Fee Earners - How Many is Too Many to Support?

18 June 2018 Laura Barratt

Pexels Stress

21 is too many to work for. That I know from experience.

I’ve been a legal secretary for around 17 years – give or take a year as it’s all a bit of a blur now. When I started, the 2 lawyers to 1 secretary ratio was completely normal. After a few years it grew to 4:1, and then somewhere around 2010 it became “normal” to have a 7:1 ratio.

If you have 1 Partner, 1 or 2 Senior Associates (who are all reasonable and not ridiculously busy), plus a handful of junior lawyers then it can be manageable. Some lawyers are self-sufficient and don’t need much attention, but that depends entirely on who you work for and what department you work in.

We all know that departments like Litigation and Banking & Finance can be extremely paper heavy at times. The paperwork alone can be so intense that you barely have time to update your court documents file or scan those 300 freshly inked settlement documents, let alone get all the correspondence filed by the end of the week and manage 6 other people. Plus, if a court matter is heating up or a merger is finalising then you can be guaranteed that you and the photocopier will be spending a lot more quality time together.

Do I even mention how tired we can get on top of all of this? We are all human and I have seen Partners in a couple of firms (both male and female) forget that you may be unwell, or not sleeping properly, or you have a baby on the way, or a family at home, or another perfectly human reason to be completely exhausted and unable to fire on all cylinders (no matter how many coffees you have) when they want you to provide rapid-fire answers at the mere click of a finger. Trust me, I have seen and experienced this first hand and understand that that piled on top can make balancing your workload for 7 people a bit tricky.

Thankfully I am currently in a 5:1 setup. That is the norm in my office and it works. My team are self-sufficient, so I’m able to get my work done easily plus help other secretaries that are getting overloaded and need an extra hand. The firm that I work for is what you would class as boutique. They genuinely appreciate their staff and get the best out of everyone. HR analyse the output of each department to assess exactly how many secretaries are needed. They understand the needs of lawyers whose work output is phenomenal. Whereas the bigger firms really don’t care. They’ll get as much out of you as you’re willing to allow them. I’ve unfortunately seen a PA drop and have a heart attack at her desk and another PA miscarry at 7 months because of the insane levels of stress they were under.

So, where did I get the number 21 from you ask? I once worked in a department for 6 years where the Head Partner produced so much work for his PA that she couldn’t get much work done for the rest of her team. I sometimes had to help her assist the HP and, more often than not, the rest of her team.

HR refused to acknowledge the amount of work he produced and how unmanageable it was because of his “work style”.

Work style with finger quotes meaning that he was a micromanager, and we all know how impossible that kind of person is to work for. The rest of the fee earners would get limited attention because he demanded it all the time.

There were 21 lawyers (give or take a few) in the team at the time with 3 secretaries (myself included) supporting them. About 18 months into working there, a few incidents happened in the group and 1 secretary got moved to another department. The other secretary went on maternity leave indefinitely and that just left me all by myself. There was a period of about 9 months where it was literally just myself supporting 21 people. That was an impossible situation and it went on for far too long. I kept asking the HP and HR when they were interviewing for a permanent secretary, but there was always an excuse.

The HP went through about 3 or 4 temps and scared away 1 permanent PA because of his micromanaging. I became quickly overloaded, highly anxious and ultimately ineffective because that’s what happens when you don’t care about the welfare of your staff. I was never going to be the same secretary there, so after 6 long years of trying to make things work and being worked into the ground because I was treated like everything I did was wrong, I quit. Best choice I made for myself in years.

So, 21:1 is #impossible and completely unnatural, 7:1 is normal and 5:1 is my picture perfect.