, Who Will Be Protected and Exposed?, by Dan Roe), the author notes that “[a]dministrators, legal administrative assistants and other facility-focused law firm employees are in a precarious position for 2021 and beyond as firms question the need for physical spaces and their associated staff.”
According to legal consultant and Calibrate Legal CEO Jennifer Johnson, she’s spoken with several C-suite professionals in recent months eager to optimize their departments.
“That largely wasn’t happening previously,” she says.
And, the wave of cutbacks hasn’t applied just to struggling firms. According to the article, “at least four of the top 10 firms in the Am Law 100 have conducted layoffs in 2020—suggesting that staff shakeups are part of the new normal.”
The shift to remote work has caused firms to question their current ratio of attorneys to legal administrative assistants. One Am Law firm leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says their firm’s support structure will be permanently changed by the pandemic.
“Our attorneys have really been more autonomous when it comes to their day-to-day practice,” the leader says. “We are going to benefit from that autonomy and the way they’ve embraced technology will increase efficiency.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent data, the unemployment rate for lawyers is below 1%, but for paralegals and legal assistants it is 7%. And that number could get worse as firms reevaluate staffing and rely more on attorneys for digital competencies that weren’t previously their responsibility, Mark Santiago of SB2 Consultants says.
Future generations of attorneys—digital natives capable of setting up their own meetings and using dictation apps—will also cut into secretarial work. BLS data indicates the current rate of attorneys to secretaries is about 5-to-1. Santiago says that could level off at 8-to-1 once firms complete their cutbacks.
There are, however, some jobs that appear to be pandemic-proof, including those related to bringing in new business and maintaining relationships with clients; IT professionals, who are more important than ever in a world of remote, cloud-based operations; and diversity and inclusion professionals. Now and in the post-pandemic world, communication skills will be a prized commodity in law firm staff, and fluency in digital tools will be a priority.
Looks like training and education in both areas will be important to legal professionals to either keep their positions or enhance their ability to land new positions. Unfortunately, for some, it appears that the worst is far from over when it comes to job reductions.
So, what do you think? Are you surprised that law firms are retooling their employee structures in the wake of the pandemic? Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.
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