Thackray Burgess is an energy law boutique in Alberta that recently became the Calgary office of national firm McMillan LLP. It also boasts some unique leverage numbers: 29 partners, 0 associates. How is this possible? The firm employs more than 20 “consultants,” or independent contractors, who resemble associates but are paid by the hour and work however many hours per year they feel like. They pay the firm a fee to cover their overhead costs and a percentage of the hourly rate they charge to their clients; the rest they keep themselves. One of the effects of this approach is the complete absence of billable-hour targets. The firm simply doesn’t care how many hours their consultants log, as long as the clients’ work gets done in a satisfactory manner.
Thackray Burgess’s system represents a new way of thinking about a firm’s nonpartner lawyers. Most firms grab handfuls of young lawyers, brand them as “associates,” direct them to bill a minimum number of hours per year and then, when partnership admission time arrives years later, they assess the survivors as potential partners. But some think this is an inefficient system that serves neither the clients nor the associates. As the traditional law firm model starts to break down, expect to see a corresponding decline in the traditional view of the purpose and function of associates. The firms that recognize this change now will be in the best position to respond.
How can you prepare for the decline of the associate? First think about the work your firm traditionally assigns to nonpartner lawyers. How much of it absolutely must be done by lawyers in your offices? How much could be done by sophisticated systems or competent lawyers outside of your offices, your region or your national borders? Then think about where you want your future partners to come from, whether they should be homegrown or free-agent signings. Think about how and why you are training your associates to be partners and whether your existing system is efficient, effective or even rational. In short, take a step back and ask yourself why you have associates and what you are doing with them. Ask your associates the same thing. Then get ready to shift to a whole new system.