Let attorneys be attorneys and leave the admin work to those who get paid to get it done.
It’s a battle as old as WordPerfect versus Word: Should lawyers type? Since lawyers have keyboarding skills, how many can be assigned to one admin assistant? Two? Three? Five? Imagine all the cost savings … right? Wrong. Instead, imagine all the headaches. All the extra stuff that you, the lawyer, get to do — or worse, pile up because you are too busy to handle it.
Am I saying lawyers shouldn’t know how to do administrative work? No. I’m saying you shouldn’t have to do it.
The Shrinking Admin Assistant: How Did We Get Here?
Long ago, before lawyers began worrying that robots would replace them, tech companies with war chests flush with capital started pitching the many ways “technology” removes the need for assistants. Like assistants were the problem. Here’s the disconnect: Technology requires input — usually keyboarding, but also formatting, calculating, and searching. Whatever the input, it should not be done at the highest cost to the firm — lawyers’ time — or to the detriment of lawyers’ mental health and overall well-being.
According to the “2021 State of U.S. Small Law Firms” report from Thomson Reuters, the proportion of lawyers’ time spent practicing law has dropped to a new low of only 56%, barely half of their time. The report, released this week, says that lawyers are increasingly concerned about how managing administrative tasks impacts their ability to practice law. They now rate it as their top concern.
This is why, when I hear that a tech “replaces” the need for a human in the process of law firm operations, I call it what it is: BS sales tactics.
Three Reasons Admin Staff Are Integral to Your Law Firm’s Operations
Here are three facts surrounding law firm operations and the role of your admin assistant.
1. No technology is saving any firm money on the core people needed to keep a firm running.
You can use technology to automate parts of your workflow or process. You can use tech to streamline or remove the cruft, the repetitive and monotonous tasks, but you still need people to make a law firm work. Smart lawyers know that just as no tech can replace them, no tech can replace the people who assist them.
2. What lawyers do (and get paid for) is not the same as the work required to keep a firm functioning.
Your value as a professional is in your creativity, knowledge and experience — your ability to connect the dots, and in the way you see things no one else does. That you generally manifest your thoughts and vision while “drafting” (and today, most attorneys draft by typing) does not equal attorneys being responsible for completing all the keyboarding necessary to operate a firm.
Let’s not forget that drafting is a billable task while admin work is not. Meaning, you make money for your firm when you draft and that you cost the firm when you do admin work.
3. Legal assistants do a lot more than just type.
While most of an admin’s duties are performed on a computer, their sole purpose is not data entry or input. My guess is companies pitching the whole “replace an assistant” benefit have no idea what — or how much — admins and legal assistants do in a typical day. In fact, I imagine they have no idea how busy attorneys are either. Otherwise, they wouldn’t recommend removing anyone who helps the lawyers get things done … but I digress.
Assistants are focused on taking care of the attorneys they are assigned to, along with each’s roster of clients, plus calendars, documents, files and general well-being. Assistants make sure lawyers don’t miss a beat — from appointments to tasks, court, clients, spouses, and partners. An assistant does quite a bit, so the lawyer doesn’t have to and can therefore spend their time on the substantive work. An assistant is also almost always far superior at using the tools and applications needed to get everything done. It is technically the admin part of what firms hire admin assistants to do.
So while keyboarding is a big part of every assistant’s day, it is not the most important skill brought to the relationship. Most assistants have both organizational and people skills — they are smart and quick and have thick skin. When you work at a law firm — especially for multiple attorneys — you have to be able to perform under tremendous pressure.
Which is why people — your administrative staff — are such an integral part of your law firm’s operations. It is their job to keep the firm running, while it is the lawyer’s job to keep clients happy and make sure new ones keep coming through the door.
No Magic Technology Will Replace a Law Firm’s Need for People
Law firms that buy into the idea that some magic technology will instantly improve productivity and save on overhead costs often have complicated formulas for justifying the cost of assistants. Until you really dive into the numbers. The truth is simple: In this new world of remote work, the need for people to keep the work flowing and make the right connections is greater than ever. If you hadn’t heard, we’re in the middle of the “Great Resignation,” and lawyers aren’t the only ones who are quitting or rethinking the value traditional employment has to them.
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