Supporting Staff

August 1, 2021

Your Firm Needs Trusted Administrative Staff Now More Than Ever. Here’s How to Value Them as Human Beings and as a Critical Resource

As the delta variant wreaks havoc with the much-anticipated return to “normal” office life, the Upstairs/Downstairs divide between attorneys and non-attorney staff has never been more pronounced. A recent article on Reuters used careful language to frame the dynamic, noting, “Law firm administrative staff have had a more difficult transition to remote work than attorneys. Firms are weighing that divide as they devise return-to-office policies.” Managing partners themselves are more blunt: “My receptionist doesn’t have a job if people don’t come to the office,” Patricia Brown Holmes, Managing Partner at Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila, is quoted as saying at an ABA Forum earlier this month.

Practically speaking, attendance policies have long been understood to apply to the two groups differently. Pre-pandemic, and regardless of the firm’s official policy, attorneys often simply declared themselves to be “working from home” on snowy winter mornings and summery Friday afternoons. As long as they were hitting their targets for billable hours, they could assume that such liberties would be forgiven and, therefore, didn’t feel the need to ask permission. Administrative staff rarely had the same luxury.

Today, as firms consider various models for in-person and hybrid work, that old, quiet understanding is being made more explicit. Attorneys are encouraged to come in; staff are expected to. The dynamic risks creating what the Harvard Business Review describes as “a new caste system where elites have anywhere jobs and non-elites are shackled to the office full time … a recipe for high attrition among employees who often have a lot of firm-specific knowledge that is valuable to their employers.”

That prediction about high attrition certainly seems well founded, as the workers least able to be flexible face the strictest demands to return to in-office work. Early data indicates that 50% of workers in professional settings won’t return to jobs that don’t offer remote work options. But the key challenge for law firm leaders comes in the latter part of that seemingly dire warning: Do you value the knowledge and skills of your administrative staff? And, if so, how can you meet this moment with new ways of working to retain those workers and maximize their contributions?

Ask First

As you consider how you and your colleagues will work in the “new normal” of a pandemic-changed world, the first thing to understand is what work is being done by whom. Undoubtedly you have a good sense of how billable hours are being generated. And you probably have well-established processes in place for some high-impact administrative tasks, such as opening new matters or sending out monthly bills. Other support work, though, is probably far less visible.

Do you measure the invisible work? This survey, from the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law, provides a framework for collecting data about how much time people spend on so-called “office housework,” including tasks such as scheduling meetings, taking notes and organizing shared documents. You might also expand such a survey to include information on responsibilities such as interviewing job candidates, making work-related posts to social media accounts, reviewing marketing materials or writing client alerts and updating website content if that work isn’t covered by specific billing codes in your timekeeping system.

Are attorneys doing non-legal work? It’s important to collect information from everyone at the firm in order to get a complete picture of how these tasks are actually performed and managed. While working remotely, some attorneys might have taken on some of these jobs for themselves, but, just as clients want to ensure they’re not paying a senior partner’s hourly rate for a task that can be done by a paralegal, you might wish to ensure that attorneys who could be doing billable work are not losing potentially productive time to work that could be picked up by others in the firm instead. Auditing the non-legal work that’s being done — how much and by whom — is essential to redesigning and redistributing work in the new reality.

Can this work be done remotely? The data might also reveal how much “office housework” can be done remotely or what technology and equipment might be necessary to enable people to complete these tasks from home. Many law firm leaders and other bosses feel compelled to bring administrative staff back into the office because it feels like they haven’t been productive at home. Having real information about the time those folks are spending on various tasks — functioning, for example, as a de facto help desk for less tech-savvy colleagues — gives a clearer picture of what they’ve been doing. Support staff might be working more than you realize, but their unbilled time might simply be invisible to your usual methods of keeping track.

Do staff members have the tools they need? If, for example, the laptop computers issued to employees in the rushed early days of pandemic lockdowns lack the necessary memory or processing speed to handle document management tasks via the cloud, attorneys (who likely have better existing tech setups) might be handling that work for themselves as a workaround. Looking at the amount of time your attorneys spend, for instance, dealing with NetDocs might indicate that an investment in upgraded computers and modems for support staff would actually help your attorneys be more productive. Remember too that staff members have absorbed the message of the two-tiered system in law firms — one set of rules for attorneys and another set for non-attorneys. They may be hesitant to “complain” or ask for additional tools or accommodations, even when doing so would improve client service and productivity overall.

What are staff members’ pain points at work? Quantitative data on hours spent should be supplemented with qualitative information, which is often most effectively gathered through an interview process. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) offers a simple template for conducting so-called “stay interviews.” The idea is to identify the kinds of frustrations and inefficiencies that could push someone into quitting their job — what you might hear in an exit interview — before things reach that breaking point. In today’s context, conducting stay interviews with non-attorney staff members would clarify what they’ve been doing over the last 18 months, what they might want or hope to do in the future, and what else they could be doing or could learn to do with some training.

In a few cases, stay interviews might identify some team members whose skills simply do not align with the needs of the firm and who can’t or won’t explore different roles for themselves. When this is the case, an open conversation can lead to a positive resolution on both sides. Helping someone transition out in a humane and non-disruptive way is far healthier for the state of the firm overall than retaining non-contributing employees just to avoid conflict.

What are staff members’ pain points outside work? These interviews may also illuminate the perceived reluctance of support staff to return to full-time office work. Is there a child-care issue or need to look after a sick or elderly loved one? Have the logistics of commuting changed as the pandemic has impacted public transportation services? For all our desire to be “back to normal,” many aspects of workers’ lives are far from normal these days, and continued fallout from the pandemic — rolling quarantines in schools and limited afterschool programs, less frequent train service — has created real barriers to their return to a traditional work schedule.

What is the role of your firm’s culture? These interviews might also uncover a need to address dysfunctional dynamics between attorneys and administrative colleagues. If support staff aren’t enthusiastic about returning to the office, is it because the office was a hostile work environment in which their skills and expertise were not valued? If they’re not fully engaged or productive at home, is it because attorneys don’t send them invites to virtual meetings? If they’re feeling burned out, is it because attorneys expect prompt response to emails, regardless of the hour?

Because of the inherently boundaryless nature of remote work, it is critical for leaders to create, communicate and enforce some basic limits on work. Setting “core hours,” when it’s appropriate to expect a team member to be immediately responsive, and “off hours,” when it’s not, is one simple step toward protecting the well-being of everyone who works for the firm.

Conducting a firm-wide survey on office housework and following it with stay interviews for administrative staff might feel like a big commitment of effort, but, at many firms, such interventions are long overdue. Making decisions about the future of work in your firm — especially regarding where it must be done and by whom — without fully understanding the current state is unlikely to deliver the best result. Armed with information, you’re in a far better position to assess what the appropriate staffing levels are for various functions — fewer folks devoted to event and travel planning, for example, and more people focused on website content management and webinar production — and how they can best be accomplished in your current work environment, whether it’s fully virtual, hybrid or in-person.

Hierarchy of Needs

A recent study from PricewaterhouseCoopers reflects a key difference between the work lives of lawyers, executives and other highly paid knowledge workers and their administrative and support staff colleagues. According to the , while most workers prioritize schedule flexibility, along with job benefits and compensation, in finding or staying at a job, their employers (based on a survey of executives) see more ambiguous factors such as “company purpose and values” and “company leadership and culture” as the key to attracting and retaining staff.

Why working people work. For all the talk of millennials and Gen Z recruits wanting to work for businesses that reflect their values, it’s important to remember that adequate pay, benefits and the ability to manage responsibilities outside work come first for people who do not have access to generational wealth and are not likely to see a large salary increase in the future. “Company purpose” is great, but it is not accepted as legal tender. And if the firm culture you are so proud of does not translate into compensation, benefits and work-life policies that meet employees’ needs, those folks might not be inclined to stick around.

As employment lawyer Angela Reddock-Wright noted in a recent piece for Bloomberg Law, “People are not returning to work in the numbers that were expected for many reasons … The job market now is one in which employees can shop for what fits them best.”

The role of respect. Culture, then, isn’t so much about the lofty mission statement on the cafeteria wall as the lived experience of being treated respectfully by your bosses. As research from hiring firm Execu|Search notes, “Employees said managerial support was the most important aspect of company culture, and 71% would quit if another employer offered them flexible scheduling in a new job.” An earlier study, from the outsourcing firm Yoh, found something similar: More than half of lower-level workers said managerial disrespect is a top concern that can make them think about quitting, even if they like their jobs.

Your human resources are humans first. And, in many cases, they are humans who have borne the brunt of an incredibly challenging 18 months. The idea that many of them just don’t want to return to the office, or are self-interestedly shopping around for a better offer, misreads the efforts many have made to keep up with work amid incredibly difficult circumstances.

“In a remote world, people can forget they’re dealing with humans, and are more likely to make unreasonable requests,” says Will Samengo-Turner, a London corporate partner at Allen & Overy, in a International piece on law firms’ culture of “performative busyness” during the pandemic.

The disproportionate impact on women and workers of color. The people on the receiving end of those unreasonable requests are often women, who, in addition to their workloads, are also balancing a disproportionate share of the crisis created by school closures, remote instruction and the disappearance of up to 4.5 million childcare slots. Law firm administrative and support staff also tends to include more people of color than lawyers and firm management, so systemic inequities further compound the impacts of the pandemic on their lives and families, along with myriad other factors including longer commutes into the city centers where firm offices are concentrated and less reliable access to technology at home.

Losing valued staff members costs your firm time and money. The human factors here — the incredible constraints under which so many people have at least tried to continue to do their work over the last year and a half — are hard to quantify, as is the intangible value of retaining people you know and trust to support your colleagues and clients. But taking a close look at your support staff resources and potentially rethinking how, when and where they work is more than just a soft-hearted exercise in empathy. There’s a hard-headed business case for reimagining the administrative functions at your firm in order to hold on to your entry-level and frontline staff.

The Costs and Benefits of Change

The real costs to retain an employee, even with some retraining for a new role or new tools and technology to enable different ways of performing their work, might not be as high as you think, but you can’t know until you’ve asked some fundamental questions. This is another important element of the “stay interview” process. Take this opportunity to ask employees what they’re looking for in the non-monetary aspects of their jobs. Flexibility, as noted, is probably important. You’ll have to decide how much of it you’re able to give.

What benefits do employees actually want? Beyond that, though, you can ask employees what they’re looking for in other benefits, whether its support for their mental and physical well-being or opportunities to learn new skills. Consider offering personalized options or à la carte benefits so employees have choices: Maybe those who work from home more often receive fewer paid vacation days, or those who work in the office have access to more robust wellness offerings and childcare subsidies.

An opportunity to create something new. In rebuilding your firm as a new kind of workplace, you have many tools and raw materials at your disposal. You can create a structure within which your team completes the billable and non-billable work that needs to get done with quality and efficiency. That structure might have virtual elements — such as outsourcing document production to a central service provider with multiple locations — and physical ones too — like high-speed modems, routers and desktop computers installed in your employees’ homes. You might spend more on messenger services and less on catering.

Focusing on “getting back to normal” is holding you back. It can be difficult to embrace so much change all at once. Many of us believed the vaccine would restore our pre-pandemic lives and something like “business as usual.” But usual isn’t coming back, and neither are the old costs and benefits associated with the traditional organization and management of law firm work. The sooner law firm leaders can grasp this fact, the sooner they can stop wasting energy looking backward and instead build a workplace suited for this moment and the future.

It is far cheaper to retain good employees than find new ones. Before the pandemic, the Bureau of Labor estimated that the cost of replacing an individual employee ranged from one-half to two times the employee’s annual salary. In today’s labor market, the cost of finding, hiring and onboarding a new person — especially in terms of your own time and energy — might be even higher than that. Retention, on the other hand, has undoubtedly gotten cheaper. Some forms of training, especially when it comes to using new technology, are far more accessible thanks to ubiquitous video conferencing and on-demand streaming platforms. If you can retain some or all of the team you have and reskill or retrain them to do the work you need done, you’ve saved money and time.

This inflection point — the great return to the office or the great resignation, or both or neither — offers an opportunity for leaders to be bold. In truth, most firms have never done a great job setting goals, defining jobs and assessing performance for their administrative staff. If it was lacking before, such professional management was virtually abandoned during the pandemic crisis. But just as the advent of the computer and the disappearance of the old typing pool has occasioned new ways for attorneys and their colleagues to work, eighteen months of forced physical separation have given us new ways to connect to one another as humans, to value everyone’s contributions as resources, and to think about our relationships to each other and to the work we do.