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Evolution of Administrative Services: Centralized Support?

By Kristin Rhodes posted 07-11-2023 13:11

Please enjoy this co-authored blog by Michelle Conn, Sr. Director of Operations, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP and Kristin Rhodes, Senior Practice Manager, Paul Hastings LLP

Administrative services at law firms have long been evolving alongside technological advancements; support services need to keep up with new tools to deliver services most efficiently. The pandemic added additional complexities by jumpstarting a new remote culture. Law firms have been adapting to these changes in a variety of ways.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Michelle Conn, Sr. Director of U.S. Operations at Akin, to discuss how Akin quickly pivoted to meet these new demands. They created a new system that both centralizes and specializes services to meet the needs of lawyers and the administrative professionals delivering the support.
1. What is Akin’s Administrative Resource Center “ARC”?
Akin’s Administrative Resource Center (ARC) is a cross-geography team, aligned by practice and specializing in best practices of specific firmwide tasks. In contrast to other service centers that are centralized and offsite, the Akin ARC is embedded within our offices and—most importantly—our practices. Some of our existing secretaries volunteered to join the ARC, which enabled them to quickly become specialists in the assigned tasks by practice. The remaining, traditional legal secretaries were also able to increase efficiencies by delegating tasks to the ARC. This unique approach both answers the existing needs of our lawyers and is flexible enough to support additional headcount as the firm continues to grow.
Currently, the ARC is handling expenses, check requests, invoices, new business intake forms, pre-bill edits and time entry. We will add additional tasks in the future.

2. What prompted Akin to look into this model? What improvements were you looking to make?
In the midst of the primarily remote circumstances of the pandemic, we—like many firms—anticipated significant shifts in the future of work. We hired HBR as a consultant to complete a full analysis of our overall administrative support structure with the ultimate goal of improving service levels in all areas.  

3. How did you assess needs and design?
HBR conducted a support services study across our US and London offices.  More than 700 lawyers, advisors and business services members participated in interviews, focus groups and surveys. Approximately 125 secretaries participated in a daily activity study. HBR reviewed needs in billing, finance, new business intake, conflicts, secretarial support, information governance and other support areas.  
We also had an Advisory Committee—made up of lawyers, secretaries and firm leaders—who helped inform the project, and an internal team that reviewed the study’s findings and made recommendations. Not surprisingly, the study identified that lawyers desired broader hours of coverage, more administrative support for partners and more practice support for associates. Secretaries desired more options for remote work and a career path.
To assess the design, we conducted a five-month pilot with two practice groups participating.

4. What tools are you using to assist in workflow management?
We reviewed two workflow platforms and selected BigHand to manage the workflow of the ARC. 

5. Now that you’ve finished the pilot, what unanticipated issues have surfaced?
After the pilot, we adjusted our communications approach in the early adopter phase to increase awareness of the ARC among the lawyer population. Having the lawyers fully versed on the ARC’s mission and how it supports their practice and their secretary has been beneficial to continued adoption.  
The pilot also allowed us to recognize a need for ongoing training for our remaining legal secretary population, which we addressed in the early adopter phase.

6. What benefits have you seen as a result of the new workflow? 
We found improvements in both the inputs and outputs of the design. As expected, work delegated to the ARC is completed very quickly. Our busiest secretaries—who were initially hesitant to delegate their tasks—also have come around and find the system very helpful. They now have more time to focus on anticipating needs and assisting with legal-practice tasks, versus primarily focusing on administrative tasks. Overall, the new workflow has enabled a dynamic team support structure focused on ensuring elevated service levels to our lawyers and advisors and meeting the evolving needs of our workforce.