Putting associates in their place

Two major City firms, two new Belfast offices, two extraordinary taxpayer handouts to City firms. Last year Herbert Smith revealed to a largely approving market that it was setting up a document review centre in Northern Ireland (TheLawyer.com, 24 November).

 In contrast, Allen & Overy’s (A&O) ­announcement last week (TheLawyer.com, 2 February) that it was moving 180 support roles to Northern Ireland, and that this was nothing to do with cost-cutting, was a rare misstep, garnering the level of scepticism from TheLawyer.com readers previously reserved for Camerons’ deal with ­Integreon (and some justified outrage about a regional development agency subsidising a wealthy City firm). Oddly, the detail that A&O will create around 50 fee-earning roles seems almost tacked on; if A&O is building up a unit to handle
commoditised transactional or e-disclosure work referred from London, it’s being remarkably coy about it.

And yet it’s the unbundling of legal work where the really interesting thinking is taking place. This is what Herbert Smith is trialling with its Belfast office and it’s also what Addleshaw Goddard is doing in Manchester, to the greatest degree yet seen in the UK legal market. It requires a forensic examination of process that should eventually seep into everything the firm does, not least the tasks given to associates.

Addleshaws’ analysis of what clients will not ­tolerate being charged for is not monolithic – different clients will have different views – but taking the routine work out of ­associates’ days ­theoretically has the dual ­advantage of reducing the final bill and ­allowing associates to engage more with business-building, which if it materialises, is an undoubted HR win. There is the potential for ­paralegals without training ­contracts – and there are hundreds scattered around the City – to have a role that is slightly more protected from erratic workflows in a ­particular group.

Addleshaws can’t single-handedly take the drudgery out of being an associate, but you can bet it’s a darned sight easier to spin that line than for A&O to say it’s not all about costs. And
not a penny in state handouts either.
catrin.griffiths@thelawyer.com; www.twitter.com/lawyercatrin