Addressing bias in work allocation
A major research project that Ashurst took part in identified work allocation as a potential barrier to women’s career progression, and that the process was particularly prone to unconscious bias. Ashurst decided to change how work was allocated to reduce the scope for unconscious bias and see what effect this had.
The impact of affinity bias and confirmation bias
Traditionally, clients instruct partners on a new matter and partners decide who will assist them with the work. Understandably, partners want the ‘best’ lawyers to service their clients and therefore choose to give work and clients to those they perceive as the best. Whilst this perception may be genuine, affinity bias encourages people to choose those who are like them, and confirmation bias means we perceive our efforts as superior as we focus only on the evidence that supports our initial hunch that they are the best. As a result, women can find they are not given the most demanding and developmental work, particularly in a male-dominated environment. This is a concern as the type of work lawyers are allocated is hugely influential on the development of their professional skills, knowledge and understanding, particularly early in their careers.
Learning from good practice
Large accountancy firms have used work allocation managers for many years, and Ashurst had the opportunity to learn how work allocation is used in professional services. The mitigation of the impact of unconscious bias is a particularly significant benefit, and the then global head of one of the firm’s practice was impressed and decided to run a work allocation pilot. Although there was considerable resistance, the individual concerned persuaded the doubters that if the pilot did not produce results swiftly, it would not be pursued.
Before work allocation was introduced, assignment was often inefficient and carried out by partners at a high cost to the firm. There was limited information about capacity levels within teams and the interests and development areas of associates, yet significant scope for repeatedly using the associates time. Anecdotal evidence also suggested there were often traditional assumptions made, such as working mothers being less likely to be given work which was seen as challenging and involving long hours (or indeed were never considered at all if they were not in the office), whilst ‘traditional’ clients were more likely to be allocated to white male associates.
The work allocation process required partners to trust an independent body to resource their deals. Work allocation managers consider only associate capacity, development areas, interests and technical skillset to allocate work most efficiently. They consider the objective criteria associates are reviewed by and the skills needed for a particular transaction, conducting the process on a much more objective basis with significantly less scope for gender or other bias.
The pilot was highly successful. Work is now perceived to be more evenly distributed and partners spend more time on productive work rather than resourcing matters. Associates develop a wider range of skills, increasing the potential of all lawyers, and have become more fungible. This opens up the pool of resource available when allocating new work and ensure more even progression opportunities for everyone. Work allocation managers have been supported by a purpose-made resource management tool which captures information in an objective and professionalised manner, allowing unbiased resourcing and forward planning of deals.
As well as positive client feedback and increased profitability of deals, there has been further benefit for women through better management of those going on or returning from maternity leave and less likelihood that benevolent bias will arise (i.e. that someone will not be offered the opportunity of being involved in new or large deals as they are about to go on or return from leave).
A survey was carried out at the start of the project and after six months. This demonstrated an increase of almost 50% in the perception of the fairness of work allocation, trebled the percentage of people who felt all associates were equally busy and significantly increased those who felt they had access to a broad range of work.
The pilot has since been extended to another division and to Ashurst’s Australia practice, demonstrating the firm’s confidence that it is achieving its aims with regard to addressing potential bias in work allocation between men and women. Although it is too early to see any tangible benefits in terms of men and women’s comparative progression rates, individuals’ perceptions suggest the new process is exactly what was hoped: