Law firms today are struggling with a scarcity of resources. Attrition rates are high and the talent market is heating up with a salary war. When firms look inward, there never seems to be enough associate hours to meet their needs, even though there is a significant billing gap between the standout associates and the ones who are falling behind in their development.
“A lot of our law firm clients have talked about the older way of doing things, which involved hiring more people than they needed and letting the cream rise to the top,” said Andrew Talpash, founder and CEO of talent software provider viGlobal. “That ‘survival of the fittest’ doesn’t work anymore, not in this talent market and not in the direction that firms are going.”
William Thomas, partner at McDowell Hetherington LLP, remembers what it was like to be the overworked associate trying to accommodate multiple partners. Now that he’s a partner, the challenge is to find the right associates for matters, and work quality suffers when associates are stretched too thin.
In an October webinar co-hosted by the National Association for Law Placement, Inc. (NALP) and viGlobal, “Solving the Crisis of Associate Attrition with Effective Work Allocation,” Thomas said he set out to tackle this problem and find out how other firms were handling it.
The fundamental problem with traditional law firm work allocation
Thomas told the webinar that assigning partners are often making choices based on an associate’s perceived availability and capacity, without a lot of information or consideration of what they’re actually working on. The associates are unlikely to be empowered to decline work when they’re trying to simultaneously keep all the partners happy.
Questioning this free-market approach led Thomas to the Tragedy of the Commons. According to economic theory, if you have a shared resource and its usage isn’t being monitored, the resource will be overused and eventually run out.
In the case of law firms, he said the scarce resource is an associates’ capacity and ability to take on work, which is being shared among partners. The overused resource is an overutilized associate at risk of burnout and attrition.
“I recall being that overused associate, with [multiple] partners coming to me and saying, ‘Can you take on this project?’” Thomas said. “Eventually you wear down, you burn out, and the work product is not nearly as good.”
How the previous methods of work allocation can lead to new solutions
When it comes to knowing how busy associates are, Thomas said his firm and many others naturally turn to their billable hours and daily time sheets. The problem is that billables are a lagging indicator, in that they are looking at past data, instead of a leading indicator, such as forecasting associate availability.
“[That’s like] trying to drive the car forward while looking in the rearview mirror,” he said.
Thomas said that putting systems or platforms in place can give a better idea of the work that is coming to associates, instead of just the work they have already done. It also creates the opportunity to see when a go-to associate has an unmanageable amount of billable work. This allows for shifting some of that work to underutilized associates, who have the capacity and are in need of additional development.
“Our law firm clients have been telling us that they have lawyers billing 200 or more hours per month who are at risk of burnout, while their other lawyers bill less than 160 hours per month and are at risk of leaving,” Talpash said. “Effective lawyer utilization is about having systems that can track and balance these capacities.”
Thomas told the webinar about his experience as a partner trying to find an available associate by walking around the office. He entered one associate’s office and saw their dry erase board completely filled with their current cases and due dates.
Clearly they didn’t have the capacity to give him high-quality work, so he moved on and kept searching for someone else. But if associates don’t have dry erase boards, it takes a lot more probing questions to see if they’re the right person for the job.
If partners could easily see every associate’s “dry erase board” of matters and projects, they would be able to quickly check their capacity without going door to door. Their associate pool also wouldn’t be limited by office space, as they could check on associate availability and experience in other firm locations.
Finding the tools to support improved resource management
Thomas said that a real-time work allocation platform, such as viGlobal’s Resource Allocation, could fill this role, allowing partners or resource managers to see associate workloads and availability from anywhere. By looking forward, law firms could gain a better understanding of group and individual capacity, and could plan and allocate their resources more effectively. Letting associates self-report on their forecasted availability would also give them agency over their time and capacity.
“Firms can customize flexible work allocation tools to give their assigning partners and managers as much information as they want, including utilization, skills, experience, internal ratings, and more,” said Talpash. “Through integration with skills tracking and performance management systems, associate competencies can be considered when assigning or shifting work, which will drive more objective and effective decisions.”
With the right processes and tools, shared resources don’t have to run dry. Firms can know who is at the risk of overwork and who is in danger of not hitting their billable hours. And their partners will see a clearer path toward the help they need and a better work output from their associates across the board.