While looking at staff utilization with a large law firm, the issue that keeps cropping up in discussions with junior and mid-level ranks is quality of life, and how the current model can undermines it. Associates' working hours are very volatile, often consisting of several 16+ hour days, followed by some days of very low hours. Juniors talk about not being able to have a life, but partners are asking us, "What's the big deal? it's always been this way, and it doesn't matter."

Well, we're also hearing that the legal marketplace is getting more competitive than ever, and that along with price, a firm's reputation is becoming a deciding factor in many client decisions. Quality of life obviously affects a firm's reputation among potential recruits,but how does it affect reputation among potential clients?

We were thinking about this, and sketched out the following causal loop diagram:

What this says is essentially that poor quality of life drives away staff members, which makes life more difficult for those who stay, hurting quality of work and thus reputation.

The diagram has two loops, because the story is in two parts.

The top loop says that a strong reputation attracts more work (matters are projects in the legal world), increasing the team's workload. More work for the same number of people means less time can be spent on a project, hurting quality, and ultimately reputation. So it's what we call a "balancing loop", where success is limited by the the structure of the system, in this case by the the decline in quality if productivity goes up (?)

The bottom loop says that increased workload (from the increase in matters resulting from high quality) increases staff attrition (after a delay, indicated by the ||), because some people just get fed up. Fewer people for the same amount increases work intensity even more, accelerating both the further loss of staff, and the reduction in work quality and thus reputation.

So when you join these two loops together, the link between quality of life for associates and the firm's reputation among clients becomes explicit, and ultimately affects the firm's ability to attract and deliver work.

So what practical advice does this suggest? Two recommendations spring out at us. First, try to weaken the influence of work intensity on attrition, by allocating work among associates in a way that does not impair their quality of life, at least for extended periods of time. This is what StaffingMatters tries to accomplish, by creating more transparency in the staffing process. Second, be careful about accepting too much work, even if the firm's increasing reputation creates more demand for your services.

We would suggest creating a metric that corresponds to "work intensity" on the diagrams, then measuring and monitoring this on a continual basis. Increasing reputation could then help drive an increase in fees, rather than just accepting more work to the point where it hammers your attrition level.

Comments, anyone?

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