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Offering Buyouts, Blank Rome Looks to Trim Secretarial Ranks
The Legal Intelligencer
Blank Rome has offered voluntary separation packages to its entire legal secretarial pool in an effort to trim its ranks as the firm restructures the way attorneys and support staff work together.
The window for accepting the voluntary buyouts closes Friday, and Blank Rome would not say how many secretaries it was aiming to have accept the offer. Firm Chairman Alan J. Hoffman said he anticipates enough secretaries taking the option so that no layoffs would be necessary.
Several sources in the Philadelphia legal community had reported 30 secretaries were expected to be affected by the restructuring.
"There are no layoffs that have taken place and hopefully none will take place," Hoffman said.
He also noted the changes had nothing to do with the firm's financial performance in 2012. While the firm's official numbers have yet to be reported for last year, Hoffman said Blank Rome had a "pretty spectacular" 2012 with revenue increasing 6.3 percent and profits per equity partner rising about 15 percent.
The reduction in legal secretaries is part of the firm's overall effort to move into a more "efficient and flexible" service delivery model that better represents the fact that its younger attorneys are not utilizing secretaries the way more senior attorneys do.
Hoffman said the firm is creating a three-pronged secretarial support structure that will be up and running in the next few months. Then, by 2015 or 2016, he said, Blank Rome hopes to be in redesigned space that better reflects how many secretaries it has and where they need to be located in the office.
"We have new associates whose use of secretarial support is much different than senior partners who are in their 60s," Hoffman said.
Depending on how well they use technology, senior partners might work with secretaries on a 1-1 or 2-1 ratio, Hoffman said. On the other hand, associates up through year six are not using secretaries to type briefs and are rather doing it themselves, he said. So associates are using secretaries at a rate of six or seven attorneys to every one secretary.
Blending those two needs together, Hoffman said the goal for Blank Rome is to have a 4-1 attorney-to-secretary ratio in 2013.
Blank Rome Chief Human Resources Officer Allison V. Friend said the firm could have obtained a 4-1 ratio and still maintained the typical secretary model.
But "in a lot of situations that just doesn't work," Friend said.
The solution for Blank Rome was the three-pronged approach that includes the creation of the Associate Resource Center, or ARC. The new center, anticipated to be up and running in a few months, will have about 12 secretaries on staff and will be based in Philadelphia. ARC will serve as the secretary pool for the bulk of associates who were not relying on legal secretaries for their traditional functions. Friend said she anticipates ARC being staffed by existing Blank Rome staff.
There will be dedicated teams within ARC for the firm's litigation and business law associates. They will have the highest technology skills and use things like instant messaging and Skype to interact with associates across the firm's global footprint, Friend said.
"We weren't supporting [the associates] in the way they needed," Friend said, adding she and her team sat down with associates and secretaries to see what type of technology and services were most helpful to them.
Outside of ARC, there will also be groups of legal secretaries for specialized practice areas such as intellectual property, Friend said. Hoffman noted those types of practices require specialized knowledge in terms of filings and court rules.
The third secretarial pool will be more along the lines of a traditional model in that it will serve to support the older attorneys who require more one-on-one secretarial support, Friend said.
She said attorneys will still be supported by an assigned secretary, but the secretaries will be working in teams as well. Friend also noted that the lawyers are not going to start billing for work that used to be done by secretaries. Rather, the increased use of technology will allow secretaries to do things differently, she said.
"Lawyers are supposed to lawyer as opposed to doing secretarial functions," Hoffman said.
It used to be that secretaries were placed outside of every lawyer's office so they could be in shouting distance of one another, Hoffman said.
"Going forward, why does a first-year associate ... why do they need a secretary that's directly outside their office?" Hoffman asked.
As law firms re-examine their real estate options, secretaries will most likely be located in one area so they are serving a group of lawyers, Hoffman said. The new secretarial structure is the first step in moving in that direction, he said.
"We recognize and truly value the contributions that all of our secretaries have made to the firm, and are committed to working closely with each and every one of them to evaluate their options and help them make a smooth transition, whether it be an internal or external move," Friend said in a statement.
This isn't the first time Blank Rome has trimmed its secretarial pool. In 2009, when many large firms were cutting associate and secretary ranks, Blank Rome made two separate rounds of layoffs that affected both staff and attorneys.
In January 2009, Blank Rome let go of 20 associates and 40 staff across its offices. Then in March 2009, the firm let go 27 associates and 52 staff members in response to a continuing downward trend in the economy.