Published in The Brief of The Times
The blind allocation of work scheme recently piloted by prominent large City of London law firms has garnered much attention, but it is seriously flawed.
The process removes from partners the task of doling out work to associates. Instead that becomes the responsibility of an outside consultant or specially recruited resource planning manager. Under the scheme, allocation is based only on the type of work associates have done in the past, capacity to take on new work and perceived skills.
A key aim of blind allocation is to encourage diversity. Most partners in law firms are said to be pale, male and stale – in other words, white men of a certain age – and therefore allegedly allocate files on the basis of a preference for working alongside and promoting people like themselves. The hope is that blind allocation will address gender, race and age inequality by eliminating decisions influenced by conscious or unconscious bias.
There are significant problems with this approach. Factors determining whether associates are happy at work include opportunities for personal development within a stable team, strong personal relationships with the partners with whom they work coupled with trust that appropriate mentoring and supervision will be forthcoming, the creation of close business relationships with specific clients, and, a crucial element, the ability to specialise.
Blind allocation throws all of that to the winds. It is human nature to seek close personal affiliations; removing that from the work allocation equation will make associates feel that they are simply cogs in a giant wheel.
Clients want continuity in the legal team carrying out their work. They need lawyers who understand the dynamics within the client’s team and how their business works. Certain types of knowledge and experience can come only from working with clients over time. Clients dislike a rotating conveyer belt of associates working on their deals and having to start from scratch with each new associate. The larger the firm, the greater the desire of clients for continuity with particular partners and associates. The blind allocation model disregards this.
Historically, partners in law firms allocate work on the basis of a deep understanding of both client needs and the specific strengths of individual associates. Allocating a time-sensitive matter for a particularly demanding client to an associate working three days each week is asking for trouble.
Moreover, blind allocation does not promote diversity – in fact, it might be counterproductive. The vast majority of partners in law firms already recognise the importance of an equal opportunities culture independent of age, race or gender considerations; seniority is on the basis of ability.
It makes good commercial sense for law firms to value diversity and for partners to think carefully about how each job should be resourced. Work allocation by outsiders with their own agenda is not the best way forward.
Ronnie Fox is the founder of Fox, a specialist employment, partnership and discrimination law firm in the City of London