Want to Boost Talent Development? Look at Work Allocation

To successfully recruit and retain top talent, attorneys need to know they’ll have a fair chance at getting staffed on the matters that interest them and will allow them to grow and develop — that they’ll have a real opportunity to advance their careers. Coordinated work allocation programs, executed well, are a system of checks and balances that can deliver just that.

I’ve been on every side of the table for this topic: an attorney looking for work at a large law firm, a litigation director in charge of work allocation, and a consultant on professional growth, outplacement, and talent development. Over the last 25 years, I’ve seen “free market” staffing keep gifted attorneys from getting traction at large law firms, and I frequently hear from my clients about its implications for diversity, equity and inclusion (“DE&I”). 

In my view, a work allocation program is critical for any large law firm or practice group with incoming junior attorneys. That’s not to say that hallway staffing, or free market staffing, doesn’t have its place — but it comes with downsides that can be rectified by having in place a system for allocating work in a way that supports everyone.

The free market system: a classic approach with big downsides

The free market, also known as hallway staffing, rewards people who are persistent and entrepreneurial. Want to do sports law? Go hang around outside the sports law partner’s office and talk yourself onto a case. Once your good work is evident, you’ll get staffed again. Over time, your network will expand, and so will your expertise. 

The free market system works perfectly for some people. Bold, extroverted, outgoing and/or more experienced attorneys can get the kind of work they want, in some cases almost exclusively. Partners also get to choose the attorneys they like and work with a familiar group over and over.

The drawbacks, however, can be significant:

  • Some people never get a chance to do the work they seek. Newer and more junior attorneys, for instance, may struggle to get work because they haven’t built relationships, rapport or goodwill yet. Shyer, more introverted people who hesitate to put themselves forward don’t get staffed. Diverse attorneys may also be less likely to get staffed, either because they are more reticent to ask for work or because implicit bias creates barriers between them and partners.
  • Partners tend to stick with what they know. Confronted with punishing workloads, partners often staff attorneys who are known quantities. Thus, many associates work with few partners, creating limited professional networks and getting little exposure to different work styles. Associates who have an “in” with one practice group or partner don’t get exposure to other partners or areas of law. It’s also more difficult for newer associates to get staffed because partners already have a preferred team in place.  
  • It’s harder to recover from mistakes. When an attorney makes a mistake on a partner’s matter — even one that was isolated, minor or fixable — the partner may be unwilling to take a chance on that person again. That can make performance issues more difficult to assess and resolve.
  • There are fewer opportunities to “spread the wealth.” In free market systems, the distribution of work tends to be uneven because of the factors above. And because attorneys know they may not have another chance with any given partner, even those who are overloaded hesitate to turn down new assignments. Meanwhile, some promising attorneys go underutilized.

Work allocation systems: centralization that can solve some problems

Work allocation programs aim to address the problems of free market staffing with coordination and oversight. When I was a work allocation coordinator, all new teams were staffed through my office. It was my job to see the whole picture of staffing, including:

  • who was working on what
  • what practice areas each attorney wanted to try out
  • what skills each attorney needed to develop
  • what each partner’s preferences were

Partners would come to me with a staffing need, and I would match them with an attorney who had space for new work. As much as possible, I put attorneys on the matters that interested them and that would help them reach their professional aspirations. There were also tasks that no one particularly liked, and I made sure that no one got stuck with them all the time. 

Well-designed work allocation systems have many advantages:

  • More diverse teams. With a bird’s eye view of the department’s workload, coordinators can create teams with more variety, not just race and gender, but personalities and skills. They can also spot and stop bias before it affects attorneys’ careers.
  • More professional development. When every person gets a chance at a variety of matters, attorneys can grow their skills and make a good impression. They tend to build relationships with more partners and learn more about practicing law.
  • More equity in work distribution. It’s impossible for individual partners to track the workload of every attorney in a department. A work coordinator, however, can make sure that everyone has a reasonable load and that some people aren’t consistently twiddling their thumbs while others constantly pull all-nighters.
  • More freedom to say no. Having a work coordinator as a buffer helps attorneys feel more comfortable turning work down when they are overloaded; they know another opportunity will come and have less fear that they’ll undermine their relationships with partners.
  • More opportunities to recover. Work allocation programs can protect attorneys who have bad experiences with a partner. A work coordinator who has seen the attorney’s skills grow over time can advocate for that individual and help them get staffed on other partners’ matters. Coordinators can also identify ongoing performance issues so they can be remediated, when possible.

Of course, work allocation systems have their own problems. The most common concern I hear is that outgoing attorneys who would thrive in a free market system can’t just go get the work they want. When everyone is in the mix, not every assignment will be an attorney’s top choice — although sometimes people are surprised at what they like. 

But even with those disadvantages, I believe that it’s better to have someone watching the shop. There’s still room for hallway staffing to take place alongside an allocation system; partners can collaborate with work coordinators to staff specific attorneys on matters, relying on the coordinator to make sure the entire staffing system remains balanced.

Work allocation program best practices

Even with all their advantages, a work allocation program isn’t the right choice for every firm or practice group. What’s more, poorly implemented or under-resourced programs can do more harm than good when it comes to recruitment and retention. When you’re looking at your approach to work allocation, keep the following best practices in mind:

1. Decide if you even need a program

Work allocation programs are most effective in large law firms where newer attorneys are joining large practice groups or rotating among practice groups. There’s no need for formal programs in most small or midsize firms. Even at large law firms, more senior attorneys who have already developed relationships are less likely to benefit, so some leeway within the program is in order.

2. Resource the program with a dedicated coordinator

Choose a coordinator who is not currently practicing. Work allocation is a time-consuming job on its own. And if the coordinator is a partner, attorneys will likely find it almost impossible to push back — negating one of the major advantages of the model. Some large firms find that more than one work coordinator is needed. 

3. Meet with associates on a regular schedule

I recommend that a work coordinator meet with newer attorneys at least once a month to track their progress. In my role, I would also have attorneys fill out a form every month so I could spot problems and identify opportunities. An open door policy also helps; sometimes issues arise quickly and need immediate attention.

4. Ask the right questions of everyone involved

Effective work coordinators have a window into everything involved in allocation: the attorneys’ interests, their capacity to take on new work, where they need to develop professionally, what partners/departments need to be successful, and potentially other issues specific to the firm. If an attorney wants to turn down an assignment, the coordinator can assess whether that “no” is reasonable and, if so, advocate for the attorney’s needs. Regular communication with partners and practice group leaders is as important as ongoing contact with attorneys.

5. Consider a hybrid approach

If I were crafting the perfect work allocation system, I would blend free market and centralized coordination. Attorneys and partners could find one another in the hall if they chose, but all staffing decisions would be approved through a clearinghouse to make sure the attorney had availability and no other staffing concerns were being overlooked. If not, the work coordinator could negotiate with the partner about another choice. 

One caution: What isn’t sustainable, in my experience, is a blended system where there is no clearinghouse. In those systems, partners often do most of the staffing in the hallway, leaving no work available for attorneys who approach the work allocation program. 

Work allocation: a fair shot for everyone

Good work allocation programs appeal to top talent because they give everyone a chance to perform at the highest level. Whether you choose a centralized work allocation system, a hybrid approach that balances the free market with coordination, or some other approach, make sure you create a transparent system with the resources to deliver on its promise. If you can consistently allocate work equitably, you’ll set yourself up for success with recruiting and retention, and ensure everyone’s talents are used to their fullest.