Law firms have been turning to a centralized resource allocation system as a comprehensive solution. It integrates associate availability, utilization, skills, and development needs so that every matter or project gets the right team and every associate gets the right workload.
A centralized resource allocation system has a wide application in law firms and practice groups when it comes to managing associate schedules and matter allocation. It can also be used to allocate work to summer associates and manage early career programs, or to delegate tasks to legal support staff (i.e., paralegals) and non-legal support staff (i.e., IT departments).
Before a firm can properly allocate work, it needs to have a standardized system in place to track associate availability and utilization. This is an essential feature of a centralized resource allocation system, because effective assigning decisions require real-time visibility into how busy lawyers are and which ones are free to take on work.
Lawyer availability can be tracked and forecasted in multiple measures, such as by hours available or hours busy, by percentage of time free or percentage of time busy, or by using a stoplight system of your own configuration (i.e., where red is the least available and green is the most available).
It depends on the firm, but it’s common to have associates update their availability week by week. Practice groups that work on less matters at a time may want less frequent updates, and groups that handle many small matters simultaneously might need daily updates. A daily frequency can also be good for tracking the availability of legal support staff, who help lawyers with numerous tasks on a day-to-day basis.
A centralized resource allocation system tracks whether employees have updated their availability and sends them automatic reminders to do so. Filling in their schedule, including what matters they expect to be working on and when, should only take a couple of minutes of an associate’s time. An associate’s actual billables and utilization can be compared to their availability forecast to see how honest and accurate they have been in their projections.
Employee skills tracking provides a real-time view of the skills each associate has experience in, which can be an asset in work allocation. For example, a litigation associate could have 80% overall experience in trial skills, but their profile details show that they have extensive experience in depositions and only minimal experience in cross-examinations. If it’s a high-risk situation (a new client or a sensitive matter), partners or resource managers may be after the best of the best. But otherwise, they’re likely to want a team of mixed competency levels, so the more junior associates can add to their experience and learn from the more senior ones.
A firm’s skills library can be configured to their needs, with firm-wide competencies that every associate should have (i.e., business development skills, management skills, client skills) and skills that are specific to each practice group. Search criteria can identify what skills will be needed for a matter (depositions, cross examinations, etc.) and the level of experience needed.
Progress in skills is self-reported by associates, and firms can choose whether they want them to measure their level of proficiency (defined by the firm) or the number of times they have completed a skill. They can also decide if they want associates to update their skills at the end of each matter, or on a recurring basis such as monthly or quarterly. Skills usually stay consistent across associate levels, but become more complex as they advance.
Firms that have their data scattered between multiple systems and spreadsheets aren’t making it easy for their partners and resource managers to make staffing decisions. By bringing availability, utilization, and skills together in one single source of truth, they can make strategic decisions so that every project has the most effective team possible.
With a centralized resource allocation system, partners add new projects or matters to the system and submit requests for associate help. Many firms will want the request to detail which matter (or non-billable work) it pertains to, who the assigning attorney is, the projected hours, the number of associates needed, and any other relevant notes on the project and the help needed.
Depending on a firm’s size and preferences, an assigning partner or resource manager may be in charge of making the assignment decisions for the practice group, office, or firm. Based on the request criteria, they can search for and filter associates who fit their requirements and are available for work, and then digging deeper into their profiles to make informed assignment choices. Most firms are going to want to start with the bare minimum search criteria: availability (based on forecasting and utilization) and demographics. They can also easily track the associate level, their billable rate, and what office they are located in. If they want to go further, they can then add on diversity data, skills, and interests.
Work allocation at law firms has been traditionally driven by partners, who are usually free to pick the associates that will help them on matters. This can lead to bias and inequity in the allocation of work and the resulting opportunities to learn and grow. With a centralized system, firms can track the quantity as well as the quality of work that associates are receiving.
Quantity is easy to monitor thanks to availability and utilization, but quality is more open to interpretation. When properly tracked, a firm can make sure their associates are getting the experience they need in all competencies, in and out of the office, client facing and otherwise. This ensures that everyone, including diverse associates, gets the experience and development to build out a more robust career.
A firm might allow partners to indicate the growth opportunities in a matter (i.e., business development, client interaction, working with other practice groups) or they may prefer that the resource managers assess this based on the initial request. They can also include degree of difficulty (good for assigning work to summer associates) or required skills, if those are being tracked.
Once associates are filtered, firms can see who fits the parameters best and then drill down into their profiles to look at the details, including demographics, location, school, utilization rate, billables and billable rate, availability by weeks shown, and more. These details will allow for fast and clever decisions based on the needs of the project, while ensuring that all associates are getting the right quantity, quality, and variety of work.
The legal hiring market is extremely competitive, with firms competing to lure talent with salaries and bonuses. As firms explore how else they can bring in, nurture, and keep top talent, they’ve turned to work allocation. By giving associates quality work that they are interested in, firms can attract and satisfy talent with the opportunities and work experience they need to further their career.
Each staffing decision contributes to more equitable workloads, but they also add to the associate’s development. The goal of a centralized resource allocation system is a holistic view of associates, not only in terms of their hourly work, but also their career progression. It can integrate with growth plans and personal development plans, and tie in with feedback on their work.
Tracking skills is not required for effective work allocation, as most firms get by tracking each associate’s years of experience. But skills tracking strengthens work allocation and helps firms take advantage of mentoring opportunities, especially in client matters. It also gives the associates a roadmap of the competencies they need to strengthen to become well-rounded and advance in their career.
Availability and utilization tracking can help monitor resource distribution and inform capacity planning. A centralized resource allocation system lets firms monitor associate workloads to make sure they are maximizing every lawyer’s calendar without over or underutilizing any one person. It can also be used to determine their hiring needs.
Firms can identify associates who have too little work and course-correct, rather than have them fall through the cracks or be written off as an underperformer. For the rockstars who are excelling and racking up experience, a firm can make sure they don’t end up with too much on their plate and can lighten their workload as needed. Keeping these workloads balanced also reduces the risk of burnout, attrition, and underdevelopment.
With real-time visibility into workload management, firms can ensure that people aren’t doing the same work over and over. Associates should be getting facetime with clients and experience out of the office, not just working on the same type of paperwork all the time. Trends can be pinpointed in practice groups and offices to improve resource management and staffing decisions, which will also lead to better development of individual associates.
The pandemic and its increase in remote and hybrid work have shown law firms that people are not bound by geography or the four walls of the office anymore. It’s not enough for a practice group to regulate their utilization and strategize their staffing. The entire office, not to mention the firm as a whole, needs to be balanced.
That can be done with cross-practice and cross-office assigning and collaboration, which can adjust as the economy shifts. Litigation has too much work and another practice group doesn’t have enough? Bring in some of them to help with some litigation matters and widen their experience.
The Silicon Valley office is overworked because their tech clients have kept busy during the pandemic, but the Kentucky office is slow because their manufacturing clients haven’t been able to work during lockdowns? Get some Kentucky associates to help on Silicon Valley matters.
The problem is visibility. It’s easy to say that a firm needs to bring people in from another office or practice group, but if there’s no way to see who is available or qualified, picking up the phone to call around is not an efficient way to find out.
By opening up a resource allocation system across the firm, groups and offices can manage their own staffing, but can open it up to other locations and groups as needed. In an instant, they can know who is available and what skills they can bring to the team. If a firm wants, they can also include private feedback and ratings, including short-burst real-time feedback on matters. This way other offices and practice groups have an idea of the competency and strengths of people in other locations.
Firms can also look into Resource Allocation software that will help streamline their work allocation and resource management processes, connect data across their offices and practice groups, and track and measure important metrics at every stage.
vi by Aderant, a trusted talent management software provider with more than 400 law firm clients, has developed its own solution. It features viResourceAllocation, the most advanced resource management and work allocation software in the industry.
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