The secretarial canary in the law firm coal mine

“A really far-sighted law firm would give its secretaries the chance to ‘skill up’ and take on more responsibility, accomplishing more advanced tasks. … Change ‘secretary’ to ‘workflow manager’ or ‘logistics director,’ and you’ve accomplished three great things at once: increased the role of software in handling clerical and financial duties, reassigned your valuable secretarial help up the productivity chain, and attended to an area in which you can find real efficiencies and carve out a true competitive advantage over other firms.”

– Yours truly, “Legal secretaries 2.0,” January 24, 2008

In recent months, a number of major law firms have offered buyouts to legal secretaries, accelerating a trend that began before the downturn. This week New York law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP cut about 110 staff positions, including about 60 legal secretaries. “I would imagine that the remaining secretaries are going to take on a heavier workload,” said Lee Glick, a legal secretary with Weil who has worked there more than 25 years and still has a job.

The Wall Street Journal, “Legal Secretary, a Dying Job,” June 27, 2013

Contrasts like this one guarantee that I’m at no risk of overestimating my impact on the business of law.

I had fond hopes, 5 1/2 years ago, that law firms might take advantage of a dynamic environment and re-engineer their organizational workflow. Recognizing that secretaries’ purely clerical tasks could be done more efficiently elsewhere, for example, they would outsource or automate those tasks and liberate secretaries to take on more challenging, valuable and productive work.

As it turned out, however, firms only got as far as the first step: they sent the work to lower-cost providers. Then, instead of upgrading the qualifications of their loyal and experienced secretaries, they simply canned them. Surviving secretaries at a growing number of law firms are now expected to serve four lawyers at once — at some firms, that number is going as high as six or seven. Hands up if you think either the secretary or the lawyers are going to be better off as a result.

Five years ago, in an atmosphere of financial and social crisis, law firms threw numerous staff and associates overboard, in an effort to keep profitability levels from plummeting and sparking a rainmaker exodus. Not the best tactic in the world, but understandable at the time. Today, though, it’s as if those sacrifices were never made — the purges have intensified (staff, associates, and now other partners) as firms target for elimination any perceived drain on profits.

Based on all these cuts, I’m left to conclude that law firms apparently wish to be populated exclusively by extremely high-earning equity partners. In a magical land where complex legal businesses were run by invisible fairies, that would be a pretty nice outcome. In our world, however, where those partners need actual people to make their profits possible, the latest round of bloodletting bears a closer resemblance to profit-preserving cannibalization — a tactic that has its short-term merits, I suppose, but few long-term strategic advantages.

I want to take a look at what’s happening with law firm secretaries, and then I want to use that to illustrate what I feel is a growing, and serious, issue at the heart of law firm management.

First, why has it come to this: the evisceration of the legal secretary role? I can see three factors intersecting at the same time:

1. Many lawyers seem determined to view “secretaries” in their stereotypical role of clerical helpers, and as clerical tasks inevitably migrate to machines, secretaries themselves are perceived as serving no further purpose. I see secretaries differently: as lawyers’ “managers,” the people who quietly organize lawyers’ lives and enable them to practise law productively and effectively. The emergence of new technologies does not remove the need for lawyer management; if anything, it intensifies it. But if you really believe that a legal secretary performs low-value and easily replaceable functions, you will treat that position accordingly.

2. Many law firms seem equally incapable, even with countless high-tech tools and processes now at their disposal, of reconfiguring their workflow to be more sophisticated and cost-effective. The smart way to improve profitability is to outsource truly fungible tasks and upskill your existing resources (including, but not limited to, secretaries)  to take on more complex tasks that can deliver more value and/or reduce internal inefficiency. The stupid way to improve profitability is to fire people and give their work to their frightened surviving colleagues, thereby reducing personnel costs. Many law firms, near as I can tell, are choosing stupid.

3. Profitability pressures in law firms (more about that in a moment) have short-circuited any creative impulses that might have led firms to different outcomes for their secretaries. For instance: many lawyers still struggle with practice basics like client communication, marketing, and professional development. They would benefit tremendously from a dedicated resource whose job is to manage and organize all these aspects of their career — someone who has worked with them for years and knows them very well. If firms are going to reassign traditional secretarial duties elsewhere (and there’s good reason for them to do so), why not divert secretaries into these high-value and highly necessary roles, rather than just cutting them loose altogether? It’s not just a lost job, but also a lost opportunity.

It’s on that last point, I think, that we approach the heart of the problem. Law firms could help secretaries reimagine their roles, add more value to the firm, improve morale, and save jobs — they could do all these things, if they wanted to. But they don’t.  They don’t care about these things nearly as much as they care about maintaining or growing profitability. And the intensity with which law firms have come to care about profitability is starting to look a little sociopathic.

Something has gone seriously wrong at the core of a number of law firms. I don’t how else to describe it except as a mean streak — a level of selfishness and ruthlessness among decision-makers that we’ve not seen before. The triggering event was probably the massive change in client behaviour and the deeply unnerving drop in business that followed, combined with lawyers’ utter inability to adjust their own practices in response. But it seems to me that many lawyers aren’t just troubled or worried by what’s happening — they’re angry. Their income has fallen, and they’ve taken it personally, because that was income to which they were entitled. They’re feeling victimized, hard done by — and they’re lashing out, seeking instant remedies for themselves regardless of the long-term costs to others.

I’m not sure what it is about this latest round of cuts that feels wrong to me. Maybe it’s that it just seems so petty. You need to fire a secretary who earns a fraction of your annual billings in order to save your firm? That’s unlikely. You need to fire her in order to maintain the profitability to which you’ve become accustomed? That’s unseemly. They say you can judge a society based on how it treats its most vulnerable members, and I think the same applies to law firms. And I wouldn’t feel very proud to be a member of some of these law firms right now.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

Available now! My first two published books: Evolutionary Road (e-book published by Attorney At Work) and Content Marketing and Publishing Strategies for Law Firms (co-authored with Steve Matthews, published by The Ark Group). Click the links to learn more and order your copies today.

 



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