Too many law firms have different and disconnected hybrid working arrangements for fee-earning and support staff, meaning lawyers end up undertaking more administrative tasks.
The research also found that more than a third (35%) of staff at larger UK law firms are “actively ignoring” hybrid working policies, while 48% of firms said support staff would look for a new job if they were required to work for more than three days a week in the office.
Referring to the finding that 58% of firms had different hybrid working policies for lawyers and support staff, researchers from legal technology company BigHand said too many firms took this “divisive approach”.
They went on: “While firms are, reluctantly, conceding to employee demands for flexibility, the processes are not in place to achieve seamless interaction between lawyers and support staff.
“As a result, highly paid lawyers are compelled to undertake additional administrative (non-billable) tasks to the detriment of their fee-earning capabilities, billable hours and morale.”
The report questioned how much time was being wasted by lawyers “tracking down available staff to undertake tasks”, and by support staff receiving tasks that they were not qualified for or that should be delegated to more junior colleagues.
BigHand gathered 836 responses from those with senior operations, HR, support staff management and practice group leader roles at UK and US firms with over 50 lawyers for the report on future-proofing legal services delivery.
It highlighted the challenge for law firms in retaining support staff, with 61% of UK firms expecting to see staff turnover of over 60% in the next five years. Almost all support services managers expected up to half of their staff to retire in that time.
Researchers said: “Many experienced individuals have left the industry; others have moved to firms with a more compelling employment opportunity – from higher salaries to more flexible working and better career development.
“The result is that firms are now desperately concerned about safeguarding experience and expertise across the board.”
Reliance on outsourced support at UK firms grew by 12 percentage points over the past year to 51%. However, well over a third (37%) admitted that lawyers were doing more administrative work, instead of delegating to support staff.
Over half (54%) of firms had “no data or only partial data on the volume of tasks sent from lawyers to support staff”, while 45% said they had plans to implement a workflow system to manage legal support tasks in the next two years.
“Simply centralising teams, adding juniors or outsourcing is not going to solve the current problems of inefficient task delegation or the fast-developing problems caused by support staff retirement and attrition.
“Right now, firms have no idea about the skills they need to recruit and train for. They don’t know where there are gaps in expertise.
“There is clear evidence that lawyers are completing more of their own administrative work, either because they don’t know how to engage the proper resource, or they lack confidence in support service delivery and don’t want to risk their client relationships.
“Without data about demand, utilisation, capacity or skills, firms are operating blind. They simply don’t know how teams are performing and are left to rely on anecdotal, subjective feedback to make decisions.”
BigHand said that, without this information, “law firms will not be able to design or deliver the optimal support structure either today or in the future as the demand for hybrid working continues to grow”.