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Sacking Partners’ Personal Assistants - the end of “The Donna” or just a sign of the times?

IN THE NEWS TODAY KPMG in the UK will cut c.200 administrative jobs, reportedly including many partners’ executive assistants (EAs). In this post, Chris McCann discusses whether this marks the end of partners having their own EAs and the pitfalls to consider when cutting back on partners’ and firms’ administrative support.

In recent years the benchmark for the skills expected of a professional services executive assistant (EA) has been a fictional character from the legal dramedy, “Suits”, where Donna Paulsen is the all-seeing, all-knowing and one-step-ahead EA who helps suave swaggering Harvey Specter win the day as a New York City law firm partner. Notwithstanding discussions around gender roles in the workplace (Harvey’s boss was a woman and also the managing partner, so that’s alright then) it is still considered a requisite for professional services firm partners to have their own assistants – because after all if you can’t bill enough fee income to pay your own assistant, how can you possibly be a partner?

Into this 21st century transformation of workflow and resource allocation today steps KPMG in the UK, who reportedly has announced that it is making one third, c.210, of its UK administrative staff and assistants redundant. As is noted in the linked Irish Times article, law firms too have notably cut admin costs in the past few years, relocating support staff from high to low salary locations and countries. 

This trend will continue. However, where it cannot happen is in the practices of partners whose clients expect high touch, frequent, personal contact and whose work requires strict confidentiality. In situations where the partner and her associate are absent, there must be a known and trusted assistant who can take care of things; and this role cannot be fulfilled by call centres or transient client-facing junior staff rotating through training contracts and multiple client engagements. 

Although dated jokes of assistant-less partners struggling to find and fill in their own timesheets will no doubt return at KPMG this week (along with sudden very real and serious worries about which EA is arranging the Christmas party), the most pressing concern for many partners suffering the loss of their own assistant will still be practical in terms of organising their work lives using the firm’s CRM databases and admin apps, and also their personal lives because many EAs also manage their partner’s domestic and family duties: booking holidays, scheduling childcare and remembering birthday presents.

However, what should be of more concern for firms who ‘retrench’ such a high proportion of their administrative staff, is a much deeper problem which is that the admin staff walking out of the door contain much of the firms’ knowledge and cultural DNA. Nowadays, accountants and lawyers change firms more often. In their absence and in the sudden event of a dramatically reduced administrative workforce, who will be around to recall the contribution and methodologies of long since retired partners? Who will tell the stories of the firm’s scrapes, struggles and victories hence the narrative of its values, its core meaning and its mission? Of course, present partners often can but such tales carry more truthful weight and meaning when junior practitioners hear it from the EAs. It was ever thus. 

This news marks terrible uncertainty for the KPMG staff involved but it isn’t a precursor to the end of “the Donna” or the end of a big firm that makes cutbacks. So yes, it is sadly a sign of the times, but it is also a reminder to all partners who still have executive assistants. You think you won’t miss them when they’re gone but you will, and so will the firm.

Credit to author of source material: The Irish Times

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