Coronavirus: the end of Big Law firms as we know it?

by Chris Tang in Articles

DatePosted on November 05, 2020 at 02:50 PM
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When I was working as a corporate lawyer in legal practice, legal secretaries were at the heart of every practice area. Word processing letters, amending documents, photocopying documents, printing and filing of correspondence, preparing invoices, opening and closing files and clients, they were the back bone of every team. 

Even then (in the noughties), Big Law firms were looking at streamlining secretarial resources by creating document processing centres ("DPC") to help with the 'heavy lifting' of large scale document preparation. The ratio of fee earners to secretaries was already increasing then from 3:1 to 5:1 or more. 

Now, with the coronavirus increasingly requiring law firms to implement a 'Work From Home' policy for their staff where does that leave certain roles, particularly legal secretaries? Document processing is taken care of with DPC hubs, dictation software, and new generations of computer-savvy lawyers with fast processing and formatting skills, photocopying and filing can only be carried out physically in the office, and more firms move to paper-less environments.

If you're a legal secretary at home, you can't carry out many of these functions unless you're willing to convert your apartment with filing cabinets and a commercial photocopying machine.

That's a tough ask in a city like Hong Kong, where the average apartment size (supposedly) is 629 square feet.

So, do legal secretaries have tasks to genuinely fill up all their time? 

And what of other business support roles within Big Law? What will their roles look like in a post-pandemic world? 

The impact of the coronavirus on the law firm work place

Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking legal secretaries at all. Back then as a corporate lawyer, I couldn't live without one. 

But the fallout of the coronavirus is so far reaching when it comes to the workforce and an organisation's working practices, it is inevitable that the business needs on its staff Support staff are being presented with stark choices. will change. It has to change. Quietly, firms are recognising this is as an issue. And it's not just law firms who are in this predicament.

The upshot of the new remote working culture for professional firms is to figure out what to do with their current resources whose critical functions and the value they add to the organisation are now called into question. It's not just legal secretaries. The existence of every support role in law firms are being called into question, from the tea lady, the receptionist, to the accounts professionals and marketing team.  The only possible exception would be the IT function, where more investments are being made.  

It was inevitable that organisations would reach this stage, but the scale of the coronavirus's impact on the human resources industry and human capital needs wasn't truly appreciated in the first half of 2020. By and large, it's still not fully understood, given that we are all a work-in-progress.

So what now?

As it stands, I see this going one of three ways. And let's be clear, no.1 on this list has already started to happen. We will only see more of this activity in the coming months and years.

So the path is likely to follow the course of one of options 2-4 in conjunction with no.1 below.

1. A gradual, quiet and large-scale retrenchment of senior legal secretaries from law firms

The tasks that can be done remotely are then gradually p̶i̶l̶e̶d̶ ̶o̶n̶  transferred to those (more junior) legal secretaries who are left.

Of course, there are those partners who will fight tooth and nail not to let go of their secretaries, particularly those who have loyally followed their partners for 10 or more years. Indeed, depending on their seniority or level of influence within the firm, they may even succeed in keeping them. But the impact of the coronavirus will mean that legal secretaries, or their roles as we traditionally know it, will largely soon be a thing of the past. Unless you're the global chair of a major international law firm, then it'the PA's job is safe.

2. A gradual replacement of senior legal secretaries with junior administrative assistant/secretaries

This is something we have already seen in the legal market, even before the pandemic took hold. Increasingly, international law firms have been hiring recent graduates with some secretarial experience to help with largely administrative tasks (from scheduling meetings, time sheet and client data inputting, to expenses recording and generating invoices). A lower cost base overall, but when such administration assistant or junior legal secretary is being asked to dig out a client letter roughly 5 years ago from the archives, keep a track of court deadlines and inform you well ahead of that date, or they're handling the call of an irate client with little experience in de-escalating the situation, a lot of law firm partners could soon come unstuck.

3. The rise of the contract legal secretary

Let's face it, legal secretaries are needed. They have been part of a law firm's DNA since forever. But the question being faced by law firms today is, are they needed all the time and what does the role of a legal secretary look like in a post-pandemic world?

Or looking at this another way, how do you reconcile the need for experienced legal secretaries but don't have sufficient needs constantly to justify the cost of one?

Introducing contract legal secretaries.

Whilst such roles have been around for a very long time, they have traditionally only been used to cover maternity leave or fill a temporary resourcing need. Given the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and with hiring freezes firmly in place for the time being (and likely at least for the remainder of the current financial year), more law firms are exploring the possibility of hiring temporary secretarial support. Longer term, this could mean having a balance of junior secretaries and more experienced contract legal secretaries to fill-in during peak periods. Additionally, there may be a need for more senior level part-time legal secretaries to help groom the next generation of legal secretaries.

To assist our law firm and in-house legal clients adapt to this new era, we have recently launched our contract staffing line, Yuzu, that can assist clients with managing the changing workforce landscape.

4. Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines

The previous header triggered the thought of this movie title, but hear me out, there is a useful analogy! Set in an apocalyptic future, Arnold Schwarzennegger's Terminator, a robot hellbent on destroying mankind, instead becomes the protector of it in this third instalment in the popular Hollywood movie series. The Terminator in the film is reprogrammed to protect John Connor and his wife, Kate Brewster, from a later model of the Terminator, the T-X.

Prior to this instalment, no-one envisaged that the Terminator could change sides. But in T3, not only could it do so, the movie introduced a newer, slicker and upgraded version of itself. Not to be outdone, it got reprogrammed with a completely new purpose.

And likewise, law firms can do do the same. The role of the business support staff can no longer be viewed in isolation. There roles have to be more fluid, multi-skilled and cross-practice.  A legal secretary can no longer view themselves as just that, they need to take on more functions that can give support to other support teams, such as marketing or accounts. By taking on different responsibilities and carrying out tasks that can be performed remotely, law firms can maximise the utilisation rates of their support staff, and therefore the firm's overall productivity, whilst also changing their work culture to enable Work From Home to operate more pervasively and freely.   

In many cases, this adaptation requires upskilling and retooling of staff to meet head-on the challenges that the pandemic has caused. The effect of the coronavirus on the work place has given rise to a prime opportunity to tap into this wealth of resource and upskilling their legal secretaries and other support staff to have broader responsibilities in marketing, accounts, IT, and research, amongst others. Whilst retaining and utilising existing staff to add greater depth and value to their business, this also gives staff the opportunity to pursue new career paths and develop personal growth trajectories with the same employer.

Train your staff to new heights. Photo: Jef WilemmynsOf course, training, learning and development budgets will need to increase or be approved where none previously existed. And this is an area that my company can give support on, with the launch of our training business, Star Anise Leadership & Training, or simply, SALT.   

Given the dramatic changes in working practices across most industries caused by the coronavirus pandemic, law firms need to evolve much faster to keep up with this change in pace. And with hiring freezes preventing most firms from expanding their workforce, what better way to improve business by investing in your current workforce to adapt to the ever-changing business needs of the firm? 

Or to put it another way, which would you rather see, a cash burn with collective severance pays given to support staff, or putting that cash to greater use in training staff so that their contribution to the firm helps with greater productivity and potential longer lower term operating costs (as you have multi-skilled support staff who can pivot from one back office function to another)? 

If you are interested to explore how we can help you with (a) contract and flexible legal support or (b) training and development, please email us at the following with some brief details about your organisation, your current needs in the relevant field, and contact details. A consultant will soon be in touch: 

Yuzu (flexible resourcing services in legal, compliance and business support):

SALT (Star Anise Leadership & Training):


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About the Author

Chris Tang

Chris is a co-Managing Director of Star Anise and a former practising corporate lawyer. He is a regular post contributor on LinkedIn and you can connect with him here:

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