Why should associates care about boosting efficiency?

Sep 10, 2014

by Michael Sauber

Listen up associates. It’s incumbent upon each and every one of you to look for ways to increase your efficiency and reduce the cost of your work, in order to make you and your firm more competitive and more profitable.

In a profession where cost-plus pricing has been the norm for the past fifty years, this probably sounds counterintuitive. Why work more efficiently if it means billing fewer hours to the client? Truth is, pricing models are changing, and fixed pricing is become increasingly common, driven largely by savvy clients who no longer view litigation as a mysterious process, but rather one driven by rules and processes. It’s a shift that’s been increasingly accepted by the profession. A 2013 survey by the legal consulting firm Altman Weil found that 80 percent of law firm leaders believe non-hourly billing will be a permanent change in the legal industry.

Where to Start

Now is the time to start stripping inefficiencies out of your work practices, before your clients and competitors make it unprofitable for you to conduct “business as usual”. Could you or your assistant be performing routine and repetitive tasks any faster? For a start, consider all of the documents you and your assistant produce, from court forms to client letters. If either of you are still copying and pasting then, aside from starting the document from scratch, you are using one of the most inefficient and error-prone methods around. (For more on this topic, and alternative approaches, see Drafting Legal Documents – Why Traditional Methods Fail).

The Partner’s Role

If you find this line of reasoning sensible, you are probably thinking “this sounds great, but how do I, as an associate, drive changes in the business model without the buy-in of the firm’s partners”? The simple answer is “you don’t.” Jordan Furlong, has written an excellent article about this very topic, and suggests that the onus should be on the managing partner to insist that associates bring suggestions for increasing efficiencies to the attention of the firm. He goes on to suggest two other conditions to make it “safe” for the associate to shake up the status quo:

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.

Ready to get started?

If the partners in your firm aren’t already looking for ways to adapt to the realities of today’s market, now is the time for you to point out the opportunities and pitfalls they may be missing. In doing so, you can act as the catalyst for improvements that will help advance your career, make your firm more profitable in a competitive market, and build better relationships with your clients through more attractive and predictable pricing.
Michael Sauber Head Shot - smallAbout Michael Sauber
Michael Sauber leads the marketing program for Korbitec, producer of Automated Civil Litigation Software (ACL). He has worked with document production technologies and professional services for over 30 years and is a frequent blogger on these topics.