Survey verdict: could do better

Law firms have to do better across the board is the verdict delivered by this year's survey on financial management in law firms.

The research, conducted by Coopers & Lybrand for The Lawyer, reveals that despite increased billings per partner and overall profitability, these increases are not as strong as current economic conditions might suggest.

The report also points out that despite the lessons of the recession, many law firms have failed to respond by improving their efficiency.

Partner-to-staff ratios are unnecessarily low with a single partner in may cases supported by only one other fee earner.

The report also reveals that secretarial and other administrative staff are also used by lawyers in a higher proportion than is likely to be the case in a commercial company. Equally, office floor space is frequently used inefficiently.

By failing to economise during the recession, too many practices now have too little money to make the investments needed to meet the challenges of economic recovery.

This is particularly true in the area of information technology with about two-thirds of firms expecting their IT infrastructure to need replacing within the next five years. As technology is a key factor in the success of firms, a proper IT strategy should be at the top of every firm's agenda.

The survey also discovered that while many practices are taking on more professional support staff, especially in the areas of marketing and finance, there is little evidence of this producing higher earnings, suggesting either that the wrong support professionals are being hired, or that they are not being properly directed.

It is a message which never changes but which never quite seeps through to the consciousness of those who need to hear it most. The danger is that when it eventually does, it will be too late.