Law firms are finding flexible contract attorneys and legal support staff to be highly effective as firms are under pressure to grow revenues despite a highly competitive environment and the drive for more profits to the bottom line said John Lassiter, President of Carolina Legal Staffing in a one-on-one interview with NC Triangle Attorney at Law Magazine publisher Bob Friedman. The 20-year-old company is the largest North Carolina based-legal staffing company. It services law firms and corporate legal departments in North and South Carolina. Lassiter is a former president of the Mecklenburg County Bar. He earned his Juris Doctor degree from Wake Forest University School of Law.
AALM: From your view above the tree-tops, what’s the trend line for North Carolina law firms look like?
Lassiter: Firms are going to get larger in the major metropolitan places like Raleigh, Charlotte and Richmond, with periodic splits of entrepreneurial groups of young lawyers or mid-career lawyers who step out to create a business boutique or litigation boutique. Small and midsized are becoming more specialized.
AALM: It also appears that more companies in the Triangle are adding in-house counsel.
Lassiter: In house departments have grown in part to add specialized skills and to control costs but still rely on both specialists and law firm capacity for litigation and transactions. The demand curve is steep as business transactions become more complex or more deals need to be completed in less time. Corporate counsel is increasingly looking to contract for contract management, integration of systems following an acquisition or reviewing documents that may be critical to discovery requests.
AALM: How is the client’s ever-increasing need for speed affecting staffing?
Lassiter: Timing is immediate. In the past, lawyers had more time to think about client issues. Today, the client is measuring risk, evaluating internal capacity to resolve a matter whether it’s a litigation or transactional issue and looking at financial outcomes early in the process. Email and system integration provide real time information sharing so concise and clear communication is highly valued.
AALM: It sounds like the business model for law firms with corporate clients will create uneven cash flow the firms?
Lassiter: Predictable revenue is an increasing challenge and corporate clients are looking for a cost effective solution. Law firms have migrated from large summer programs to very targeted hires leaving little overflow capacity at times. Contract attorneys have become a way to level the demand curve and keep partner-track associates focused on business development and meeting billable hour expectations.
Law firms have modified their staffing models in part due to the recession and compensation pressure to keep their most valuable young lawyers. Firms continue to add staff attorneys and part time associates especially for scalable service work for larger clients. Another positive development is that today’s associates are technologically skilled giving them a lot of capacity to do more billable work without additional support staff.
AALM: What staffing changes do you see at the administrative support level?
Lassiter: You’ll see more sophistication in technology requiring paralegals, assistants and other paraprofessionals to know the latest software and matter management software. The ratio of attorneys to legal assistants continues to decrease from 1:1 in the past to 6:1 in many larger firms.
More challenging work is being pushed to paralegals so that role will grow even more in importance. Successful law firms are trying to operate in a more business-like with increasingly stronger office and law firm management while trying to free up every attorneys’ time for client matters and business development.
AALM: Lawyers are spending more time rainmaking because of the ever-increasing competition. How might this impact staffing?
Lassiter: Business development is critical for the success of all lawyers and leaving less time for a lawyer to prepare documents, review contracts or draft motions. Lawyers should be prioritizing their work through associates or support staff, so they can focus their best skills for current or prospective clients. To meet the pressing timetables, we see and increasing need for additional resources like contract paralegals or attorneys.
AALM: Do you see the client-attorney relationship changing.
Lassiter: It should not be lost that with the growing specialization in the practice law, the client is still looking for a strong relationship with the provider of legal services. The client’s expectation is ‘I want somebody who I trust, who understands my business and is paying attention to what we do. My lawyer needs to a partner in our business.’