Within law firms, administrative functions have undergone a dramatic evolution. While the need for traditional word processing has been minimized, it hasn’t disappeared. Instead, it has changed into a position that requires highly skilled, specialized staff.
As the tasks have become more sophisticated, so have the backgrounds and experience of the people performing them. Secretaries have been supplemented by trained document specialists who possess advanced skills for “middle office” tasks like developing spreadsheets, creating presentations, eFiling court documents, preparing EDGAR filings with the SEC, desktop publishing, and handling niche practice group needs such as intellectual property, litigation, and insurance defense.
This change has left many law firms scrambling to find a cost-effective way to match the tasks that must be accomplished with their current staff. Increasingly, today’s firms are finding the right balance by outsourcing. Professional support service providers often represent the most optimal way to deliver and execute utilizing new methodologies, workflow technology, and alternative approaches to staff resourcing. Additionally, vital services that have traditionally been delivered onsite such as document processing, administrative assistants, IT help desk support, accounts payable/accounts receivable, proofreading, desktop publishing, marketing, and database management can now be seamlessly migrated off-site to more cost-effective locations.
By understanding how the landscape has changed, what skills and technology are becoming standard for middle office support staff, and what options are available, firms can drive meaningful economic, operational, and resource efficiencies.
From Word Processing to Middle Office Services
As the services law firms provide have changed, so has the terminology around them. Today, there are several terms for these types of services, including Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) and Legal Processing Outsourcing (LPO). Adopting a term more commonly used in the financial services industry, some law firms have labeled these tasks as “middle office services”—those areas that require more skill and interaction than traditional back-office functions, but are not a direct part of practicing law.
Middle office services have emerged for many reasons, including technology, the need to remain competitive, and a new generation of attorneys.
In the daily life of law firms, hardware and software have become more critical and complicated. Once, word processing was very straightforward and required only a few tools and basic knowledge. Today, the role requires a far different skill set as firms utilize a range of programs—from PowerPoint to desktop publishing tools to case management software. Smartphones, tablets, and other new devices have also become commonplace. All of these factors require law firm staff to be cross-trained on a variety of applications and devices, and to regularly update their training.
For example, consider the client relationship management (CRM) systems that have become nearly as common as word processing programs. These systems can be tremendously powerful when staff and attorneys fully leverage them. However, understanding the intricacies and quirks of each system requires training and technical knowledge. Those using the systems for business development and marketing must also be well-versed about what activities are legal and professionally ethical in different jurisdictions, such as sending out flyers and mailings based on information that resides within the system.
In order to remain competitive and stand out from the crowd, firms are developing far more sophisticated materials, presentations, and collateral, including marketing slicks and complex documents. This creates a critical need for business development and marketing support in firms. Creating engaging, professional, and consistent marketing messages increasingly requires the ability to draft press releases, update websites, design proposals and presentation templates. and manage creative design and desktop publishing.
To differentiate themselves, many firms are also rolling out more proactive initial support for business development such as:
- Conducting research on companies, industries, and competitors to help inform pitches and RFPs.
- Monitoring, analyzing, and disseminating information on strategic companies, industries, and markets.
- Researching and producing prospective company profiles, including individual biographies, market and legal trends, and any other required business development research.
- Monitoring and circulating news items regarding current or prospective clients or industries.
A Generational Shift
Today’s law school graduates are more tech savvy than previous generations. They are comfortable drafting their own memos and some are even able to do basic graphic design. That means younger attorneys don’t require a group of people dedicated to word processing tasks. However, some attorneys still need or want some level of support. This has led to fewer assistants assigned to more attorneys, and many of these assistants may be long-time employees who have not always kept up their job skills to adjust to changing times.
A Case Study: Global Firm Successfully Transforms Middle Office Services
Among the many success stories from organizations that have reimagined their middle office service approach, one global law firm was recently able to relocate a wide range of individualized services into one centralized, U.S.-based hub, with back-up services and overflow capabilities managed by a partner.
Several factors drove the firm’s decision to shift these administrative functions:
- Local candidates lacked depth in large law firm experience, and few had experience with critical specialty applications used in document processing.
- Only one incumbent staff member accepted an offer to relocate to the new facility, creating more open positions and loss of historical knowledge.
- An almost completely new staff meant a longer training period and created a gap between transition of new staff and the departure of current staff.
- Limited resources at the firm hampered efforts to source and assess candidates and manage training efforts.
- The firm had no overflow capabilities or redundancy plan.
By adapting the new approach, the firm was able to add experienced and targeted search capabilities in both markets, which augmented and elevated the firm’s recruitment efforts:
- Offering career options through the partner for displaced firm document services team members.
- Creating critical firm-specific candidate proficiency testing to assess candidate technical ability and legal knowledge.
- Building the training curriculum to compensate for market inexperience.
- Recruiting and training the firm’s team.
- Developing workflow and enhanced processes to increase efficiencies.
- Initiating performance metrics to accurately assess team performance and calibrating team to serve the firm most effectively.
- Creating quality control processes to ensure consistency and reduce error rate.
- Generating weekly and monthly metrics reports for combined document services team.
The new approach allowed the firm to achieve a smooth transition to a fully off-site operating model with significant advancements in efficiency, scalability and overflow capacity across multiple shifts and specialties with experienced talent.
The Case for Professional Middle Office Services
Despite changing times and technology, some firms have been hesitant to dramatically alter their approaches. For many, the system does not seem so broken, so it’s not worth a dramatic revamp to fix.
Lawyers may worry about the loss of control that comes with outsourcing information and projects. When attorneys and staff outsource functions, they feel that they not only lose direct supervision, but there are concerns around client confidentiality and privilege once data leaves the office walls.
A significant change to traditional word processing approaches also can bring cost and disruption, as long-time, familiar employees may be shifted to different roles, and new people and processes are introduced.
Yet these changes are well worth the time and effort involved, when attorneys and staff do their research and identify the right new approaches and partners. Consider the advantages in cost savings, increased operational efficiencies and improved attorney experiences those who outsource middle office services can achieve:
- Average of 25%-45% annual operating savings.
- Creating a variable cost model enabling a reduction in fixed costs.
- Real estate optimization through space savings or space re-purposing.
- Scalable platform and efficient 24/7/365 coverage.
- Technology, workflow and reporting enhancements.
- Optimized utilization and headcount per transaction.
- Improved attorney experience through access to support during most demanded hours.
- Enhanced scope of services supported.
- Consistency of services across offices.
While initial costs from restructurings and severance may seem daunting, a good outsourced service provider will soon pay for itself. A partner that offers the full range of services can also help with job placement for those whose positions have been restructured. They will also ensure that the new team has the skills and demeanor to support the firm and provide a seamless transition.
The legal industry has seen a sea change in recent years that is now spreading to traditional word processing services. Firms that recognize the new environment and capitalize on it with technology and highly trained professionals will find a competitive advantage over the firms that continue to cling to the old ways.