Vicky Ling suggests some approaches to setting targets.
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.
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 that do not directly produce fees, but will contribute to organisational development, such as marketing 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 contact onwards.
Fees targets often used to be set using the rule that fee-earners ought to bring in three times their salaries to pay for support staff, 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 it is more realistic to allocate costs across departments when setting targets.
•staff costs – 49.85 per cent;
•non-salary overheads – 16.18 per cent;
•equity partner notional salaries – 12.79 per cent;
•accommodation costs – 6.59 per cent;
•IT – 2.4 per cent;
•professional indemnity insurance – 3.1 per cent;
•marketing – 1.6 per cent;
•staff recruitment – 0.6 per cent; and
•net profit for partners – 6.89 per cent.
Involving people in target setting and monitoring
Partners and heads of department 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 do not attend appointments. If so, it would be worth looking at whether there is anything the organisation can do to encourage clients to attend, such as sending a reminder text.
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. It is easier to train someone in a focused area of law than to become an ‘all-rounder’, so you may wish to consider developing individual members of staff to specialise in particular areas of work.
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 that 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.