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Satisfy your clients and lower costs with transparent law firm hiring

by Mark Davey


How to modernize your law firm hiring model

Time: 3 minute read

Corporate legal departments, that are more cost-conscious than ever, are scrutinizing your bills.

General Counsels have begun putting every expense line item under a microscope. In some cases, if they recognize they are being charged a partner rate for work that could have been completed by a senior associate or associate, they will challenge the billing.

This trend is leading law firms to re-evaluate their staffing models with the goal of matching the work and the rate to the skill level of the attorney. Firms that can explain and demonstrate that they are using the right staff for work will have a competitive advantage.

“The traditional Big Law model . . . is to sell the client a Cadillac, even when he only needs or wants a Ford,” write the authors of “Disruptive Innovation: New Models of Legal Practice1,” a report by the WorkLife Law Center at UC Hastings College of the Law. But, that model has changed with more and more firms delivering a Ford with a price to match.


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This requires a new approach: A strategic and creative reconfiguration of staffing, with a critical eye toward the client’s, and the firm’s, current and future needs. Over-staffing and under-productivity are sapping law firms’ financial health, according to Altman Weil’s Law Firms in Transition2 survey. Some 77 percent of firms that changed their approach to attorney staffing increased their profits per equity partner, compared to 56 percent of firms that made no such changes, according to the survey. In some cases, I’ve helped firms create entirely new job categories. In fact, Ricoh’s legal board along with recruiting firm Robert Half & Associates have noted the following new, emerging roles:

  • Apprentice – Legal Residents: New lawyers who join the firm at a lower, non-associate salary and billing rate for the first year, after which they may transition to an associate or practice-group level.
  • Career Associates: Non-partner-track attorneys who work as part of the firm’s practice group but have no staff management or business development responsibilities. They earn about half the salary of traditional associates on the partner track.
  • Practice Group Attorneys: These lawyers are not on a partner or shareholder track. They do associate-level work at reduced hours for about half the salary of partner-track associates.
  • Department Attorneys: They do the same legal work as traditional associates but with reduced billable-hour expectations and with no partner-track status.

Over-staffing and under-productivity are sapping law firms’ financial health. Seventy-seven percent of firms that changed their approach to attorney staffing increased their profits per equity partner.

A re-evaluation of roles also impacts support staff. Unsurprisingly, 83 percent of the Altman Weil2 survey respondents indicated they thought firms would have fewer support staff in the future. The new models for support are legal talent pools: a team of secretaries supporting a group of lawyers. These secretaries also serve in hybrid positions that combine paralegal and legal secretary skills.

Professional services that understand the emerging structure of law firms as well as emerging staffing models can help you design and implement a staffing model that is more efficient and cost-effective, and ultimately, delivers the best value for your clients.

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1 Jessica Lee, Aaron Platt, Joan C. Williams, "Disruptive Innovation: New Models of Legal Practice." Worklifelaw.org. http://worklifelaw.org/new-models-report
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