The traditional secretarial support structure no longer meets the needs of many firms. Multiple reasons have attributed to a sea change in support needs: Client and attorney expectations have changed, with administrative assistance, information management and client liaison coming to the forefront and the need for traditional typing, filing and phone message services reduced by technology; a global 24/7 work environment exceeds a secretary’s traditional 9 to 5 work schedule; and the secretarial position itself no longer attracts and retains talent from the employment pool. The primary reason secretaries give for terminating employment is simply a lack of challenge.
Expense is also a problem. An office of three hundred New York attorneys has a support payroll of up to $8.1 million, or closer to $9 million if real estate, equipment and other types of support are included. At the current attorney-to-secretary ratio of 3 to 1, this is $30,000 per lawyer, per year.
At a large New York City law firm, a senior manager noted that tinkering with the existing support structure did not solve these major issues. At best, it marginally improved productivity, and at worst, it decreased employee morale. A decision was made to conduct an interview study with the goal of determining how secretarial and other administrative services were utilized and what new strategy could be crafted. Secretaries, partners and associates unilaterally expressed these deep concerns:
Different support needs. Partners, counsel and senior associates needed workers with administrative skills-able to manage information flow, communicate with clients, help with marketing presentations and complete billing and research. Junior attorneys needed document production assistance and clerical help.
Inconsistent support for associates. With secretaries supporting attorneys of widely-varying seniority, junior associates in particular received poor service or no service.
Lack of skill development. A purposive career path was missing, one that would enable secretaries to take on a more challenging and valuable role.
“Single point of service” concept. Having a single point of contact when dealing with all support needs was an apparent gap in overall operational efficiency.
Client-centered support. The hours service was offered needed to be closer to the global hours it was demanded.
In response to all this input, a new strategy was crafted; its implementation took place.
The strategy created four distinct secretarial positions. Each has different roles, assignment structures and pay scales, thus providing a career track for future hires: Secretarial Coordinator, Administrative Secretary, Service Center Secretary and Floater.
The Administrative Secretary operates on a team that supports, within a specific practice area, a specific group of partners, counsel and senior attorneys. Teams are compromised of two to three members, each supporting two to three attorneys-up to 12 attorneys in total for any team. Through constant involvement with a practice area, the secretaries become integral to its operation. As a team they are able to offer all core competencies needed by attorneys and, hopefully, an “expert for everything.” Secretaries incepted the training initiative implemented for this position-extensive, ongoing training in administrative skills relating to client service, technical applications, and high-end support. The firm understood to gear the desired training toward sustaining its most valuable administrative resource.
Salary range for Administrative Secretaries is on the high end of the secretarial range. Due to the enhanced skill set this group of workers develops, the traditional, market-based ceiling can even be moderately raised.
The Secretarial Coordinator and Service Center Secretary positions are located in Secretarial Service Centers. These are full-service support areas for junior to mid-level associates and paralegals; each practice floor has a center which, including the Coordinator has up to four personnel. A secretary is assigned five to eight attorneys/paralegals to assist so that a center will provide coverage for up to 32 fee earners. Besides handling all phone, document production, and support services for junior fee earners, document overflow for senior associates and partners can be handled there. Ultimately, secretaries benefit from close supervision in a pooled, high-leverage environment.
The Floor Coordinator is the single-point contact person when an attorney needs service. Coordinators supervise a center’s work flow, manage staffing, attendance and vacation scheduling for the floor, and help prioritize messenger, fax and copy projects; also, they handle a portion of the workload.
Centers recruit at entry-level salaries. There is an established ceiling with further increases possible only as one advances beyond the centers. The Floaters, as an interim position, also have opportunity for advancement-Floaters provide on-demand support for the centers and the Administrative Secretarial teams.
These four positions are the integral part of a carefully-crafted strategy, made to remedy a real-world situation. The real-world implementation was a painstaking process: Detailed job descriptions and performance guides were developed for all staff, secretarial teams received extensive skills training, and a pilot program demonstrated what the expectations should be for Service Centers. Various stakeholders in the process were considered as a communications plan developed, which was later presented to senior management, partners, practice groups and secretaries. The overall goal of all this effort and planning was to materially improve service levels.
It was a success. Associates now receive high-quality and consistent service offered at all hours of the day. The most talented and experienced secretaries are concentrated and challenged in working for partners and other senior attorneys. As service improved, cost savings were achieved-the attorney-to-secretary ratio improved to 5 to 1, which, not including savings in real estate, equipment and other support services, has translated into a savings of over $3.2 million per annum.