Does your law firm work allocation model leave too many associates behind?
Historically, work allocation in law firms has primarily been driven by partners. When a partner chooses an associate to help with a matter, their skills are important, but so is the associate’s proximity and the impression they’ve left on that partner. As their working relationship deepens and the associate’s experience widens, they can quickly become the go-to person when that partner needs help.
The Problem With the ‘Proximity and Familiarity’ Model
On the surface, this seems like a win-win. The partner wants the best person on their matters and has no reason to look elsewhere unless their preferred associate is unavailable or unequipped for the matter at hand. But work allocation based on proximity and familiarity risks conscious and unconscious bias, leading to unfair work distribution among a firm’s associates. If a partner monopolizes an associate, they are also depriving that associate of experience working with other partners and denying other partners the help of that associate.
When the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School explored law firm work allocation in 2017, longtime partners confirmed that traditional work allocation has an implicit bias toward associates who can easily develop relationships with partners.
“An associate’s talent and abilities are critical and the key selection criteria, but unintentionally, people are sometimes drawn to those they think they can work the easiest with — those who studied in the same university, are into the same sports, have the same kinds of interests,” said Bas Boris Visser, a partner at Clifford Chance.
This is just part of the reason why some firms, especially larger ones, have been gradually shifting away from this model. Some have appointed one person to make or approve assignment decisions for a firm or practice group. Some have given the additional responsibility to a partner, while others have an administrator or support staff acting as a resource manager or work allocation manager.
Over- and Underutilized Associates Don’t Stick Around
Skilled but underutilized associates are at risk of being underdeveloped and falling behind on advancement — and they are attrition risks. In a National Association of Law Placement (NALP) Foundation survey, law firms cited dissatisfaction with work quality as the top reason for associate departures.
In another NALP Foundation study, “work quality standards not met” was the most frequent reason (18%) for lateral associate departures and the fourth most frequent reason (13%) for associates hired at entry-level. If an associate isn’t getting equal access to work, both in the office and out with clients, they’re not getting the development they need to have a fair shot at becoming a partner.
And it’s not all smooth sailing for the top performers. They may be getting high-quality work, but the quantity can increase their risk of burnout. Studies have shown that the most capable employees at a company are often the most overloaded. This overuse of certain associates is still ineffective lawyer utilization — and their burnout can also lead to attrition.
Underrepresented Groups Can Be Overlooked
The Harvard Law analysis pointed to a 2016 NALP study that showed progress in hiring diverse associates at law firms, but diverse partners were still lacking. “Recruitment is part one of the story. But it’s a trilogy. It’s also about retention and promotion,” said Derek Davis, a corporate law partner and the executive director of the Center on the Legal Profession.
The murder of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 have led to a deeper focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the legal community. Many firms and law schools made statements in response, but scrutiny is on them to follow up with internal action.
Ontario Bar Association president Charlene Theodore told “Canadian Lawyer” that any diversity plan needs to address the needs of diverse groups who have already been recruited to a firm.
“If people are leaving, it becomes a matter of looking at what is missing from the plan and whether all is being done to help these associates thrive, do their best work and become future leaders at your firm,” Theodore said.
“For example, if your diversity goal is to promote black women [and] the work allocation system dictates that they are not getting the bigger files, or they do not have their unique experience recognized, then there is a problem in setting them up to be these future leaders.”
Hybrid Work Realities and Work Allocation
The shift to remote and hybrid law offices during COVID means partners have even less natural access to associates. Firms are looking for more effective methods of capacity planning that will help staff projects across multiple offices and groups.
“Firm leaders will also have to be vigilant to ensure no one is left behind in a hybrid environment,” reports Thomson Reuters. Partners and resource or work allocation managers need to be able to quickly determine who is available and who has the background and skills each matter needs. That’s hard enough in the office; it gets more difficult in a hybrid model where people work from home or different locations.
Supporting New Law Firm Work Allocation Systems
While many law firms have appointed resource or work allocation managers to make more equitable assignment choices, there is only so much a person can do without further help from technology. Many firms start out with a simple, homegrown availability tracking system that helps them see associate utilization in real-time. However, these systems can’t fully support the nuances of matter staffing, where partners and managers need to know an associate’s future availability, skills and experience to make effective and equitable decisions.
Resource allocation solutions can provide the relevant data on associates and empower objective decisions on staffing. (Disclosure: My firm provides this technology.) For example, you can filter associates by a project’s needs and see who is available and qualified for the work and who needs more experience with that work. This can improve visibility and transparency by giving firms a clear view of every associate’s workload and work allocation patterns.
How has your firm changed its work allocation methods due to the pandemic and remote work?