The Two Levels of Document Support

I have over 15 years’ experience in legal document support. Starting in the ’90s, when paper, faxes and taped dictation were normal, to now, where practically everything is done via email.

Over that period, I have witnessed a gradual change in the way attorneys communicate with document support staff. In the past, they were more likely to treat the staff as clerical underlings. Now, attorneys are more likely to need technical help, and they approach the staff more as knowledge workers.

There’s a big difference between asking someone to type some edits in a document and asking someone to solve a complex software issue. Attorneys recognize this. They need professionals, not grunts, for the complex work.

Of course, there is still plenty of grunt work (scan cleanups, discovery responses, work for attorneys who don’t do their own edits, etc.)… What should document support departments do? Have the same people do both—grunting and expert work? Doesn’t seem sensible, does it? However, firms are doing just that. Just throwing it all together under “Document Support.”

I think it’s fair to draw a simple, broad distinction between two levels of legal document support. Level 1 is traditional support—basically, simple editing and document creation. Level 2 is anything requiring knowledge or skill beyond what the average attorney has (keeping in mind that many attorneys have great computer skills). I suggest calling Level 1 something like “Traditional” or “Basic,” and Level 2 “Technical” document support.

Examples of what Level 2 people do: see my earlier post, Examples of Complex Problems, Real Solutions – Part 1.

Having Level 1 people try to do Level 2 work is a joke. Having Level 2s do Level 1 work is a waste.

Requirements for a Level 2 specialist should be rigorous. People with tech credentials should be involved with testing and hiring. In addition to tech skills, you need troubleshooters—educated people, critical thinkers.

Arguably, Level 2s shouldn’t even be part of the document services department, but rather, part of Tech Support or Practice Support, etc. Either way, the firm should recognize the professionalism of people who can do the advanced work.

For many firms, outsourcing will be a sensible way to handle Level 1 work. But a smart firm will want to find and hang onto good Level 2 people.