Monday, March 15, 2010

Surge Capacity

In large law firms, there is a significant overhead associated with each attorney--office space, IT infrastructure, secretarial and paralegal support, salary, etc. As a result, the firm has a structural incentive to get as many hours as possible out of each attorney, and to do so consistently. In other words, attorneys should be billing 40+ hours per week. Of course, the nature of legal work very rarely provides a steady flow of 40 billable hours per week.

One common, but I think problematic solution is to take on as much work as possible, ensuring enough to fill 40 hours even during slow times. The problem, of course, is that when cases take off, and work demands rise, this additional work needs to be crammed in to the available time. Attorneys may be able to bill 60 or 70 hours a week for brief periods, but even then the quality of each hour of work naturally drops off. Some people will claim to bill 80 or even 100 hours per week, but I seriously doubt that hours 90-100 provide any real value to the client, especially if this is continued for more than a few weeks.

The alternative solution is to aim to work an average of about 30 hours per week, which will result in some weeks of 15-20 hours and other weeks of 40-50 hours. I think this is preferable in almost every way: it leads to better quality of life for the attorney, it leads to better quality of each hour of work performed, and it facilitates the incorporation of outside interests and continued learning that further enhances the value of each hour "billed." The key weakness to this lower workload is that it may not generate enough revenue to accommodate the high overhead costs associated with many top-tier firms. However, I'd argue that attorneys should be able to bill more per hour if they're averaging 30 hours per week than if they're averaging 60 hours per week--after all, do you think you'll get the same value from one hour out of someone's 60 hour work week as one hour out out of someone elses' 30 hour work week?

Of course, this same phenomenon applies similarly outside the legal world--most businesses and careers experience similar flux. And--perhaps most importantly--this dilemma highlights the problem with seeking to maximize output. When a system seeks to maximize output, it reduces its resiliency to perform and to adapt to stresses--it reduces its capacity to surge when it's really necessary. Additionally, output maximization tends to also reveal a short-term focus: there is little room to incorporate long term needs such as training, innovation, networking, business development, and sustainability of work demands on our lives outside of work. These same symptoms of output maximization, of course, apply equally to law firms (and other professions) and to modern industrial civilization writ large.

What am I doing about it? To start with, I'm focusing on reducing my own workload to about 80% of "full-time." I plan to use this additional time to focus on legal systems innovation (in part through a discussion here of the use of checklists in litigation, coming soon, as well as other blog posts that I hope will continue to improve my own understanding of our world and my role in it), to ensure that I'm ready and able to "surge" when necessary, and to keep improving my own legal and non-legal skills. If we all find ways to reduce how much we have to do on a regular basis, we'll all 1) have an improved ability to surge and rise to the challenge when necessary, and 2) consume and demand less in the interim. Not to mention enjoying our lives, friends, and families a bit more. That can't be a bad thing...

Source - Jeff Vail


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