Above the Law is reporting that national firm Morgan Lewis & Bockius is offering voluntary buyout packages to all legal secretaries. The reason: “technology innovation” and “the practice needs of our lawyers.”

My Take:

I know where they are coming from.

Forcing attorneys to become tech proficient and slashing the ranks of support staff is a big thing on the horizon in the industry. My experience with support staff is illustrative.

When I opened my own practice in 2002, I had an assistant hired and ready to start day one. It was every bit as necessary as phones and computers. I could not practice without someone to answer the phone, type, handle bookkeeping and manage the paper flow.

The paper flow was ridiculous. Every couple of months, we filled another filing cabinet. Soon, we had to store files off site. Not to mention all the paper we were shipping to clerks, judges, attorneys and clients. I can still hear the sound of our copier churning out paper.

I didn’t type anything except emails. Dictation didn’t work for me. For whatever reason, the quality wasn’t there. I wrote everything out longhand and had my assistant type it. I revised by hand and she typed those. We exchanged drafts all day.

Answering the phone was more important than it is today. I primarily wrote in the morning, went to lunch and spent the afternoon on the phone. I had to be in the office because there was a lot of phone tag until you connected. Most communications done by email today was done by phone. Email is quicker and more efficient.

All of this made my assistant very busy. It was common for us both to work on Saturday.

Flash forward to 2019. I don’t have staff. I can’t keep someone busy. Why? Tech.

Somewhere along the way, all the emails taught me to type. Electronic filing allowed for a virtually paperless practice. I went from keeping someone busy over 40 hours a week to keeping them busy a couple of hours a day. It was hard to justify the expense of having staff, but I still had an assistant.

Then one day, something happened that required her termination. I decided to wait to fill the position. I signed up for a virtual receptionist to answer the phone and learned how to do the bookkeeping on Quickbooks. I quickly realized that I no longer needed or wanted an assistant.

There is no doubt that if I was still at a big firm, I would not know how to electronic file or that it only takes a couple of minutes. I would depend on others to do many things that I could do myself in virtually no time. I would not have learned to do all I have with tech because I wouldn’t have been forced to.

The Morgan Lewis buyouts suggest big firms are figuring this out. One way or another, attorneys are becoming tech proficient, reducing the need for secretaries. It’s a copycat industry. It’s probably a trend setting move.