Advice to associates about law firm efficiency

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I recently delivered a webinar to a group of associates at one of my law firm clients, as part of the firm’s internal CPD and training program. (I referred them to my recent posts about associates, which probably didn’t make them very cheerful.) Among the advice I gave the associates was to start looking for opportunities to streamline their work, increase their efficiency, and reduce their own “cost of doing business,” in order to make themselves and their practice groups more competitive and effective.

This led one associate to send along a follow-up question, which I’ll paraphrase thus: “Is this my responsibility? What role should I realistically be expected to play in finding enhanced efficiencies in my practice? Do I wait to be directed by the partners, or by the IT staff?” It’s a good question, with an important subtext: “Come on. You seriously expect me to make my practice more efficient, billing fewer hours, without the direct approval of the partner who controls my career?” Here’s my reply:

My advice about efficiencies is primarily addressed to associates in your role as future law firm owners. Whether that’s as partners with this firm or in a different capacity (maybe running your own sole practice someday), you need to look for efficiencies and process improvements to begin reducing your own cost footprint, in order to maximize the profit derived from your revenue.

Now, if you’re running a business on a cost-plus pricing model (i.e., you multiply rate X hours, trying to maximize both in every situation, and bill the result), then efficiency is the enemy of revenue and therefore of profitability, and you should try to avoid it. This would be a sensible strategy if the year were 1993. But since it’s not, I don’t recommend it. By the time you become an experienced law firm owner (regardless of the firm), you’ll be confronted with a market that rejects cost-plus pricing for all but the most specialized, demanding, high-stakes work (and with all respect, the odds simply do not favour the idea that such work will constitute the bulk of your practice).

So I believe you should start, today, even as associates, thinking about and looking for ways in which you can reduce the cost-generating friction of inefficient work practices. If you can produce a flowchart or checklist that will allow you (and your colleagues) to carry out routine and repetitive matters more rapidly (and, by the way, likely at higher quality), you should do so. If you can identify free legal research resources (such as CanLII) rather than paying Lexis or Westlaw to look up cases, you should do so. If you can build and contribute to even a modest knowledge management database so that wheels don’t need to be reinvented every day, you should do so.  

Law Firm Publishing

Fundamentally, associates should develop the habit of asking themselves, before embarking on any measure to carry out a legal task: “What if this were my money being spent? Would I consider it wisely and justifiably spent? Would I be asking about alternatives?” Thinking like a client is an invaluable skill to develop, and the best way to start honing it is to think about the client, all the time.

Now, this all comes with a giant caveat, and that is: you’re not yet the owners of a law firm. You’re employees, and your bosses are the owners who decide how work is done at the law firm and how it’s priced. Associates can’t independently give themselves the authority to decide how the law firm’s work should be carried out. That’s the law firm’s call, not yours.

Nonetheless, I also believe that you owe it to your employers, to your clients, and to yourselves to investigate efficiencies and process improvements at ground level that could reduce costs and/or improve quality — and having investigated and identified such steps, to bring them to the attention either of your immediate reporting partner or the firm’s managing partner.

That’s a formidable challenge for any associate, especially in this environment. So in order to relieve you of the burden of deciding when and where to report — as well as the intimidation factor of potentially bringing efficiencies to the attention of a partner who has no interest in them — I think the managing partner should require you to identify such steps and bring them to his or her attention on a quarterly basis. This places the responsibility for potentially disruptive discussions with the MP, not with highly vulnerable associates.

The firm must also do two other things:

  1. Take into account the process improvements identified by associates in assessing their productivity and contribution to the firm’s value — if these improvements reduce their billable hours and therefore their compensation, that obviously would be a perverse result.
  2. Provide the associates with complete protection from any political consequences that might flow from introducing potentially disruptive changes to the firm’s workflow practices — ideally, in fact, associates should be directly rewarded for helping to bring about such enhancements.

The upside of adopting this practice is that you learn, as associates, to start identifying improvements in how you do your work, enhancing your own ability to someday be a profitable law firm owner, without potentially incurring the wrath of traditional partners, because the option to not look for and report such improvements has been taken out of your hands.

Everyone would benefit from this. The associates improve their productivity, build their confidence, increase their profitability, and become easier to retain. The firm, if it implements these innovations, can lower its prices in a tough marketplace while remaining profitable, make its prices more predictable in a market whose demands for fixed prices become louder every day, and differentiate itself from its competitors. Clients get lower prices, more predictable prices, or higher quality, and maybe even all three.

And all of this starts with one simple proposition: associates should be empowered to increase the efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity of the firm. In most of the firms I’ve seen, it’s the new lawyers who are most enthusiastic about working differently and better; older partners tend to be more concerned with holding on to what they’ve got with both hands. Which of these two groups has the firm’s best long-term interests in mind? Which should be encouraged to act and be supported when they do?

You bet I expect associates to assert themselves, and to seek and receive the firm’s support in doing so, when it comes to improving efficiency and effectiveness. Neither the associates nor the firm will have much of a future in this new legal market unless they do.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

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7 Responses to “Advice to associates about law firm efficiency”

  1. Craig Burley

    Jordan, I thought this was really good. In my own long career as a large-firm associate, I must admit I did great on some of these efficiency measures, and pretty terrible at others, and what I mostly found was that building capital in the firm came at the cost of my career, because it ended up being soft investments that didn’t drive my own bottom line and income stream. And that was my mistake–whether I would have “made it” anyway is hard to say, mind you.

    Even my efforts toward doing things like supporting my practice group’s marketing director (which no other lawyers did) didn’t help me. And part of that was that I failed to insist that they should. The lesson there was always to be your best advocate. Make people see that this sort of work matters.

    Once I left and went solo, I found that I already had a leg up in some of these factors but was, as I said, well behind in others. I’ve had to learn to find efficiencies and I think I’m doing better now (three years out) than ever before.

  2. Adam Ziegler

    Great post, which underscores the importance of having a sense of self-reliance as a junior lawyer. Always be focused longer-term on how the work you’re doing, the skills you’re developing and the knowledge you’re building are preparing you for a career beyond your current employer.

    Don’t be misled by the short-term focus of your current firm’s owners. Don’t wait around for approval or permission from on high to “be more efficient.” Just do it. Be unrelenting in your search for better, faster, cheaper ways to get your work done, and disregard those who think efficiency should not be as much a priority as quality, service and integrity.

  3. Jennifer Romig

    Helpful and important post — thank you. I agree with your premise that associates have a unique role to play in developing efficient practices. Ideally, efficiency and excellence will not only co-exist but actually complement each other.

    Your reference to checklists was particularly interesting to me. In coaching associates on legal writing, I encourage them to develop customized checklists. The customization reflects the substantive practice area, the practice group’s stylistic preferences, and the associate’s own individual needs. These checklists may actually add time to a project as the associate double-checks and revises, especially for new attorneys just breaking in their checklists. But checklists can also make the writing process more efficient (without sacrificing depth) by providing focus and constructive steps to completion.

    My articles about legal writing checklists can be found at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=349310 and http://thinklikealawyer.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/final-guest-post-on-using-checklists-in-project-management-for-lawyers-series/.

    Thanks again for the post.

  4. Will Harrelson

    This is a really well-written article.


    “associates should be empowered to increase the efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity of the firm. In most of the firms I’ve seen, it’s the new lawyers who are most enthusiastic about working differently and better; older partners tend to be more concerned with holding on to what they’ve got with both hands. Which of these two groups has the firm’s best long-term interests in mind? Which should be encouraged to act and be supported when they do?”

    This section defines my existence in a small-town firm. Often, the older partners in firms in our size of town do not even stop to think about how unprofitable it is to represent a local business on a $120 collection case or to charge for printing and mailing documents to opposing counsel when burning PDFs to DVDs and mailing them saves that much more time and money.

    Adam Z is right:

    “Don’t be misled by the short-term focus of your current firm’s owners. Don’t wait around for approval or permission from on high to “be more efficient.” Just do it. Be unrelenting in your search for better, faster, cheaper ways to get your work done, and disregard those who think efficiency should not be as much a priority as quality, service and integrity.”

    That’s exactly how associates should go about this. Unless it threatens your livelihood and could possibly alienate a client, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

  5. Noah Waisberg - DiligenceEngine

    Good post! Clients have a choice of which lawyers to hire. Many clients are cost conscious (especially a lot of the biggest legal spenders), and more efficient lawyers have an advantage winning their business.

    The good news for Biglaw associates is that (1) there’s a lot of inefficiently-done legal work and (2) they are especially well positioned to figure out where work processes can be improved. Most of the biggest opportunities lie in improving how high volume work gets done, and associates are often the ones who do this work.

    This post of mine has details on four factors that make many junior associate tasks especially appropriate for automation:

    http://blog.diligenceengine.com/2011/07/12/59827957/

  6. Gaston Bilder

    Great post and excellent comments.

    I share the view that other than in very specific circumstances it is best to do than to regret not having done. Associates are the ones that know best what can be improved, automated, etc. and should play a leading role in improving a practice even if nobody asks them or expects them to do so.

    I would add that these article is extensive to in-house roles, although the potential conflict of interest between partner and associate is more notable than the one that may happen inside a legal department between a manager and its reports.

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