Creative Strategies to Cope with Higher Associate Compensation

by Joel A. Rose

The associate cash compensation package is comprised of four basic components: (1) a base salary [structured to class standing in the larger firms], (2) a bonus payment structured on one or more of the following: legal merit, contributions to firm profitability, firm economics and the origination of business, (3) a profit sharing plan based upon the firm’s success, and (4) a reasonably comprehensive benefits program.

The traditional associate cash compensation package is a major factor of firm expense over which many  law firms have limited control because of the competitive nature of the current compensation market.

Years ago, the basic rules affecting the compensation of associates were inexorably tied to their hourly billing rates times the number of hours they worked.  The billing rate was set by doubling the associate’s salary and dropping three digits.  For example, when starting salaries for law school graduates were $50,000, it would mean $50,000 x 2 = $100,000 = $100 billing rate.  At 1,500 hours, one third of an associate’s earnings would be salary, one third would be to contribute to overhead and one third would be profit (1,500 x $100 = $150,000 divided by 3 = $50,000).

However, today’s higher associate compensation levels have exceeded possible hourly rate increases that may be passed on to clients.  As the result, the independence of associate compensation from the hourly rates charged to clients demonstrates the dynamics of two distinct and important markets at work.  One market is based upon how much law firms have to pay to attract and retain top quality law school graduates, which is affected by the associate legal employment market as a whole.  The second is the unwillingness of clients to pay associates’ high hourly rates that paid for their total compensation.  As the result, an increasing portion of the associate compensation levels are now absorbed by the firm and are reflected as lower profits for the partners.

During informal discussions with managing partners of several mid-size (35 to 75 attorneys) firms about the compression in associate-junior partner compensation resulting from the higher starting salaries offered to recent law school graduates, most of these partners acknowledged that their firms have little choice but to raise their firms’ starting salaries to some extent, to attract and retain higher quality associates.

More than a few of them eschewed the higher compensation levels for a variety of reasons.  Most acknowledged that during the first two or three years with the firm, while in training to learn how to practice law, the great majority of associates are not worth the current market price, especially since the  higher salaries do not reflect write-offs/downs, volume discounts and other billing arrangements that reduce level of firm revenue and profitability and effectively increase the costs of associates.  A few of these partners opined that with increasing overhead outpacing billing rates and revenue, it takes a firm at least two to three years before starting associates begin to contribute to firm profit.  Also, several partner indicated that meeting the higher new associate compensation levels forces their firms to make compensation changes all the way up the associate compensation schedule.

It has been the author’s experience that partners in many mid-size law firms are currently reassessing their current methodology for compensating associates and their billing and collection practices in an effort to develop creative strategies to cope with the higher associate compensation market rates.  Some of the strategies being studied include the following:

(1)       Develop and Implement Merit Driven Systems Rather than Lockstep “Class” Salary Increases:

More law firms are seeking to achieve a level of greater flexibility with their associate compensation system to enable the associates to be compensated consistent with their contribution to firm economics.  Several of these firms are in the process of converting the current methodology for granting associate increases from lockstep (by class for the first several years) to a meritocracy.

Changes are also being considered on the organizational side to administer associate compensation programs.  For example, for increases to associate compensation, more firms are providing to the heads of their substantive departments and practice groups budgets for salary increases, which may be a percentage of current associate salaries.  This budget represents for that practice areas or group the available pool of dollars from which the department/group heads may allocate increases.  In this fashion, the firm can control its budget and the percent of associate salary expense relative to revenue and total expenses.  Also, since these partners are most knowledgeable about associate performance, they are the most appropriate ones to award merit increases.  This avoids lockstep and predictable increases to all of the associates within a class, etc.  Although there is debate on the issue, across the board increases are considered to be demoralizing and seem to have a disincentive effect because associates think that the firm is not giving them individual consideration.

(2)       Firms are Hiring Lateral Associates

First year associates require more training time that is nonbillable and as such, reduces the productivity of the partners involved.  Hence, for many mid-size law firms, the trend is toward reliance on hiring lateral associates who are already trained.  With adequate lead time, by employing lateral associates, these firms are able to fill their professional staffing requirements at, or shortly before, the time they occur.  By hiring trained laterals, these firms may bill clients at hourly rates that allow immediate or short-term payback and contribution to firm profit.

(3)       Firms are Hiring Temporary Lawyers to Lower Fees

Temporary lawyers are one response to client pressures for lower fees.  In today’s booming litigation environment, many firms are engaging temporary lawyers to satisfy document intensive demands.  For example, meeting different discovery requests to a single client in several different courts; discovery in litigation is the area most likely to benefit since discovery is an area of litigation which incur the highest costs. Also, the economic benefits are clear as a firm may charge lower hourly fees for a temporary associate with the same level of experience as members of the permanent staff, pay no benefits and thus, enhance the firm’s revenue and profit margin.

(4)       Cost of Living Considerations

Multi-office firms located in cities and geographic regions with differing cost of living standards are compensating their associates at levels that are consistent with the cost of living standards of the city or areas which the firm’s offices are located.  For example, if a firm has offices in new York City and Philadelphia, associates in the New York City office would typically be paid more than comparable associates in the Philadelphia office.

(5)       Incentive Compensation

Hours Worked: This is a useful measure for paying associates, as well as easy to calculate.  However, paying for hours worked may encourage padding of hours.  It has been our experience that certain clients ask if law firms pay any incentive compensation to associates based upon hours worked prior to engaging the firm.

More firms calculate hours worked incentives on the basis of hours actually billed as opposed to billable hours reported.  This enables the firm to retain some control over billings to its clients.

Merit (based upon a combination of objective and subjective factors): Associates in more firms are interested in seeing their increases tied to their performance, rather than in lockstep progression.  Partners in several firms reported better results by tying associate increases to their performance.  As an interesting wrinkle, some firms are tying associate bonuses to firm performance.  This takes the form of bonuses if the firm reaches a given level of financial performance.

New Business: A great many firms today do not progress associates to partner status unless they demonstrate the ability to originate business.  In those firms that follow this practice, associates understand that their career development as well as their compensation is based upon their ability to generate business.

Three concerns relating to new business incentives raised by partners in those firms that have implemented these programs include the need to insure that (1) the firm has a well-conceived and implemented client conflict and matter intake procedure; (2) the firm has a good system for assigning substantive work to insure that the new matter is performed by the most appropriate individual, not necessarily the associate who brought the client through the door; and (3) the incentive compensation must be designed so as not to reward work on the associate’s own matters to insure that the associate will work on firm matters, not primarily matters that he or she originates.  To accomplish this, the firm  must analyze a combination of hours and the individual who generated the hours on the matter.

The results of applying these suggested strategies to your firm’s associate compensation system should result in compensation that is fair to those deserving associates as well as to the partners.

©1999-2017 Joel A. Rose & Associates