Large law firms employ not only numerous attorneys but also support staff that assist the attorneys. Historically larger firms have employed two support staff members for every attorney. However, in recent years many firms have fired or laid off support staff at a higher rate than attorneys, bringing the ratio of attorneys to support staff to 4-to-1 or even 5-to-1.

Types of Support Staff

Secretaries type pleadings and letters, schedule meetings and depositions, and calendar important dates like trials or mediations. Paralegals review deposition transcripts, analyze medical records, conduct legal research and prepare presentations for trial. Runners file pleadings, obtain documents from courts and deliver time sensitive packages. Some larger firms also employ librarians to organize the firm's legal library and assist attorneys with complex research.

Larger firms are laying off more support staff and keeping more attorneys. The ratio of four attorneys for every one support staffer is becoming more normal. Some firms are outsourcing tasks like information technology and billing to keep payroll costs down. Architects have even addressed this new ratio when designing new law offices, sometimes incorporating secretarial pods with easy access to many attorney offices.

Reasons for Higher Ratios

Economics play a large part because many support staff do not directly bring in revenue for a law firm. Paralegals frequently bill their time, but law firms do not bill clients for work performed by secretaries, librarians, runners and other support staff. Advanced technology also alleviates the need for a larger support staff. Online court filing of pleadings, voice recognition word processing programs and electronic calendaring all help attorneys work more efficiently.

Ramifications for Clients

Clients may be concerned that they will ultimately pay higher legal fees because of the new ratio. In some situations, it may appear that junior attorneys bill for work previously performed by paralegals, while paralegals bill for work that used to be secretarial in nature. Clients may want to review all legal bills carefully to make sure that the firm provides adequate descriptions for all tasks.