Adapt or perish: what small firms can learn about workflow allocation from ‘Big Law’

Nowadays the legal marketplace for smaller firms can feel like a Darwinian life-or-death battle: adapt or perish. Since the ‘Great Recession’, it has become an unforgiving world where time-honoured truths have morphed into old shibboleths. Not to mention the biggest challenge of all: the economic cycle which churns on relentlessly like nature’s cycle of life, whatever the size of your firm. 

But despite the doom and the gloom, many independent law firms are doing well. Indeed, a lot are not just surviving but thriving.

The recent report from LexisNexis, ‘The Art of Success: Why Independent Law Firms are Thriving’ shows how much smaller firms have become more business-savvy in recent years. Often, success in these areas has come about after these firms have adopted and adapted best practice from larger firms.

As the report shows, good staff morale is within the top three most important things that smaller firms value. One way Big Law firms have discovered to keep fee-earners happy and engaged is by appointing workflow allocation managers. A number of larger firms, from Clifford Chance, who started the trend in 2012, to many other top 50 firms have appointed such managers to ensure they allocated work ‘blindly’.

 ‘Goodbye’ to favouritism and ‘hello’ to a fairer sharing of work?

I must admit, when I first learnt of this position it struck me as being rather superfluous. What could be simpler than handing out work? Partner A passes an interesting job to Associate B whilst Associate Partner C gives a nice task to Paralegal D.

Alas, as with most things, it is more complicated than it seems.

Often partners are up against the clock and simply give work to staff they know well and with whom they have worked in the past. Less visible, but equally capable, fee-earners may get overlooked. The result is that some fee-earners have desks groaning with work whilst others are sat thumbing through Facebook on their mobile phone screens (obviously nobody just twiddles their thumbs nowadays).

It gets worse, research has shown that many employers are unintentionally less likely to invite applicants to interview if they have a typically African or Asian name. Does this sort of behaviour always stop once an applicant becomes an employee? What about the fact that men are typically more likely to 'self-promote' than women. Are employers deterring or disadvantaging female employees by not having proper systems in place to counter this perceived habit?

So it is clear that distributing work fairly can be an issue. The 30% Club certainly thinks so. This campaign, launched in 2010 with a goal of achieving a minimum of 30% women on FTSE-100 boards, is lobbying companies and law firms to ensure that approaches to work allocation ensure ‘optimal opportunities with clients and transactions’.

 Lost in translation?

But for small firms--with the best will in the world--there is demonstrably a cost in employing a resource manager. A partner I spoke to in an independent firm couldn't see how he could afford it although he might well be tempted if there was a technological solution to help him in the process (‘I might use an app’). At a push, another partner I spoke to said that she might be interested in hiring a resource manager in areas where there is a large case load but, even then, she believed that this task could be undertaken by a team manager. There simply ‘isn’t enough churn’ to justify a full-time appointment.

It is clear that not everything that works for a large firm will automatically translate to a small firm. Some concepts make the transition relatively unscathed from Big Law, others less so.

It seems to me that the key here is to see what the role of the workflow allocation manager is in a larger firm and to tailor it to the independent law environment. This might mean that this role is bundled into the duties of a team manager. A smaller firm may also need to consider what systems and policies it has in place to ensure that work is distributed fairly and in accordance with equalities legislation.

In general, independent firms need to keep an eye on what works and what doesn’t work among their peers. In theory, happy staff ought to be more productive staff. For small law firms this is no small thing. Taking the best from Big Law can contribute significantly to staff morale and ensure that not only the fittest survive in the Darwinian marketplace but also the smallest.

Read more on work allocation here and read our Bellwether report here.

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