Firms joining trend towards professional resource managers

With McCarthy Tétrault LLP leading the way, Canadian law firms have joined a global trend of using professional resource managers to allocate workloads among associates and paralegals.

“We have professional resource officers who are separate from our human resources staff,” says Paul Boniferro, McCarthys’ Toronto-based national leader for practices and people.

“Part of their role is to help our practice groups facilitate workload allocation.”

A chief professional resource officer, who’s also a non-practising lawyer, heads up a team composed of three regional professional resource directors based in Montreal, Toronto, and Western Canada.

As it turns out, workload allocation is nothing to sniff at.

“Surveys we have done for the last four years indicate that workload allocation in the sense of fair distribution and equal opportunity is a primary driver of associate engagement,” says Boniferro.

“So we did some pilot projects and discovered that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer and what works for the litigation group in Calgary may not work for the business law people in Montreal.”

McCarthys’ solution has been to encourage practice groups, with the assistance of a professional resource manager, to come up with their own approach.

“Our tax group currently has a pilot project that involves a national online work allocation process,” says Boniferro.

“Associates insert their interests, their rate, and their availability and ideally partners will go there before distributing work.”

For its part, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP uses a mentoring system to support its work allocation program.

“We expect associates to meet with mentors, review their development profiles, and let the mentors dig around to find opportunities, if any, that have been lacking,” says Norm Letalik, a partner and managing director for professional excellence at BLG.

“It’s not as systematic as using resource managers but it avoids the difficulties that can arise when you have non-lawyers making choices about who will perform a particular role on a file.”

By way of further contrast, Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP relies on an electronic tool called a stoplight system.

“Each week, every associate gets a link allowing them to indicate how busy they are,” says Toronto-based partner Terry Burgoyne.

“Any partner wanting to staff a matter can do an electronic search by practice area, by expertise, and by seniority level. It’s very useful because you don’t end up making 10 calls or running around the floor making inquiries.”

As far as professional resource managers go, Burgoyne wonders how associates on their way to becoming partners will be able to manage their own workloads when dealing with clients.

“If someone else plans an associate’s workload, he or she isn’t getting that training and may find it difficult to cope when it becomes an issue in the course of working with clients,” he says. “That kind of trade-off is always a risk when you take some or all of the personal human element out of something.”

On the other hand, Clifford Chance LLP has found that professional resource managers work for the global giant. After recruiting two resource managers on a trial basis to allocate associates’ workloads, the firm is now considering hiring more of them. The firm’s chief operating officer, Amanda Burton, told Legal Week that partners “have said it is much easier for them to find the right level of resources and have found it has saved them a lot of time, while our associates feel more independent and that they are seeing more career development.”

Using the professional resource managers won’t be mandatory, however, and will remain at the discretion of practice managers for the time being. At the same time, professional project managers are becoming ubiquitous at major firms everywhere with the U.S. industry leading the way.

“When it comes to using project managers, Canadian law firms are at an early stage of development compared to American firms,” says John Gillies, the Toronto-based director of practice support at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP. He cites U.S. firms like Seyfarth Shaw LLP, Littler Mendelson Professional Corp., Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz Professional Corp., and Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart Professional Corp.

It’s no surprise, then, that Canadian firms aren’t as quick as the Americans to use professional resource managers. Gillies adds, however, that the financial crisis hit U.S. firms more severely than it did their Canadian counterparts, a fact that could explain their accelerated resort to efficiency professionals. “The Americans are feeling much more pressure for alternative fee arrangements and staffing input than we are,” he says.

Professionalizing work allocation is also an effort to move away from lockstep promotion for associates.

“If you’re going to use a skills promotion system in which associates must show they have mastered certain skills, the only fair way to do it is to be absolutely sure that associates have the opportunity to work on files where they can learn and demonstrate those skills,” says Letalik.

Any allocation mechanism developed by professional resource managers, however, is only effective to the extent that lawyers are willing to use it.

“The natural inclination is to say, ‘I’m busy. I need someone now. There’s a person at my door with whom I’ve worked 100 times before and that’s who I want on the file,’” says Boniferro.

“But our firm as a whole is committed to a proper work allocation system because partners know how important it is in engaging associates. So we’re asking our partners to take a pause and think it through.”

Letalik is of a similar mind.

“In reality, some partners are more equal than others and some prefer to work with certain people rather than have associates imposed on them, especially if a client has indicated an affinity for a particular lawyer,” he says.

Despite these difficulties, Letalik says the move towards professional resource managers, whether they have legal training or not, is inevitable.

“As we become more efficient with legal project management and more systematic in the way in which we go about doing things, these kinds of systems will make more sense and there will be fewer reasons for partners to impose their will on the selection process,” he says.

“What it amounts to is a cultural shift from a free-enterprise system where partners determine who will be working on a file to having someone else tell them who that person will be.”

And although Oslers has wanted partners to remain involved in the allocation process, Burgoyne acknowledges the trend towards professional resource managers is consistent with the evolution of legal practice.

“There is certainly merit in thinking along these lines because it’s all part of a trend to adding resources that will make fee earners more efficient, whether those resources come in the form of professional resource managers, knowledge management mechanisms or technical tools like the intranet and software,” he says.

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