Eliminating Bias in Work Allocation Is a Growing Focus for Law Firms

Does your law firm work allocation model leave too many associates behind? Historically, work allocation in law firms has primarily been driven by partners. When a partner chooses an associate to help them with a matter, their skills are important, but so is the associate’s proximity and the impression they’ve left on that partner. As their working relationship deepens and the associate’s experience widens, they can quickly become the go-to person when that partner needs help. The Problem with the ‘Proximity and Familiarity’ Model On the surface, this seems like a win-win. The partner wants the best person on their matters and has no reason to look elsewhere unless their preferred associate is unavailable or unequipped for the matter at hand. But work allocation based on proximity and familiarity risks conscious and unconscious bias, leading to unfair work distribution among a firm’s associates. If a partner monopolizes an associate, they are also depriving that associate of experience working with other partners and denying other partners the help of that associate. When the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School explored law firm work allocation in 2017, longtime partners confirmed that traditional work allocation has an implicit bias toward associates who can easily develop relationships with partners. “An associate’s talent and abilities are critical and the key selection criteria, but unintentionally, people are sometimes drawn to those they think they can work the easiest with — those who studied in the same university, are into the same sports, have the same kinds of interests,” said Bas Boris Visser, a partner at Clifford Chance. This is just part of the reason why some firms, especially larger ones, have been gradually shifting away from this model. Some have appointed one person to make or approve assignment decisions for a firm or practice

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