Study finds firms turning to hybrid clerks to cut costs and increase efficiencies

Written by
Carolyn Gruske
The Lawyer's Daily

Published
May 9, 2018

May 9, 2018 • by Carolyn Gruske

The terms may vary — blended law clerk or hybrid law clerk — but the job is the same: combine the duties of a law clerk with those of a legal assistant and have one person provide a wider variety of legal support services. While a recent study suggests that there is growing demand (or at least there is perception of such a demand) for people to act as hybrid law clerks, the reality seems to be more complicated than numbers on a pie chart indicate. The study, conducted by Robert Half Legal, a legal staffing firm, found that in a survey of lawyers and law firms, more than half responded that blended or hybrid law clerk/legal assistant positions have become more common than they were two years ago. Forty per cent claimed it was somewhat more common and 12 per cent said it was much more common. The rest replied they saw no change (38 per cent), found it somewhat less common (one per cent), much less common (five per cent) or they didn’t know (five per cent). (Rounding errors account for figures totalling 101 per cent.) The survey also asked firms about their hiring plans for hybrid clerks. Twenty-six per cent said they plan to somewhat increase the hiring of hybrid clerks and two per cent said they would significantly increase hiring. The vast majority, 68 per cent, expected to make no changes.  

Julia Valladao

Julia Valladao, Robert Half Legal

Julia Valladao, a division director at Robert Half Legal, explained the survey came about as a result of seeing an increase in demand from their clients looking to recruit for positions that combine the duties of law clerks and legal secretaries or legal assistants. “The survey only confirms what we have been seeing in numbers.”   Valladao said firms want to provide legal services at a lower cost while driving efficiencies, and hiring hybrid clerks is one way to achieve those goals, especially in the fields of real estate law, corporate law and litigation. According to Valladao, firms look for people with a law clerk or a legal assistant diploma and a significant amount of experience, and they expect these people to “do a little bit of the work of first year associates, so that way first year associates have more time to dedicate to other matters.” After meeting employment candidates, Valladao realized that many “have been doing hybrid roles but they don’t realize it. ... Someone who works in a smaller firm, for example, has been doing a lot of work as a legal secretary and a law clerk: a lot of drafting, also administrative and clerical duties.” She said this “sweet spot” in the job market means hybrid clerks are being well rewarded for their skills. In 2018, Robert Half found the midpoint of starting salaries for hybrid clerks with experience in the high-demand legal fields is $47,000. In comparison, a legal assistant with three to six years of experience has a midpoint starting salary of $41,000, while a midlevel law clerk has a midpoint of $60,000. A senior law clerk/hybrid clerk has a midpoint starting salary of $60,000.  

Lianne_Furlong

Lianne Furlong, Aviva Trial Lawyers

Aviva Trial Lawyers is one organization that recently advertised for a hybrid law clerk. The in-house legal department of insurance company Aviva Canada Inc. underwent a major rebranding effort and restructuring two years ago, and part of that process involved re-evaluating everybody’s role, explained vice-president of legal and chief litigation counsel Lianne Furlong. The advertised hybrid role is unique in the department, which consists of 170 people (including roughly 80 lawyers) in 90 offices across the country. It was posted to cover the maternity leave of a litigation assistant who supports the organization’s most senior medical malpractice lawyer. “Her role is unique to that single lawyer, so we created something individualized for his practice and the size of his files and the travel involved, but there is an element of the hybrid idea in the rest of the litigation clerk roles,” said Furlong. During the restructuring, very senior and experienced legal assistants were given the new title of litigation clerks. Additionally, Aviva has formally educated people working as trial clerks to support the lawyers at trial, and practice assistants — the equivalent of more junior legal assistants in private practice — who do administrative tasks such as opening files and helping with file assignments. Originally, Furlong said Aviva Lawyers considered moving away from the 1:1 lawyer to assistant ratio, but she believes the team approach does a better job of serving clients. Once that decision was made, however, the business case required the department to maximize the capabilities of the assistants. “We upgraded that role a level, and the idea was let’s recognize them. Let’s give them a new title. Let’s look at their capabilities and give them responsibilities that they can do,” she said. “So, you’ve got litigation support staff here, called litigation clerks, that do things that help to move the file along. They also do some of the more supportive work like book discoveries, but we’ve tried to offload some of the lower level work to the practice assistants, so each of our practice groups has a practice assistant that does work that we feel isn’t a good use of the litigation clerk’s time.” Ricketts Harris LLP, a 20 lawyer Toronto-based firm, has also rethought the role of its legal support staff.  

Gary Luftspring

Gary Luftspring, Ricketts Harris LLP

Managing partner Gary Luftspring said with lawyers handling so much of their own administrative work, including e-mailing clients, there is less need for assistants to perform the business basics. Instead, the firm’s support staff needs to be flexible and adaptable and able to learn how to do whatever is needed, no matter the title. To find people for these hybrid roles, Luftspring hires university graduates who have demonstrated they can learn and who are often unemployed or underemployed, doing things like serving coffee at Starbucks. “The thought is these are intelligent kids you could develop a career path for,” said Luftspring. “I’m looking for somebody to grow into a job that I don’t even know what it might be.” He explained that university graduates often have skills that can be useful and even billable in a firm. “The truth is lawyers need a different kind of support. For a litigator, wouldn’t it be nice if you had somebody who actually had an English degree who could read factum and would make comments on persuasiveness, on word usage. That would be valuable. Similarly, for somebody with a business transactional practice, it would make sense if the assistant had a commerce background or a business background or even the ability to read financial statements.” He said for somebody coming out of school, salaries can start in the $30,000 to $40,000 range. From there, as they develop more skills and get training, “the sky’s the limit.”  

Suzanne VanSligtenhorst

Suzanne VanSligtenhorst, ILCO

While some legal departments and firms are changing the roles of legal clerks and assistants, others are maintaining the traditional roles. Large firms in big cities, in particular, seem to follow this practice. That has been the experience of not just Lisa Matchim, president of the Institute of Law Clerks of Ontario (ILCO) — which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year — but also of board members Rose Kottis and Suzanne VanSligtenhorst. Matchim, a senior real estate clerk at Stikeman Elliott LLP, said that unlike the Robert Half survey, she hasn’t found there to be a growing demand for hybrid clerks, with one possible exception. “I don’t know if a hybrid law clerk or one that does half-and-half is something you’d find in larger firms, but I think that might be a trend for the smaller firms. Now, I don’t agree they are getting paid more.” The one change she has seen at her own firm is an adjustment in the ratios. Now, Matchim said instead of having a dedicated assistant, one assistant is shared between four clerks. “So, I end up doing a lot of my own administrative stuff, just because she isn’t available.”  

Rose Kottis

Rose Kottis, ILCO

Kottis, a senior estates clerk at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, said some small firms may employ assistants to perform law clerk duties because they don’t understand the roles clerks perform. “Oftentimes we’ll go to a solo or small business conference and some lawyers don’t know what law clerks are, what we do, what we can offer. We educate them and let them know they can actually bill our time and take a lot of duties off their plate, court filings and preparation of court documents and those types of duties. Then they’re interested, and they’ll contact us and we provide them with more information, and oftentimes they end up hiring law clerks,” said Kottis. Lawyers who rely on clerks are putting more responsibility on them, said VanSligtenhorst, a corporate law clerk with a real estate managment company. “I think lawyers are expecting clerks to know more and do more. I find that I’m given a project to run with it. If I have questions, I go back but somebody isn’t standing over me, micromanaging me on the work I’m doing. No one has time to do that anymore,” she said. “It’s definitely an experience thing as well. The more experience you have and the more you’ve proven you can do the work, obviously the less they have to be involved and the more hands-off they can be.”

This article was originally published by The Lawyer’s Daily (www.thelawyersdaily.ca), part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.

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