Professional services firms are continuously on a boom and bust cycle – at times, it feels like there are staffing shortages and not enough people to staff the work. At other times, like today’s market, law practices are experiencing both attorney and business professional surpluses, with more team members than they can allocate work effectively. Investments in technology compound this problem; as we move towards a more digitized legal service environment, firms are starting to rethink their people deployment approaches.
Simultaneously, attorneys have shifted their work expectations in the wake of the pandemic. Working from home has blurred the lines between work and personal life, where it can be less clear where attorneys are spending their time and if they have enough work on their plate to remain engaged. As a result, legal professionals may be facing reduced work satisfaction and decreased engagement with the firm, leaning into the “quiet quitting” trend, or at least redefining the proportion of their lives they are willing to give to the profession.
While the problem is evident, the solution is proving evasive. Firms started to lay off more people but will inevitably re-hire as the boom cycle returns. They have tried to supplement staff through technology and outsourcing. They have tried to improve the employee experience by investing in more dynamic work-from-home or hybrid work solutions. However, these attempts have often focused on isolated solutions, overlooking the fact that addressing staffing surplus requires a comprehensive, multi-dimensional approach.
The benefits? Leveraging technology and a multi-dimensional assessment of skills allows firms to:
Consistently capture skill and experience enhancements at the individual level
Dynamically deploy the evolving experience-skillset-interest mix across a firm to the right work at the right time
More effectively serve clients and build longer, more profitable relationships
Raise productivity to soften the “boom and bust” talent hiring and right-sizing swings
Imagine a world where staffing decisions are not solely driven by client demands, but rather, by a dynamic interplay between demand and supply from talent among the firm. Too often, staffing tends to happen via a highly inexact process – basically, team members are placed on a project because of who they know, rather than what they know or want to do.
Instead of relying on arbitrary team assignments, what if legal professionals had the ability to assess their own skills, experiences, and interests, as well as those of their colleagues, through a digital platform? Such a system would enable a multidimensional staffing solution, empowering lawyers and business professionals to chart their own career paths while ensuring that the firm can match qualified team members with suitable matter opportunities, as well as non-billable opportunities to develop their skill sets. With the advent of remote work and telecommuting, geographical barriers are no longer a hindrance to accessing the best talent or specialized resources for specific projects. A digital staffing solution can cast a wide or targeted net to find the most suitable legal professionals, regardless of their location. If you believe that most top 100 firms can achieve this with their current processes, technology, and operating structures, you will likely be disappointed. Talent experience and matching systems, while available and a competitive market, often miss components of staffing that can be critical to success, such as the legal requirements of the matter, the personal and professional diversity of the team, and the team structures that lead to the best outcomes for the client.
Despite that, we can focus on directional guidance and still unlock massive insights into how talent and teams can be more effective for your firm.
Skills and work-matching solutions can be put into place when you bring data and information on talent supply, work demand, and requirements for successful matching.
Identifying your attorneys' and legal professionals’ skills, experiences, preferences, availability, and performance provides a holistic profile of their capabilities and potential contributions to different client projects. Most firms fall into a trap with this data, relying on their practitioners to manually input it or relying on internal functions to translate CVs, resumes, publications, and other documents into categorical variables. What if you skipped this step, and instead utilized information that you already have within your systems?
Many firms can utilize information about clients, industries, and project types to have directional data on the skills, experiences, and capabilities that team members have through their client-billable work. To get started, perform a simple analysis on how many of your attorneys and legal professionals have spent at least 20% (or 40% or 60%) of their billable hours in a single industry. Could these team members potentially offer more expertise compared to a generalist resource for potential matters? Does this make you reconsider what constitutes ‘expertise’?
Types of work, clients, engagement sizes, internal team sizes and configurations, and more can give you a sense of not only the capabilities each member of the team possesses but also the environments in which they thrive.
All firms have different practices and matter types that are fundamentally different from each other; but not all firms articulate the similarities and differences between the work performed in one vs. another, and often do not take advantage of common work steps and skills. For example, could there be shared knowledge necessary to perform certain work steps on a labor dispute matter as an employee pension plan matter?
As with supply, start by analyzing existing data on matter work tasks or pro-forma project budgets. Seek to identify similar matter execution pathways that can cluster similar types of work together in ways that maybe are non-traditional across industry or practice group lines. If your data isn’t robust enough to provide interesting insights, start with a pilot within an industry group or practice area to help team members code their time differently to get more effective data.
When the talent and demand data can be matched, data analysis and modeling can be used to unlock key insights that reveal the source of three common challenges among accounting firms today.
Promotions in Year Only. Across the industry, the 5th year associate mark is a huge milestone. Many partners will look to the 5th-year associate to manage much of the matters. Often times, this can lead to 5th years feeling over capacity and overly relied on for billable client work at the expense of developing management skills, creating high turnover and a lack of a robust future-partner pipeline. This is often because firms keep associates around based on their ability to complete the technical legal work independently, rather than necessarily managing matters and client relationships well.
When they start to manage the work, they continue to do these same work tasks, rather than transition the work to other associates. In a more hybrid and virtual workspace, this will continue to happen without clear career transition events and expectation setting.
A matching analysis between staffing and demand will help identify where 5th years are being overly indexed on the preparation tasks, rather than on reviewing tasks.
Inability to Identify Fungible Talent. During the boom-and-bust cycle, we know that some practices turn away client demand due to a lack of capacity, while other practices have excess capacity. Perhaps these same people have similar skill sets and experiences that could have applied to the client challenge. This talent mismatch becomes a significant business limitation, likely leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table for large firms.
The matching analysis we suggest will help identify where excess capacity could be deployed for similar types of work, helping to buoy utilization, provide valuable learning experiences and perhaps even drive higher employee work satisfaction.
Over or Under Delivering for the Client. While all clients want best-in-class service, attorneys only have so many hours in the day and must be judicious with their client service model to deliver the optimal service for the situation. Most firms would argue that industry expertise is critical for the client experience, but this type of expertise may only be critical on certain types of work or clients – other projects and clients will be expertly delivered with more generalist resources.
A matching analysis of clients and staffing configurations will help reveal what’s most important for different types of clients and the work being performed. Do clients truly value higher levels of expertise on more routinized requests? Or does it actually over time make them skeptical of how efficiently you are delivering to their needs and in the process, keep your most experienced talent from solving higher order problems for them?
What would it mean if you were able to staff projects in this way?
Increased productivity and utilization. When firms translate the work they do into codified data, they unlock significant potential for improving the way they work. Picture baking a cake: regardless of the ingredients, there is a common sequence that you use (preheat the oven, stir dry ingredients, combine butter and sugar, etc.). If firms can codify the major work steps of the work they do, they can identify what skills are required for the work and how to be more fungible with the types of talent who can perform those skills.
Improved employee retention and people development. When your talent has the ability to put their skills and expertise to work in new and different ways, they receive more layered and diverse work experiences, the opportunity to work with new people, new challenges, and exposure to new clients.
This sort of development process is especially critical with Millennials and Generation Zs in the workplace, as they seek out non-linear work paths that offer continuous learning opportunities and allow them to work in an agile fashion across different project types. This can result in increased retention because they do not feel the need to go elsewhere to find new and stimulating work.
Anticipate workforce planning needs. Ultimately, with a better understanding of what skills are most relevant for client needs, firms can stay ahead of the curve of their talent strategy. Firms can create a dynamic workforce planning capability to help hire key talent or find lateral hiring opportunities required for the future before that future actually arrives.
The solution to a given law firm’s talent boom-and-bust cycle may well already be present within the four walls of the business. That is, a better staffing process may well reveal opportunities to utilize staff in different ways, and the talent just needs to be matched with the right work.
These matches come about through a rethink of the firm’s work and talent base through a robust, data-enabled framework. How a firm adapts to a more agile way of thinking about its work and its people could make all the difference in its ability to win and retain top talent in the long term and during periods of slowdown.