The value of the support teams in a law firm is often left untapped. We are regularly confronted with the fact that most law firms consider the support team as overhead and hence as a pure cost that is at best minimal, except maybe for some personal secretary. This perception leads to minimizing cost and ignoring the value add for what are increasingly becoming critical elements of client service in a professional law firm. From such a view it is only one step to the saying that if you pay people peanuts you get monkeys. Smart leveraging of your support team is a potential for increasing the firm’s value add and relationship experience to the firm’s clients. Making choices in smart recruitment also for your support teams is important.
Don’t get us wrong though: many lawyers will always find someone in support to do the things for which they prefer to avoid responsibility, such that one can ignore some issues and blame someone else if things are not done. Our experience and the feedback from clients teach us that in the end you will be held responsible towards your clients and your colleagues regardless of who is the interface with them. It is your choice as lawyer and that of your firm whether you wish to tap the potential value add of your support team and it is also your responsibility to make it happen.
Our experience in working with successful law firms has shown us that the responsibility to get a maximum of value add from your support services rests almost entirely on the partners of the firm and the culture they instill with all lawyers in their relationship with the support people. They are responsible not only for recruiting talent into the firm (whether that be legal talent or other areas) but also to foster a maximum return on such investment by (i) giving the freedom to the hired talents to do what they can do best (ii) think of your daily work as a service delivery to your client and that this benefits from consistency, quality, methodology and (iii) that adhering to a chosen firm solution common to the partners needs will hence work better than applying the nth different partners way of working within the firm. The latter leads to chaos and utter confusion for any party interacting with the firm, most probably your clients and in addition you lose money whilst delivering a bad service.
When looking at the support team the obvious view is to look at them by function, that does make sense. This will get focus on efficiency, however one needs to think beyond that. Many of your support team members are part of the process to ensure service delivery to the clients, to the level that they interact directly with the client. Sometimes with your personal contacts but often at many levels of your client’s organization: secretaries, receptions, accounting and procurement to name a few. All these client interaction points in addition to the legal interaction add up to your client’s perception on the ease of doing business with you.
The obvious first common support function in most firms is the financial responsible. The function’s role is to make sure your financial cycle is running smoothly and thus should support WIP monitoring, time sheets and disbursements capture, timely billing and dunning, VAT and other regulatory reporting. Often the person in this role will also supervise a part of the admin function and office procurement. Such function may be combined in medium size law firms with the HR function into the role of an office manager.
Increasingly there is more importance given, with reason , that the HR process is well documented and provides support in attracting, developing and retaining talent in the firm.
Additional support may be relevant in your day to day people management, your file management, your client handling.
Obviously the all-encompassing IT support should not be ignored. It may be a partially or completely outsourced service, but it will play an increasingly important role in the success of a law firm.
Moving again more to the outward facing of a law firm, there is an increasing benefit in having communication, marketing and business development support installed. Matching the partners’ needs whilst also teasing them into improving their business development and ensuring visibility for the firm through relevant communication are their key tasks where they can co-lead and support the partners in their firm. In certain law firms we have seen strong non-legal professionals taking up a client facing role towards key clients and new prospects.
Medium size to big law firms may also benefit strongly from having a COO to ensure coordination amongst all the support functions and to act as key catalyst and contact be tween the partners and the support staff. Many law firms would benefit from having strong managerial support in this role, as it will allow their partners to optimize their time with focus on their legal work and the truly strategic matters for their firm, whereas the operational aspects of the firm can be handled by dedicated professionals to good avail. The next level up is installing a CEO.
We could all dream up a support organization for a law firm. Some want it small and nimble, others would love an entire army readily available to be deployed. In the current economic times and the new normal for law firms however, efficiency and effectiveness are what a law firm’s organization should be focusing on in delivering its services to its clients in an end-to-end thinking. One can no longer conceive that all this remains solely delivered by the partners in the firm. You have other more interesting things to do, so get your high quality staff out there facing your clients to help you on operational and admin stuff and your clients will appreciate it.