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Why the future of Australian law firms might have less to do with lawyers and more to do with legal support

Why the future of Australian law firms might have less to do with lawyers and more to do with legal support

Scales of Justice, Australian law firm

As Australian firms, including boutiques and small to medium firms, continue to grapple with the challenges of a rapidly evolving legal landscape – be it growing competition, the drive to do more with less and the ever growing implications of digital disruption – they are focusing more than ever on how to counter these threats and retain a competitive advantage, writes Anthony Bleasdale.

BigHand recently spent time with Australian firms briefing them on a UK firm’s successful transition in meeting these challenges by focusing less on lawyers and more on the legal staff who support them and in particular, the types of work they do.

The story of the UK’s Browne Jacobson, with approximately 500 lawyers, is one which shows that a new approach to back office matched with innovative technology has opened the door to increased output and lower costs.

For Browne Jacobson’s Sally Swift, the dilemma the firm faced was clear; without change their existing traditional model could not be sustained without both a significant increase in costs in staffing and also office space.

Further, there was a clear need for the firm’s legal support services to be aligned with its exceptional client service accreditation, provide greater and more varied career opportunities as well as adopting new technology – all of which were key elements of the firm’s strategic aims and objectives.

But why did Browne Jacobson start to address these issues by focusing on legal support and not the lawyers?

One simple reason is the enormous amount of work, of different types and requiring different skill levels, which is undertaken day in and day out by legal support teams.

In an average Australian law firm that could be up to 102 different types of documents – from bills, document amends, document bundling, precedent amends, printing, photocopying, expenses… and it goes on and on.

And just as there are dozens of different types of work, there are also many different types of legal support working at different levels with varying skill sets – usually without any firm-wide transparency as to who is doing what, at what time, and what cost.

The missing component was technology that could provide that transparency and deliver the data to inform better ways of managing the firm’s legal support services.

That’s why they spoke to us at BigHand and began a fundamental shift in the way they approached legal support services starting with separation of the different types of legal support work undertaken at the firm as the first step in achieving greater work efficiency and cost savings.

But why separate the work? It’s really pretty simple.

Take photocopying as just one example of a task undertaken by legal support services every day in Australia. If you have a more experienced legal assistant paid at $80,000 a year doing photocopying for an hour, then it costs you roughly $17.31 per hour compared to a team assistant on $65,000 a year or $10.58 – a saving of 38 per cent.

But you can only achieve a cost saving if you have the capacity to be able to delegate that job appropriately based on skill and expertise to the legal support person available – that means visibility across the firm on who is doing what and when, all of the time.

As Browne Jacobson found, technology like BigHand delivers an strong upside, as not only could the firm understand the different types of work their legal support teams were doing, they could work out who was doing it, how long it took and how much it cost.

That way the firm was able to set the foundation for a new approach to legal support services that increased efficiency and lowered costs as well as delivering benefits including:

  • Greater visibility of work
  • Introduced more flexible, agile working
  • Improved cost savings as a result of better resource planning
  • Specialist support roles introduced

It is a worthwhile case study for firms across Australia.

Anthony Bleasdale is a managing director at BigHand Asia Pacific.

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