Does Your Staff Understand The 'New Normal?'

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Those in non-lawyer positions – administrators and administrative professionals at all levels – traditionally were thought to have little or no direct influence on the outcome of firm revenue and expenses.

Yet in the current law firm world, everyone, lawyers and staff, are affected by the ongoing transformation in client expectations and legal service delivery. As the legal profession continues to contend with everything from layoffs to fee pressures, upheaval is the "new normal." The world many firms previously knew is gone. Adapting to that change in order to stay competitive, to thrive in the "new normal," is essential in 2012 and beyond.

Lawyers are coming to grips with this transformation, but they must also take the lead in helping all staff members understand that change is the one constant for law firms' futures. More than the continuing sluggish economy alone, firms are contending with basic changes in the way law is practiced. Secretarial assistants, technology specialists, project managers – any staff people need a better understanding and strategic perspective about the forces reshaping law firms. What do the administrative personnel in your firm know about these trends?

Commodity service: From travel agents to print journalists, "middleman" professions are increasingly irrelevant due to computer and Internet technology. Business and individual clients likewise assume that electronic tools make lawyers increasingly irrelevant to help with commodity services like drafting a will, filing a patent application, or registering a real estate deed. And commoditization directly pressures the cost of staff support services.

Fee pressure: Too often the lawyer-client interaction on fees has become the client's demand that the lawyer cut fees, or the client takes his or her work elsewhere. The fee cut requested could be across the board on the entire legal bill, or on hourly rates of specific lawyers, or for specific types of services. Every firm feels this fee pressure to some extent, and the result has been and will continue to be equal pressure on staff pay and benefits.

Expense cuts: The Rules of Professional Conduct require that fees be reasonable. There is no one answer on what a fee should be, but today the operative dynamic firms must use is that their fees not only are reasonable, they are affordable. And increasingly, when the outside forces described here cut fees, cutting expenses – including those related to staff services – is one of the most feasible ways to preserve the firm's financial viability.

Staff roles: Staff members must be flexible to cope with all this change. That can include identifying cost savings in their work areas, taking education programs to become more effective at client service, or working as part of lawyer-staff teams to make a practice area more efficient and effective. It's a different mentality from "that's not my job" – and it only works when staff members understand the necessity.

The legal world is changing; so too must law firm staff. That means firm management must develop communication strategies for involving staff in the financial and organizational life of the firm. Such efforts help everyone become better and play active roles as team members in shaping the firm's survival in the world of the "new normal."

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