How to Make Profitable Use of Associates

by Joel A. Rose

To evaluate its policies and procedures for associate recruiting, career development and profitability, a firm must take stock of its current recruiting and associate career development program, assess its future needs and set in motion a unified plan that involves all components of the organization.

For all intents and purposes, the actual planning for the profitable use of an associate begins before the associate is even hired. Appropriate recruiting and career development systems should be set in place before the associate steps through the firm’s door.

A Hypothetical:
To illustrate the point, let’s take the case of a hypothetical mid-size law firm that is in a dilemma over its current staffing requirements. The associate recruiting and career development functions are performed by a committee of partners with the assistance of the firm’s office manager. Since the firm’s practice consists of transactional activities rather than ongoing retainer work, the partners are uncertain of the volume of future work and apprehensive about institutionalizing a formal associate-recruiting program.

The partners have varied opinions concerning the objectives for employing associates. As a general rule, associates are employed to support individual partners and perform the less profitable work or the kind of work that partners simply don’t want to do.

A few partners believe the firm should recruit recent law school graduates or lateral hires with some general experience. They feel these generalists should be available to work with all of the partners as required.

Other partners think that newly hired associates should be assigned specific functions and also be available to assist other partners when necessary. Certain partners feel that newly employed associates should have at least one to two years experience in designated practice areas.

Most of the partners acknowledge that the firm’s associate-recruiting process needs to be improved. The interviews are poorly handled. The “right” questions are not being asked, and some partners pay more attention to the candidate’s personality and ability to relate to the interviewer rather than the ability to perform the work.

All of the partners would readily agree that the firm reacts to, rather than anticipates, the need for additional associates and, ultimately, recruits out of sheer desperation.

While all of the partners agree that the firm should develop a formal associate training program, few of the partners are willing to devote their time to this activity. This aspect of the issue recently surfaced in the form of difficulties certain associates have had with clients. The firm’s inability to train associates adequately in the area of client relations is beginning to hit home.
In addition, there are other factors that feed the central problem. There are no controls over associate workload. None of the partners know the volume of work to be performed or the associate’s availability at any given time.

There is also a marked lack of productivity and commitment by the associates. Typically, most of the partners arrive earlier, and leave later, than almost all of the associates. The partners are also concerned that most of the associates seem unable or unwilling to commit themselves to achieving the budgeted annual billable hours.

Several institutional factors also contribute to the problem. The salaries paid to associates are lower than the salaries being offered by larger firms and are, in fact, below the current market level being offered by firms of comparable size and type.

The associate evaluation process does not appear to carry much weight. Despite the performance evaluation, there is no meaningful differential between the overachiever and the average associate. At the end of last year, all of the newer associates received the same salary increase and bonus. Also, the results of the partners’ evaluations were not conveyed to the associates, thereby eliminating an important and useful tool that could be used by the firm to train and guide its younger members.

Communications between partners and associates leave much to be desired. With the exception of discussions about new case assignments, information about the firm is, usually, passed on to the associates informally by individual partners on a personal level. The absence of systematic communications to associates about what is occurring at the firm during regularly scheduled associate meetings leaves some to question why certain associates know more about what is happening at the firm than others. Consequently, the quality and quantity of information is varied and idiosyncratic.

In attempting to come to terms with the above issues, several partners believe that the firm’s partner compensation system may be a major factor contributing to the firm’s problems concerning associate productivity. The system precludes partner from delegating the more profitable work to associates since the plan is heavily weighted toward partners’ production and profitability. Essentially, the partners have no incentive to assign the better quality and more profitable work to associates. If they were to do so, they would reduce their own production credit and compensation.

Finally, the firm’s overall style and culture also contribute to the problems with associates. While one partner has been designated to oversee the associates’ career development program generally, there remains a marked lack of supervision over the associate staff. This absence is attributed to the prevailing notion that partners should perform their work independently and assign work to associates, as desired, without being accountable to any other partner about the utilization of associates.

The firm is caught between its anxieties about the future and lack of adequate planning. The issues described are classic examples of the problems encountered by a growth-oriented firm with a transactional practice.

This firm, clearly, needs to develop and implement a game plan that identifies its objectives, say, over the next one to two years, in order to determine the type and specialty area of work that requires additional staff.

How to Deal with the Issues:
At the beginning of their careers with a law firm, associates’ needs are fairly straightforward. They need direction and supervision in performing client work and understanding the partners’ expectations.

Although independence is highly prized, an experienced partner who can be relied on for guidance is of equal value. The associates need to be included in the chain of information about the firm’s plans and procedures, particularly the aspects that affect their work. The need feedback on their performance. They need to know how they rate and if they fit in the firm’s future plans. Ultimately, it is their future and the firm’s that are at stake.

This firm must regroup and redesign its associate program. It must implement a plan for monitoring the progress and performance of associates and evaluate the results in light of firm-wide objectives.

Designate a Partner to Coordinate Professional Personnel Functions:
The professional personnel functions should be performed and coordinated by a designated partner (or committee of partners). This individual(s) should be accountable to the partners for coordinating a program of associate recruiting, career development and communication. The program must be conducted and implemented on a firm-wide basis.

All ad hoc recruiting activities must cease. The professional personnel partner(s) should be responsible for providing information to associates on firm matters relating to development and career opportunities and for administering associate evaluations.

Associate Meetings:
The firm should ensure that its associates are adequately informed by instituting quarterly associate meetings to cover the basic aspects of client matters, events affecting the firm and the associates’ career development program.

Other meeting topics should include administrative matters, workload, assignments and training programs, future plans, logistics of handling various types of cases, billing and collections, firm policy, public relations and marketing opportunities, unusual situations, professional responsibilities and ethics and general developments in the profession.

The meetings should last about one hour, with individual partners or associates assigned to present one or two of the topics to be covered at the meeting. These meetings should be on set dates and at specific times and scheduled sufficiently in advance to enable the associates and designated partners to attend.

Work for Multiple Partners:
From the beginning, each associate should understand that it is in his/her best interest to work for other partners, even though he or she may be assigned to a specific partner. The more versatile the associate, the greater the opportunity for advancement to partner status, particularly in a boutique-type practice.

The partners should view their role of mentor as a means of establishing the firm’s future. The responsible partner should be aware of the associate’s complete workload, coordinate all work assigned to the associates, review the associate’s performance and ensure that the associate is assigned fork by other partners.

This is a critical point. Partners must be encouraged to see the importance of easing the emphasis on individual production and increasing their efforts toward building the firm.

The associates must be adequately trained to relieve the partners in performing the more meaningful and profitable work. The firm’s partner-production syndrome destroys any incentive for assigning work to associates. The compensation plan must be adjusted to encourage partners to spend more time on activities that help mold the firm.

An effective approach for managing associates is to set up a system whereby associates work closely with several partners and, at the same time, are under the control of a single partner. In this system, the assigned partner should meet with the associates one or two days a week, as required, to review workload, problems and potential conflicts. Each client matter should have a recommended due date, and the partner should make sure the associate has a thorough understanding of the issues involved.

The system involves setting up a uniform method for controlling the work assigned to each associate. This requires each associate to submit a written report of his or her general workload and availability on a weekly basis. The associate should account for the next 14 workdays by estimating availability, and the number of billable hours to be recorded, for the following two week intervals.

Such a report may be e-mailed to the responsible partner and to the partner(s) coordinating the associates. This will enable the partners to have a summary of their associates’ current and projected workloads. In addition, the coordinating partner will be able to assess the availability and productivity of the associates.

The information should be compiled and reviewed to determine how well the associates are doing in producing their targeted number of billable hours. All write-offs and write-downs of associates’ time should also be analyzed by the coordinating attorney on a monthly basis to determine the reasons for such action.

If any associate falls short of the estimated hours, the responsible partner and coordinating attorney should discuss the matter with the individual on an informal basis. Thus, if a partner is writing off too much time, or an associate is not recording enough hours, the firm will be able to remedy the situation at an early and critical stage.

The information provided in these reports, and the professional personnel partner’s experience in working closely with associates, will enable the latter partner to make recommendations on the associate’s salary progression. The partners should all review the associate’s monthly billable hours and conduct whatever discussions are necessary to encourage additional effort.

Formal Evaluations:
However, these monthly reviews should not take the place of formal evaluations. A formal associate evaluation should be conducted at six-month intervals for the first 18 months an associate is employed by the firm and annually thereafter until the associate becomes a member of the firm. The designated partner(s) should coordinate the overall evaluation process.

The partners should plan to conduct a formal, one-on-one evaluation with all associates, using a written evaluation form as the basis for these meetings.

Each partner for whom the associate has worked should complete the form. The weight accorded each partner’s evaluation depends upon the amount and significance of the work performed for that individual. The completed reports should be compiled and returned to the coordinating partner for review by all partners.

After these discussions, meetings should be scheduled with the associate, coordinating partner and evaluating partner to discuss performance, progress and salary increase or bonus.

Many firms have introduced an interesting wrinkle to this process by having each associate complete a self-evaluation that is also passed along to the partners. This allows partners to learn how associates perceive themselves.

During the formal evaluation process, each associate gets an opportunity to compare his/her self-evaluation with the partners’ assessment. Although the results of both evaluations are usually similar, the opportunity for the associate to compare any differences makes the experience worthwhile.

This is an important tool in the management of associates. If the firm neglects to use the information that is readily available through this procedure, it is undermining its own potential profitability. This is the point at which to begin to build incentives into the system to encourage exemplary performance. This is the occasion for reward to remedy, as the evaluation results warrant. The point of the monitoring process is to arm the firm with tools that will enable it to formulate plans to meet its staffing requirements.

The firm must come to terms with its apprehension and standardize its recruiting policies. One method is to review the status of all of the current clients on a lawyer-by-lawyer basis to determine the work that is not being done or the matters that should have more lawyer attention.

The partners should also identify client activities that could potentially be assigned to experienced associates. If a new associate is occupied with billable and collectible client work for three-quarters of his/her time, then the firm can afford that associate.

Once the partners have this information in hand together with the reports of the activities being performed by the present associate complement, they can begin to formulate long-range plans.

The point to be made here is that the partners must be willing to make an investment in the future by becoming more involved in the associate’s early experience at the firm. By monitoring each associate’s progress, under the auspices of the coordinating partner and the individual partner-mentors, the firm can build toward its successful future.

©1999-2017 Joel A. Rose & Associates