Diversity does it again
Once upon a time (or so the story goes), an accountancy firm gave a talk to The 30% Club in which it explained that the way work is typically allocated in professional service firms allows unconscious bias to thrive. Despite attempts to introduce work allocation systems, partners tend (rightly or wrongly) to give work to associates with whom they have already built up good working relations – and this tends to exclude women. Despite being viewed by many as a tool to boost diversity, a work allocation system could actually provide the basis for predicting work-flow, providing more accurate performance reviews and gathering insights from clients.
Allocating work by numbers
I am sure we all remember our time as associates, being asked to estimate our capacity or “busyness” for the following weeks. What if we put in “busy” and the deal goes quiet? What if we put in “have capacity” and the deal goes crazy? For associates, guesstimating capacity on an excel sheet is certainly not a science, and for the “matter allocation” partner, it is something of a poisoned chalice.
[Enter]: Blind work allocation. According to the British legal press, a plethora of top law firms in the UK (including Clifford Chance and Ashursts) have engaged resource management consultants Mason & Cook to review the way work is allocated. In the same way as The Voice of Germany has blind auditions, so law firms are engaging in “blind” matter allocation. As the founder of Mason & Cook explained to The Lawyer, the term “blind” is somewhat misleading, as the aim is to gather significant data about each lawyer (including their skills and required development areas) and use that intelligence to match lawyers to the relevant assignment. This doesn’t sound like rocket science, but according to Mason & Cook, the key element is the introduction of an impartial observer and the data-driven process to identify suitable associates for the work.
An apparent success story
Rocket science or not, it seems to be working. A survey run by Ashursts before and after it piloted a blind work allocation scheme demonstrated a significant improvement in partner and associate satisfaction, with 100% of partners believing that the way work is allocated is fair and consistent. In addition, the introduction of a resource manager saves partners (or the unfortunate matter allocation partner) a significant amount of time. Furthermore, blind work allocation seems to be exactly what some Millenials want. Indeed, it reflects the findings of a study carried out by the Bucerius Center on the Legal Profession (What Tomorrow's Lawyers Want) and according to The Lawyer, it has been dubbed “the most millennial thing ever”. So, the partners are happy, the associates are happy, Mason & Cook’s books are full, and we’re combatting unconscious bias. What’s the catch?
Why the numbers don’t add up
Well, maybe Millennials do want to have it all – because some of them actually want get closer to partners (not a resource manager) and are looking for the old-fashioned “articled clerk” principal-mentor relationship. By appointing a resource manager it looks as though partners are further abdicating their responsibility for junior lawyers’ development. And isn’t it the job of a successful leader to design and lead the perfect team? Furthermore, call me old fashioned, but isn’t learning how to “win” work from partners part of law-firm life? Finally, if the aim of blind work allocation is to encourage diversity, how will minorities build the lasting relationships they need in order to progress? Blind work allocation assumes that the only barrier to diversity is partners allocating work to associates who “look like them” (whether this be gender, race, university or sports team). Are our law firm partners really so biased that they need a resource manager to assign their work for them? There is of course a thin line between consciously passing someone over for work because they don’t look like you, and quite naturally giving work to someone you enjoy working with. Let’s bear in mind that in big law firms with demanding clients, your team is going to be living in each others pockets 24/7 for months on end.
Unlocking the potential of blind work allocation
Putting the diversity issue aside (although diversity is how we got to blind work allocation in the first place), the real potential of blind work allocation hasn’t been properly noticed. What if….the system you establish to identify and link associate skills and capacity with new matters could be used to predict work-flow. The usual law firm work-flow cycle fluctuates between “crazy busy” and “nothing to do” - at which point we all go out and do business development and know-how. Law firms maintain it is difficult to predict future demand, resulting in an abrupt redundancy-hiring cycle. If technology can be developed (and Mason & Cook have told us to watch this space) that can manage the allocation of work, and firms can become more accurate in forecasting the cost of a matter, then firms will have to start employing budgets. Over time, and with the use of predictive analytics, they will be able to better predict and manage capacity. What if…the current work allocation system incorporated feedback – from clients, partners and associates. How much easier would it then be to appraise and develop associates? What if… the skills and activities attached to the associate’s profile also related to business development, people management, innovation or contribution to know-how? The potential of a work allocation system is immense, but it will remain latent, unless the work allocation system is seen for what it really is – rather than hoping it will address unconscious bias.