“Fee earner vs fee burner”: internal divides in law firms

Ingo Forstenlechner, Fiona Lettice, Markus Tschida

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose: This article aims to explore and define the implications of the predominant divide in law firms between fee earners, i.e. lawyers contributing to law firm revenue, and support staff, i.e. employees in back office functions not directly contributing to revenue. To identify steps to improve retention rates among support staff.

Design/methodology/approach: A survey was delivered to support staff across four law firms among the top ten UK law firms, out of which 154 valid responses were collected. For the analysis, responses were clustered to identify emerging themes. Additional interviews were also conducted with the aim to clarify emerging themes and deepen understanding of the issues raised.

Findings: “You are either a fee earner or a fee burner” sums up the prevailing attitude support staff experiences in law firms. Throughout the responses – regardless of topic – the divide kept resurfacing again and again. In order to retain and motivate talented support staff, law firms will need to revisit their management of support staff and rethink the management of attitude towards them.

Research limitations: Law firms are just one professional services sector under increasing competitive pressure, other professional service firms with similar structures, such as consulting or accounting firms have not been included in this research.

Practical implications: While support staff ensures the delivery of business critical services in law firms, they are often seen as a disposable cost rather than a business relevant part of the organisation, which leads to frustration and low working morale. Several measures are suggested in this paper to address the management of support staff.

Originality/value: This paper addresses an important gap in our knowledge of law firms and legal profession more generally: The work and working conditions of non‐fee earning staff.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)98-113
Number of pages16
JournalEmployee Relations
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2009

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