The axiom says, “You get what you measure.” When output per hour, or any other easily quantifiable tool, is the measurement, it’s fairly easy to rate workers based on production.
But in the knowledge and service economies, we’re not pounding out widgets on the clock. Employees are evaluated on a host of “soft skills” — customer service, teamwork, enterprise, dependability and the like.
As any honest manager can tell you, subjectivity and squishiness are built into that kind of appraisal, no matter how hard you try to be fair and objective. That’s why I noted with interest a development at the Jackson Lewis law firm.
The firm, with offices in 54 locations, said it has done away with the billable hour as a device to measure associates’ performance.
You don’t have to be a lawyer to know that the sweatshop reputation of large law firms in particular was driven by hungry young associates striving to make partner who ground out long hours. The rule, tacit or explicit, was to put in time, lots of it.
“We took billable hours away as a measuring stick for performance,” said Brian Christensen, managing shareholder of the firm’s Kansas City office. “The new measuring sticks are things such as efficiency, quality of work, teamwork — things that tend to be more subjective.”
The change is only one month old, so there aren’t any comparisons to be made yet. Christensen said the firm has undertaken a systemwide standardization and training to try to ensure consistency in evaluations across offices. He said it will be the end of the year before the firm has a handle on how effective the change has been.
Here’s the challenge in transition: Associates will still keep track of and submit their billable hours. Clients will still get bills that show billable hours. But managers aren’t supposed to use the billable hours as a measuring stick in performance assessments. And associates aren’t supposed to think they have to win a billable-hour race.
That, friends, is a difficult conceptual block to bust.
Everyone at the firm, Christensen said, needs to believe that it’s not about working longer. It’s about working more efficiently. It’s about quality of work and client satisfaction and, yes, firm profitability.
The change, Christensen said, also is expected to motivate associates to think more like partner/shareholders in the firm, to become “rainmakers,” or business developers, rather than just grinding away at assignments.
It’s also a path, he suggested, to encourage more pro bono legal work and volunteer activities, which is something in addition to profitability and growth that the firm prizes.
“We want our associates to feel more comfortable getting out there in their communities without worrying about how many hours they’ve billed,” he said.
Worthy goals, all. But it challenges a time-worn measuring stick and demands buy-in from anyone who wields it. Welcome to a squishy new world.