When an underground fire brought Holborn to a standstill earlier this year, law firms and chambers turned to specialists to bail them out of a potential crisis.

This week’s ground-breaking UK 200: Business Services report has put the spotlight squarely on firms’ non fee-earning cohorts and in particular focused on the ratios between these teams and fee-earners.

In doing that it has aimed to reveal trends relating to how firms are making themselves more efficient. In particularly offers new benchmarking data that suggests there is an emerging industry standard when it comes to the ratio between fee-earners and business services professionals.

But what is the flip side of this equation? In other words, what sorts of services are firms outsourcing or going to specialist providers for and what exactly makes them so attractive, other than a potential saving on cost?

A case study in the UK 200: Business Services report, which focuses on the events surrounding the Holborn fire on 1 April this year, highlights both the importance and value of business services teams and also the benefits in terms of continuity that can be achieved via outsourcing some specialist services.

Back in April an electrical fire caused by a fault in the Victorian tunnels under the pavement in central London led to the evacuation of around 5,000 people. Among them were hundreds of lawyers and business support 
staff working in barristers’ chambers such as 4 Stone Buildings, and firms such as Farrer & Co, Mishcon de Reya and Olswang.

Luckily, many of these firms had a business continuity plan (BCP)
 in place, which meant that as their phones kept ringing during the 36-hour fire, they were also being answered – but not by the firms. Incoming calls were taken by staff based in Windsor, working for telephone switchboard support services provider Comxo.

The business was set up to handle overflow work, when firms’ in-house switchboards are too busy or it outside normal business hours. On top of its standard service, Comxo also offers an insurance scheme for emergency situations.

In this case, says Comxo’s director of marketing Susann Laughton, its clients had already had to evacuate.

“They couldn’t phone us to tell us there was a problem and one client couldn’t even access their BCP system, didn’t have passwords on hand and couldn’t activate it. But we began to notice the volume of unanswered calls was increasing and on investigation we found out about the fire,” says Laughton. “For one client we had to handle all calls for two full days.”

With the crisis averted, the clients of those firms affected by the Holborn fire would never have known that while they chatted to the switch-board operator, their lawyer was out on the street.

Comxo’s clients now include 40 of the top 100 firms in The Lawyer UK Market Register, including 35 UK-based and five international businesses, a mix of European and, according to Laughton, “one very large US law firm”.

The company was set up 25 years ago as a small boutique in Windsor answering the phone for professional businesses. It has now been working with law firms for more than 15 years.

The cost savings of using an out-sourced switchboard provider such as Comxo can be significant.

“The rule of thumb is that we save firms around 30 per cent,” says Laughton. “Then on top of that there is all the downtime when we’re also answering the phone. At most firms, their own switchboard operator only works from nine to 
five but we’re there from five to nine. Around 10 per cent of ‘value calls’
– calls that generate business – are made between those hours. By making sure you capture the calls you’d normally miss, there is potential to add revenue as well as cut costs.”

Laughton adds that Comxo has “absolutely” seen a significant upturn over the past three to four years in terms of the number of law firms using its services.

“We’re seeing it for several reasons,” says Laughton. “There’s the continuity of service, then firms are also recognising that this function doesn’t necessarily have to sit internally, which means it’s another room they can use for additional fee-earners.”

Simmons & Simmons, which struck a deal with the company recently, is the latest large firm to hire Comxo for all its switchboard services and the first to go public with the move.

Laughton believes this is because the firm is happy to be seen as forward-thinking and doesn’t see the fact that it is outsourcing a business services team as a negative.

“Also, by saving 30 per cent in costs, it can pass that on to its clients,” adds Laughton.

The current “massive trend”, 
as Laughton describes it, of firms moving offices and using it as an opportunity to downsize their business services teams is also feeding the current trend for outsourcing.

And then there is the familiar rationale for any kind of outsourcing: whatever is being outsourced is not the business’s core skill set.

“The problem in these firms 
is that they just don’t have the management time and money to train switchboard staff – it’s not their speciality,” says Laughton. “Then the service slips and they become untrainable.”

Because Comxo is based in Windsor, the staff it can recruit fit the profile of what many law firms would like, adds Laughton.

“It’s about the voices – the fact that they’re educated people,” she reveals. “They don’t want accents. When we recruit, we always have to have accent-neutral people. Firms want an image of a well-groomed, well-educated person and they want people to think they’re sitting in their office.

“We don’t recruit people educated in law but we look for those who like to switch their brain on. They have
 to be well briefed on a firm’s different practice areas and often have to decide which area a call should go into. For example, somebody may be going through a divorce, but if there is domestic violence involved, this would be a very different matter and they would need a different lawyer. And it is very different for all the firms we work with.”

The key for law firms, says Laughton, is the 24/7 service.

“At night, if it’s only the security guards answering the phone, the quality can go down,” she says. “This is the key gap. When do you phone a law firm? When there’s an emergency.”

Like, for example, a fire.

To purchase the full The Lawyer UK 200 2015: Business Services report contact Richard Edwards on +44 (0) 207 970 4672 or email richard.edwards@centaurmedia.com