Kid Nation small CBS Above the Law blog.jpgIt’s a subject of tremendous importance, since it has a major effect on the day-to-day lives of associates, but it doesn’t get talked about as much as one might expect. So to everyone going through the fall recruiting process right now, don’t be afraid to ask:

How does the law firm assign work?

It might not sound very sexy. But the assignment system employed by a law firm might determine whether you’re staying until midnight every night while the guy next door, who’s getting the same paycheck — and maybe even the same bonus, if you’re at a firm with lockstep bonuses — is leaving every day at 6 p.m.
There are many different ways that firms can handle the issue of assigning work. Some have an assigning partner (or partners); some have a non-lawyer administrator who makes assignments; some have a “free market” system. Sometimes assignments and hours are tracked by computer, and sometimes they’re not.
Please discuss the subject in the comments. To get the ball rolling, we reprint a recent memo from Bingham McCutchen that lays out their approach to the issue. You can check it out after the jump.

From: Plishner, Mike
Sent: Wednesday, September 12, 2007 11:39 AM
Subject: Workflow Coordination and Core Hours Expectations
As all of you have noticed, over the course of the summer the Litigation Area on the West Coast has gotten busier. During the recent review cycle for new associates, questions and discussions arose regarding the firm’s 2000 Core hours expectation. We thought it would be helpful to share some of our responses with all of you. We also have some thoughts about the automated workflow reports that associates and counsel submit every week which we think are worth mentioning.
First, on the workflow reports, we really do use these on a regular basis to decide who is available for work. That is especially true now as matter assignments are being made when there is work to do on a short time fuse and we need to decide quickly who might be able to help. Also, since many of these staffing decisions are now made on a cross office basis, the reports become crucial to understanding availability outside of a given office. So it is important to fill out the forms on a weekly basis (and more frequently if your caseload changes mid-week) and to fill them out accurately. For purposes of classifying availability, we want to reserve the “4″ ranking for situations where a lawyer really cannot feasibly take on anything more. The “4″ ranking would be applicable for weeks where the lawyer is working at a monthly pace of 200 hours or more. The “3″ ranking should be used when the lawyer could assist in relatively limited respects on a new matter or perform a spot project. We think of that ranking when a lawyer is working at a monthly pace above 165 but not quite 200 hours. The “2″ ranking means to us that the lawyer has availability to take on at least one new matter or several spot projects. We recommend using this when a lawyer is working at a monthly rate of something around 150 hours. Much below a monthly rate of 150 hours, we would show a “1″ rating, which we take to mean that a lawyer has substantial available time and very much needs work.
Regarding the 2000 Core hours expectation, a few recent discussions we have had suggest that some people may view being on track to hit 2000 Core hours as a benchmark for turning down work. We’d suggest that view is incorrect. It is a floor for the firm’s expectations of what associates in good standing should expect to achieve, but there is more to the proper calculus of workload than that. We all need to help to divide our overall workload equitably and to meet our clients’ needs. Sometimes that will mean we work hard, above (sometimes significantly above) the base level that the firm expects. For example, at some points along a typical career path, as a lawyer’s network of lawyer and client relationships grows and relevant substantive knowledge and skills increase, lawyers may find very substantial demands being placed on their time. Those demands often are a marker of success and professional growth and people should be trying hard to accommodate demands reflective of that success and growth. Sometimes, the needs of a particular case will require us to work really hard to get the work done that needs to be done. As always, client needs are paramount. Sometimes, as our practice reaches a peak, we all need to pitch in. None of these considerations has particular reference to the 2000 hour floor. Putting the same point somewhat differently, achieving the 2000 hour threshold may be the beginning of a workload analysis, but it should not be the end — or even particularly close to the end — of the analysis. The end in fact is more difficult to specify with mathematic precision — it isn’t a single number the fulfillment of which tells a lawyer that the workday is done. It is a general willingness to do the work the lawyer is asked to do and the lawyer’s and the firm’s cases require (and we appreciate the fact that many of you demonstrate this willingness time and time again). We should turn projects aside or seek more help when the we can’t put forth our best effort or when basic family and life balance issues enter in. We’d urge everyone to consider all of this in determining workload choices and planning your availability.
As always, we are happy to talk with anyone about this and to hear your thoughts.
Debbie and Mike

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