I was having lunch with a friend of mine recently, and she was telling me about the new staff bonus plan they just announced at the megalawfirm where she works. It seems legal assistants and other staff members have an opportunity to earn $1,000 by scoring 90% or above on a series of tests on tech skills including proficiency in Microsoft Word.
Oh, I’m sorry, did I say “bonus”? My bad. I meant “salary adjustment”. You see, the $1,000 isn’t on top of whatever annual raise they get. It IS their annual raise.
To be fair, this particular firm values technology skills just enough to test and train incoming employees to guarantee a baseline proficiency, which in my experience is somewhat unusual. But, as I was telling my friend, chances are this firm’s clients are driving this requirement behind the scenes, possibly through such tools as Casey Flaherty’s famous test or one from his competitors, and are revising outside counsel’s billing rates based on law firm tech skill scores.
I have mixed emotions about this trend. On the one hand, I’m a big proponent of taking charge of your own skill set and making constant, incremental improvements. Your employability is ultimately your responsibility, not your firm’s.
On the other hand, why does it always seem the rank-and-file employees take the first (and often biggest) hit on these things? If Client X doesn’t feel as though they’re getting their money’s worth out of their outside counsel, is it really because Susie Queue doesn’t know how to use bookmarking in her contract documents? Isn’t that the person everyone contends isn’t actually producing legal documents anymore?
I get that clients are frustrated by the inefficiencies that billing-by-the-hour engenders. But how does testing nonbillable Susie’s word processing skills solve these billable time sucks:
- A lawyer who forwards an email with a PDF attachment to his secretary, then walks over to her desk and asks her to “print it, scan it in and send it to me so I can forward it to the client.” (I worked for this guy. It was the longest 22 months of my life.)
- A paralegal who spends hours making Windows Explorer screen shots to document the contents of a discovery disk when a quick DOS command will make short work of it.
- Another paralegal who tries to use WordPerfect as an Excel substitute, only to have incorrect calculations on a trial exhibit. (Fired.)
Testing individual technology skills is arguably a reasonable and quick place to start. Start. Not finish. These kinds of tests provide a quick, satisfying quantitative hit for firms, but they don’t touch qualitative issues like policy, culture and generational assumptions that may be driving low tech competence.
But what other things might impact a firm’s technology competence (and, by extension, efficiency)?
Well, let’s think on that:
- What’s the average age of their desktop PCs? How long has it been since their last OS or office suite (Microsoft or whatever) upgrade? (One security breach can negate all the efficiency you can muster.)
- Does the firm require regular technical training? If so, how much and for what occupational categories? (People are not stupid. If their superiors don’t demonstrate an interest in these things, neither will they. This is why you can’t assume associates will pick up all the technical slack.)
- Do employees have appropriate tools (software and hardware) with which to perform essential tasks? (If your firm has one sad trial laptop running a Celeron processor, I’m guessing no.)
So what other metrics do you think clients (and their law firms) ought to examine? Scroll down and leave your thoughts in the comments (or read what others have to say). I want to hear what you think.