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New workflow report shows task management in need of urgent modernisation

An extensive report out today (8 July) reveals the impact that the pandemic has had on support staff numbers and work allocation, with task management clearly in need of urgent modernisation.

The Legal Workflow Management Report from BigHand received responses from over 900 senior leaders in operations, HR, support services, resource management and practice group leader roles, from firms of 50+ lawyers in the UK, North America and APAC.

The report suggests that a drop in the number of support staff, plus a lack of clarity over how fee-earners should allocate work remotely, is impacting on the billable hour, as fee-earners take on more low-level administrative work themselves.

With support staff numbers on the decrease – and firms finding it hard to replace traditional roles – BigHand argues that now is the time for hard data to facilitate change management and a shift to technology-based monitoring.

“With hybrid working models set to stay, the way work is allocated requires urgent modernization in many law firms,” the report finds. “When lawyers can no longer walk over to their favorite secretary to hand over work or quickly check progress, there has been a tendency to do more of this low value work themselves. Unmanaged, this trend will result in either burn out or a drop in billable hours – or both. With growing numbers of law firms – especially in NA – moving towards hours-based bonuses, the lack of access to a support team able to provide the required skills at the right time could create friction within the firm.”

KEY FINDINGS

The pandemic and profitability

BigHand says that one big area of concern for firms is clear evidence that over the past year, billable hours have stayed the same or decreased. Speaking to Legal IT Insider, Eric Wangler, president for North America, said: “This back up what firms are telling us anecdotally but here we have the data: around 60% of firms say they are using support staff less. It’s not that demand is not there, but under pressure, attorneys are not getting access to the right people, and they are just saying ‘I’ll do it myself,’ knowing it will not be billable.”

With regard to whether you would have expected billable hours to go up, Wangler adds “Everything we see shows that lawyers are working harder.”

The hybrid working revolution

Every indication is that hybrid is here to stay, and that individuals expect to continue to work at home for some of the week. Most respondents in the survey said that support staff will work away from the office for two to three days per week.

However, the stats show that hybrid working raises challenges. For 30% of North American firms, 35% of UK firms, and 53% of APAC firms, there are concerns around the need for lawyers to undertake more administrative work.

Conversely, better managed flexible working creates opportunities: 39% of firms in the US said that flexible working will increase round the clock support.

Support staff cuts are also ongoing – just under 16% of firms in North America and 26% in the UK made permanent cuts in the past year. Wangler said: “We are seeing some big firms who have done some major restructuring in the last six weeks and that’s not the last of it.”

Escalating client demands 

Clients are demanding more transparency around work allocation to the correct resource but many firms are still relying on manual monitoring, which is particularly challenging when support staff are working remotely.

Wangler said: “The clients don’t want lawyers doing administrative work and billing them, so it’s about getting the right work to the right people at the right cost.”

BigHand’s group marketing director Briana McCrory added: “The statistics really emphasised that: 69% of respondents said they are getting pressure to demonstrate who is doing their work, which is really high.”

Ever-changing support team structures

Almost half of firms have already introduced or plan to introduce flexible working hours and over half plan to make structural changes to their back office services, including the move to broader teams supporting more lawyers, the report shows.

The statistics demonstrate that 49% of law firms are expecting to lose between 20 and 40% of their support staff over the next five years. And 37% have increased their reliance on outsourcing .

Finding staff with the right support skills continues to be a major challenge for firms in UK and NA. Retirement and attrition is putting a tremendous strain on teams over the next five years. Overhauling support is a priority.

Technology innovation and the latest support service priorities

Facilitating hybrid working for support staff is a priority for 52% of North American firms, 37% of UK firms and 25% of APAC firms.

However Wangler says: “Without a baseline of understanding of the existing skillset and work requirements firms will struggle to make the correct changes.”

To read the report in full click – https://www.bighand.com/en-gb/resources/whitepapers/the-legal-workflow-management-report/

Caroline.hill@legalitlexicon.com