Practice management: Back-room boost

The focus is firmly on delivering legal services efficiently, and one way firms can achieve this is by improving the skills of their support staff 

Q: Has your firm implemented any significant changes recently relating to the role played by business support staff?

Neil Middleton, chief operating officer (COO), Capsticks: Back in 2009 our support structure just wasn’t geared up to deliver the client-specific support our fee-earners needed. Many of our secretaries had little client contact or understanding of the business outside their fee-earner group, plus there was an inconsistency in roles, competencies and levels of support across the firm.

Neil Middleton

On top of this our sector was undergoing huge change, price was becoming the deciding issue and our clients were increasingly asking for more.

We were moving to new offices and going open-plan, and recognised we could take advantage of this to deliver a new way of working. We engaged the consulting arm of Intelligent Office to consult with our staff, fee-earners and secretaries alike to find out what they felt they and our clients needed, lacked, did well or could improve on.

We ended up creating new client-facing PA roles that worked with  new document production and floor support teams, both of which were outsourced.

Julie Berry, director of infrastructure and IT, RPC: In 2011 we initiated a rethink of our document production support, starting from first principles. Beginning with a concept of excellence we worked back to affordability. Too often, people start with cost cuts and try to build in quality. That never works.

Drawing on our existing secretary population we introduced a dedicated document production and design (DPD) team to support our lawyers in delivering high-quality, technically formatted, brand-consistent materials. They were put through intensive training in the Office 2010 MOS suite, with some also qualifying in Adobe InDesign.

As of August 2013 the new service went 24/7, allowing all our offices round-the-clock support.

Ben Bennett, COO, Farrer & Co: In the past six years we’ve focused on developing all aspects of support services to enable partners and fee-earners to perform strongly. This has involved increasing the contribution support staff make and complementing this with outsourced services. We recognise that, in the present market, while change is not compulsory, neither is survival.

At every level in the business support and secretarial bodies, career development frameworks have been introduced to identify performance criteria. This enables individuals to understand what the firm believes each person is capable of contributing, identify the skills needed and make it clear how individuals might then progress. 

We introduced structured development programmes designed to support these frameworks to ensure our staff receive the appropriate training and support to deliver the standards expected and progress. There is transparency with regard to what is needed to progress and support for those looking to do so.

Complementing this and, crucially, supporting business services and secretaries as much as partners and fee-earners, have been outsourced services, mainly from Intelligent Office. In addition to traditional back-office services such as reprographics the firm introduced an outsourced floor support and transcription service. This was to support our secretaries in developing their skills and enabling the more mundane but important aspects of their roles to be carried out in a more cost-effective manner. 

Working with rather than around interested parties has been a more successful approach.

Q: Was this an outsourced solution or were the changes managed and operated in-house? For either, why did you choose this approach?

Julie Berry

Berry: In-house. From talking to our lawyers we know they appreciate people they can see, talk to and build relationships with. One hears horror stories from other firms of fraught late-night phonecalls to production departments overseas, so we were keen to develop a service that was on-site as this is right for RPC and our culture.

We’ve hired experts from across the City and have a team of dedicated DPD professionals in-house.

Bennett: Both. We developed our own people to enable those with ambition to develop their careers and make a greater contribution to the firm. We also partnered with Intelligent Office, not to cut costs but to bring in expertise and help us develop further some of the services the firm required. This, in turn, supported the increasing scalability and sophistication we were looking to introduce, with resulting financial and career benefits. 

With the addition of floor support and transcription services – also provided by Intelligent Office – we were complementing the support provided by business services to partners and fee-earners. 

Q: What have been the primary skills gained by your business support staff as a result of the changes?

Bennett: We aim to give people the skills to enable them to leave, but treat people so they do not want to. For secretaries, this is freeing them up from tasks such as typing and filing to allow them to develop broader roles involving aspects such as marketing support, research and project management. For business services staff it is developing commercial knowledge and confidence to enable their expertise to be recognised and have a greater impact.

Berry: All our dedicated DPD specialists are now Microsoft Office Specialist-accredited in Word, Excel and PowerPoint, the result of a drive to take design and production skills to a new level. This has enabled secretaries supporting fee-earning teams to work smarter.

In January 2013 we launched a competency framework for secretaries to help them meet the service expectations of the business. With this came advanced training in key skills such as managing and supporting busy teams.

We also introduced specialist secretaries into the framework to recognise and reward those who show deep expertise in a particular area. We now have specialists in anti-money laundering, financial management and management information.

Middleton: For the PA team in particular, one of the biggest changes has been the level of familiarity they have with clients and the associated skills they have developed. It’s created PA teams that are motivated, feel valued, understand our business and are very much part of the client team. There has been positive feedback from the fee-earners on the support they get.

Q: What were the most tangible benefits of this change?

Berry: From DPD we now get better-looking and more accurate products, delivered much more quickly. This drives efficiency by reducing the amount of time lawyers need to spend amending work and shows our clients – both internal and external – that we’re able to offer consistently high levels of technical support.

Ben Bennett

Bennett: The idea that if you look after your people, your people will look after your clients has rung true for us. For the past six years we have generated organic growth of more than 35 per cent. During this period headcount has increased by just over 20 per cent but for business services it has remained the same. 

Delving deeper and looking at outsourcing costs, the cost of service delivered per fee-earner has fallen by about 17 per cent and the staff to fee-earner ratio in delivering service has improved by about 35 per cent.

Middleton: We’ve achieved growth of £11.5m between 2009/10 (£26m) and 2013/14 (a projected £37.5m); opened new offices in Birmingham, Leeds and Southampton; and expanded into social care, non-healthcare regulatory, social housing and consultancy services. We also increased our fee-earner headcount by about 130 per cent, but only increased support headcount at just over a quarter of that rate. 

We have increased the PA to fee-earner ratio from 1:2.3 to 1:6.4, increased team utilisation and typing speed by 32 per cent and reduced the overall cost of document production by 25 per cent.

In addition to this we now have dedicated and skilled DPC, docucentre, floor support and first impression teams focused on the client – Capsticks.

It freed up the partner and management team to focus on growth and Capsticks becoming a national firm in our areas of expertise. 

Q: What are the most important lessons you have learned from this experience?

Bennett: Process and efficiency are not necessarily contradictory to delivering a bespoke service to clients. It is there to help, not hinder, that outcome. But it does take vigilance to ensure quality is maintained. That comes from developing and trusting your people.

Berry: First and foremost, it’s about keeping the service close to lawyers, as we know that’s what they like (ours do, at any rate). Second, select people who really get off on document design and understand the impact on readers of good layout. Finally, ignore fashion – offshoring often appeals more to the finance team than to lawyers, and the re-work it often entails means that frustration runs high and savings are less than promised.

Middleton: Engage, engage, engage – it’s critical to success.