Targets help to hit the spot
Setting performance targets is a vital part of ensuring an organisation’s success. It’s important that staff understand what’s expected of them and that progress is effectively monitored so problems can be spotted early, says Vicky Ling
Organisations need a strategic plan to enable them to thrive, adapt to changing needs and deliver relevant services in an ever-changing environment, and an operational or action plan to help them get there. These need to be translated into individual objectives for members of staff within the organisation. Objectives are usually agreed at appraisal and monitored at regular intervals through supervision or line-management meetings.
The term ‘management by objectives’ (MBO) was first popularised by Peter Drucker in his 1954 book The Practice of Management. An important aspect of MBO is the measurement and comparison of the employee’s actual performance against targets and standards set. Drucker believed that when employees themselves have been involved in goal setting and choosing their course of action, they are more likely to fulfil their responsibilities and achieve targets.
Targets usually include specified levels of outputs: hours of chargeable time a year, value of bills or money paid. They can include requirements to achieve certain outcomes for clients, as in conditional fee agreements or damages-based agreements where the lawyer will only be paid if the case is successful. Some organisations will want to encourage people to undertake activities which do not directly produce fees but which will contribute to organisational development, such as marketing activity or referring a client to another part of the organisation for additional services.
Civil legal aid contracts used to have performance standards requiring that organisations with contracts had to use a specified percentage of their new matter starts and achieve specified percentages of positive outcomes for clients; but all those were dropped from the 2013 contract onwards.
Fees targets in legal aid firms often used to be set using the rule that fee-earners ought to bring in three times their salaries in order to pay for support staff and overheads, and allow a profit for the partners. In reality, the three times salary target has been hard to achieve on legal aid fees and as fee cuts have bitten, the number and type of support staff have generally been cut too, in many cases making it more difficult to achieve fee targets in legal aid work.
In the not-for-profit sector, although profit is irrelevant, it is helpful to produce a surplus if possible as this is unrestricted funding in charity accounting terms, meaning that the organisation can use it for any of its charitable objectives, as opposed to grant funding, which is usually restricted to whatever activities are set by the funder.
Chargeable or claimable time is still a useful concept when assessing profitability or viability. The Law Society of England and Wales uses a target of 1,100 hours a year. The Law Society of Scotland suggests 1,000 hours for partners, 1,200 for all other fee-earners and 800 for trainees. In a survey of legal aid firms, undertaken by Frontier Economics for the then Department for Constitutional Affairs in 2003, 137 firms provided details of their chargeable hours. Partners produced approximately 1,300 hours a year, and other solicitors approximately 1,200 hours a year. In a survey published in 2006 as part of Lord Carter’s review of legal aid procurement, solicitors at leading crime firms averaged 1,500 hours a year.
Involving people in target setting and monitoring
Partners and heads of departments need to be realistic in their expectations and work through any problems that fee-earners identify. For example, fee-earners may say they find it hard to meet targets because their clients don’t turn up for appointments, which is hardly their fault. However, it would be worth looking at whether there is anything the organisation can do to encourage clients to attend, such as sending a text to remind them of appointments.
Work practices need to ensure that paralegals and trainees without their own caseloads have enough chargeable work to meet their targets. This may mean solicitors changing the way they work. Remember that it is easier to train someone in a focused area of law than to become an ‘all-rounder’: you may wish to consider developing individual members of staff to specialise in a narrow area of work.
‘People need to know how they are doing. This makes it easier to make changes before there is a serious problem which is harder to fix.’
It is important to provide feedback to caseworkers and teams about progress towards contract targets. People need to know how they are doing. This makes it easier to implement changes before there is a serious problem which is more difficult to fix. Knowing the team needs to open or close a handful of cases to achieve targets is more manageable than being dozens of cases adrift.
Fee-earners may generate different levels of fees although they appear to have similar caseloads and levels of support. It is important to investigate the reasons for this: if one person has adopted a more efficient way of working, it makes sense to share it with the rest of their colleagues.
If, conversely, someone is struggling, you need to see what you can do to help them meet their targets. A positive approach will probably be the most effective in improving performance. Very often there are adjustments that can be made relatively easily to the benefit of the individual and the organisation.
Regular team meetings to consider general issues and share good practice are useful. It is helpful to include secretaries and administrators, for example a representative from the accounts and/or costs drafting team, as they will have a different perspective from legal practitioners. Reviewing file management, forms, standard letters and documentation on a regular basis, with a view to eliminating duplication, is also a worthwhile exercise.