Law Firm Management

Changing Law Firms for the Worse (Yet Again)

I was speaking to a recent retiree from a Canadian Big Law firm the other day, and she introduced a new law firm concept to me, being that of the “Practice Assistant.” Apparently at her firm they did away with the concept of Legal Assistants (formerly, a “secretary” for you very old folks) and replaced it with a Practice Assistant, or “PA.”

While a legal assistant used to help the lawyer or law clerk do the clerical work on their files, the PA’s role is pretty much restricted to administrative tasks, such as opening files, helping with billing, booking boardrooms, arranging flights, and submitting a lawyer’s expenses for reimbursement. Each PA is shared by at least three or four lawyers. The law clerks do not get their own PA’s but are expected to share them with the lawyers. As you can imagine, the law clerks are at the bottom of the pecking order, so the PA’s have no time for them, and the law clerks are essentially on their own. Just to be clear, we are talking about law clerks who charge north of $550 per hour.

If one was predisposed to being charitable when evaluating the intent of law firm management, one might give them the benefit of the doubt. In that case, one might imagine that legal technology has made it so easy for lawyers to do everything that they have to do, that there is no role left for legal assistants to play.

However, I am not so predisposed. It strikes me that perhaps this particular firm has decided that they would rather have junior lawyers and law clerks bill for clerical work at over $550 per hour, rather than have legal assistants do some of that work at no extra cost to the client.

It has always been the case that there is clerical work to be done on legal files. For example, legal Assistants drafted demand letters, directions and other standard documents that did not require the qualifications of a law clerk and often did a great deal more. Up until recently, we all understood that the hourly rates charged by lawyers and law clerks included the clerical work done by their assistants. In fact, when court officers reviewed legal bills, they would look to see if lawyers were charging for clerical work and would disallow such charges. It would seem that at least this one firm has decided that they can re-write the rules of the game, abolish legal assistants, and claim that everything done by their lawyers and clerks is “legal work” and can be charged at full freight.

Of course, this approach was not accompanied by a decision to hire more lawyers or legal clerks, so on top of increasing the cost to clients, the firm is also increasing the workload of its professional staff, which has not helped with mental health issues at their firm.

All in all, not an impressive development in the legal profession. If there is a ray of hope, it is that I have been told that most of the Big Law firms have not gone this far. Yet.  But, as the Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski said, “human greed knows no limits,” so look for other firms to jump on the bandwagon.

This article was originally published by Law360 Canada, part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.

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