By the end of next year, the majority of the top 50 UK firms will have signed up to a process designed to make work allocation to associates fairer.

So says resource manager Dave Cook who has been hired by PwC, Clifford Chance, Ashurst and CMS Cameron McKenna to sort out the way partners distribute work among their junior staff over the last few years.

Meeting work allocation laptop ipad

Of course Cook would say that – his consultancy Mason & Cook has successfully cornered the market for going into law firms and stripping out all the favouritism, subconscious bias and inequality from their allocation systems, and he’s in talks with a number of other firms about making similar changes.

Clifford Chance led the law firm pack in bringing Cook in to overhaul how work is allocated in 2012, followed by Ashurst and CMS Cameron McKenna earlier this year.

Hogan Lovells also trialled the system this year but decided against committing whole hog, while Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer implemented its own resource management system when it opened its legal services hub in Manchester last year to make sure work was properly divided between associates and paralegals.

Sources in the market say Addleshaw Goddard has had its own version of “blind allocation” for a number of years, while Linklaters is also understood to have introduced a computerised system by which associates alert partners of their capacity to take on more work.

“The idea that everyone has a fair opportunity so only the best people get the good work just isn’t correct”

Levelling the playing field

The appetite is there, but whether or not Cook’s prediction proves correct, the need to level the playing field when it comes to doling out mandates has tapped into the zeitgeist of working in a law firm in 2016.

“I have felt and I know a lot of other associates have felt like they haven’t been given a fair shot at work,” one corporate associate tells The Lawyer, whose firm hasn’t yet moved to a process-led allocation system.

“Partners are in a rush and they tend to go back to the people they’ve worked with before again and again. The system favours certain associates and negatively impacts others.”

Another adds: “The idea that everyone naturally just has a fair opportunity so only the best people get the good work and promotions just isn’t correct.

“A system that forces partners to spread the work around more evenly would be better.”

It’s clear to see why law firm bosses would be keen to overhaul their allocation systems. “Not getting access to the right volume or quality of work is one of the biggest reasons I hear of associates wanting to leave a firm,” says a recruiter specialising in associate placements.

“It always seems to be one extreme or another – people are complaining that they’re getting not enough work or far too much.”

UK firms are boosting NQ salaries ever closer to £100,000 in order to even come close to competing with US firms, and they’re having to strip away bonuses for junior associates to do it. Allen & Overy, Linklaters and Freshfields all rolled base pay and bonuses into one compensation package this year to lessen the gulf between their pay levels and those of their US rivals.

Associates are now being included in agile and flexible working pilots at a number of City firms, and The Lawyer has even heard of one firm putting associates on its partnership committee to give its junior lawyers a say in who gets made partner.

An easy win

All that considered, making allocation of work more democratic seems to be another easy way to keep associates happy. As Cook puts it: “It’s part of the new way of working. Law firms need to have a more flexible and engaged workforce while also boosting efficiency. It’s a win/win.”

In theory, that’s certainly the case. It’s hard to find fault with the idea of making allocation of work more fair so no-one is either sitting around with nothing to do or working themselves into the ground.

A shift to the new system has also been linked to increasing diversity at partner level by the 30 per cent club, which campaigns for gender equality at work.

But how does it work in practice?

“It’s true that allocating work to associates is a bit of an art,” says one lawyer. “Without having a central person running resource management, the associates who are good get fought over and overworked and the ones who are good but are less confident get overlooked.”

Cook’s method involves him working from a law firm’s office – usually in the corporate department – for three months or more during the transition period. He “spends a lot of time meeting partners and talking to associates”, he says, then uses his credentials as an impartial observer to set up a neutral system for allocating work, which differs from firm to firm.

He is trying to move the conversation away from the idea the system promotes “blind allocation”, claiming it’s much more nuanced than simply dishing out work to whoever is available and willing.

But indeed the “blindness” element is crucial to some of the pioneers of the new method. Ashurst corporate co-head Simon Beddow told The Lawyer earlier this year he was holding the pilot “to achieve complete blindness on who gets what work and to ensure people get an equal share of the work”.

Despite Beddow’s comments, partners are precious about their relationships with “their” associates, and Cook echoes that: “We don’t want to break any relationships between partners and associates, just create new ones too,” he says.

“I hear of a lot of partners sucking their teeth about ‘back in their day’ when you worked hard to get into a partners’ good books and then reaped the benefits”

‘Back in my day’

But the market is cynical. A number of recruiters say the changes have led to some tensions from more traditional partners who see forging relationships with partners as an integral part of rising up through the ranks.

“There’s always going to be partners who think the whole thing is a load of rubbish,” says one senior lawyer, who has carried the torch of equal allocation at his firm. “But we’re getting to the stage where associates of the future will demand this as the norm, and you can’t ignore that.”

Culturally, a move to centralise allocation signals a shift in the working life of a top or mid-tier associate.

“It’s a challenge for some firms because competition among associates is a cultural point,” says one recruiter, “there’s definitely a generational split, I hear of a lot of partners sucking their teeth about ‘back in their day’ when you worked hard to get into a partners’ good books and then reaped the benefits.

“I think it annoys the old school partners a lot. They’re used to the way things are and then suddenly they think, hang on, why is my team being run like an investment bank?”

“In the mid-00s coming home from work at 3am was a bit of a badge of honour for an associate,” adds another recruiter. “The fair allocation trend is the most millennial thing ever. Firms can advertise to associates saying if you join us you won’t be overworked because we have this work allocation manager. But here’s the secret – you will still be overworked,” the recruiter continues.

There is also a suggestion bringing in a resource manager could shine a light on serious flaws in accuracy of billing at associate level.

“Centralising allocation means there’s nowhere to hide when it comes to billing your hours,” says a lawyer. “Struggling associates might take five hours to do some work but bill it as two. They’re under pressure from partners not to put too much time on the clock as on the bill for the work the client isn’t going to want to pay for the associate’s personal development.

“The management consultancy option neutralises that.”

Indeed the proof is in the pudding. Clifford Chance has been successfully running resource management in its corporate and capital markets teams for years without any difficulties – though it admits rolling it out to groups such as litigation would be a significant stretch. And the number of firms buying into the new way of working keeps increasing.

Law firms are slowly waking up to the importance of diversity and work/life balance, and associates want a piece of the action. Managers take note: the work your associates do now will shape how your firm will look in 10 years’ time. Keep them happy.