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Best Practices for Associate Compensation
Friday, March 29, 2024

Welcome back to our in-depth exploration of compensation within law firms. In our previous post , we emphasized the significance of establishing a robust compensation system to attract and retain top talent and keep them motivated. In this post, we'll discuss the crucial components needed to make an effective compensation plan for associates within the firm.

Compensating associates is a multifaceted task that law firms tackle annually to attract and maintain a talented workforce. Unfortunately, numerous small to mid-sized firms lack a robust structure that anticipates market trends and internal changes, and they also often need a simplified process for determining raises and bonuses. 

Key Considerations for Developing Compensation Plans for Associates:

Associate compensation programs should incorporate the following elements:

  • Market Competitiveness: How does the firm's associate compensation compare with market standards and rival firms?
     
  • Progression: Does the firm have a consistent and progressive structure for raises and bonuses that aligns with its associates' experience and performance progress?
     
  • Incentive Alignment: Does the firm incentivize behaviors aligned with its vision and priorities?
     
  • Transparency: Does the firm clearly communicate with associates about their earning potential over time and at specific experience and performance levels?
     
  • Feedback: Are associates given enough performance feedback to understand the relationship between their salaries, raises, bonuses, and performance?

Capacity and Performance Expectations

Establishing a compensation structure begins with assessing attorneys' current and future economic and qualitative potential. Firms should project the expected performance and contributions over the first eight to ten years of an attorney’s career in the firm. 

  • Production Capacity - How much work will the attorney handle, and what is the value of that work? Production metrics may include billable hours or caseload, expected billings and collections, and, by extension, rates and realization.
     
  • Qualitative Performance - Which skills does the attorney need to succeed in the position/ to create value? Consider legal skills, case management, business development contributions, compliance/ interpersonal skills, recruiting support, etc.
     
  • Profitability - How much economic value should the attorney create beyond their cost? (Expected profit or profit margin)

The qualitative increases in value and objective contributions to revenue and profit indicated in the table below provide an example of the most common factors. Contributions should be considered in the context of increasing long-term value and offering short-term profits. 

 

INCREASES IN VALUEInvestment_Icon

Profitability_icon-1CONTRIBUTIONS TO PROFIT

  Quality of professional work

Personal Productivity

   Work ethic

  (consistency of quality and quantity)

Profitability of others

(supervision and training)

  Client relations and service

Originations 

  Personal development and accountability

Recruiting profitable lawyers

   Business development contributions

  (networking, publishing, speaking, etc.)

Business hygiene

(timekeeping, billing, collections)

  Cultural support

 

  Firm building

  (recruiting, training, process development, etc.)

 

  Adding to the reputation of the firm

 

The table below indicates an example of expectations by experience level.

PERFORMANCE EXPECTATIONS

KEY

  Consistent 

  Approaching consistent 

  Optional

 Not expected at the experience level 

 

ECONOMIC FACTORS

EXPERIENCE (YR)

Productivity

Realization

Training Supervision

Profit Threshold

Billing Management

Origination

1

           

2

           

3

           

4

           

5

           

6

           

7

           

8

           

9

           

10

           

 

A firm may combine all economic scores and consider the aggregate result as a qualitative factor. As long as the selected system is consistently applied, room exists for customization.

 

QUALITATIVE FACTORS - WEALTH CREATION

EXPERIENCE (YR)

Work Ethic

Work Quality

Bar, Professional Civic

Content Publishing Speaking 

Business Development Competence

Recruiting Contributions

Client Relations and Service

Pro Bono

1

               

2

               

3

               

4

               

5

               

6

               

7

               

8

               

9

               

10

               

 

Designing a rewarding compensation strategy is essential for maximizing the value from your law firm's legal team. This involves careful deliberation over economic and qualitative criteria. Balancing these factors and customizing your approach enables your firm to attract and retain top lawyers while nurturing a consistent organizational culture.

  1. Start by clearly defining the skill set that brings long-term value to your firm and reward attorneys accordingly to ensure retention of the most compatible talent.
     
  2. Employ strategies to recognize and financially reward lawyers who consistently excel in high-value areas such as work ethic, quality, and client service, thus motivating them to sustain their high performance.
     
  3. For firms with top lawyers nearing retirement, devise a compensation plan that encourages emerging talents to take on leadership roles, guaranteeing a smooth transition and enduring success.
     
  4. Recognize and remunerate specialized expertise appropriately, for instance, by providing incentives to skilled litigators in a trial-focused litigation firm.
     
  5. Acknowledge and reward qualitative achievements, like the publication of influential content, encouraging lawyers to align with the firm's broader objectives.

It is also necessary to acknowledge the value of specialized expertise and reward it accordingly. For example, if trial experience is highly valued in your litigation firm, compensating successful litigators who excel in this area is an excellent strategy. Finally, recognizing qualitative accomplishments, such as publishing high-quality content, can motivate your lawyers to contribute to the firm's mission.

A compensation strategy that considers both qualitative and economic performance is vital for motivating and retaining the best-fit individuals for your law firm. By extending recognition beyond mere base salary increments to contributions that exceed expectations, you uphold the fairness and prosperity of your organization.

Join us as we continue to explore compensation best practices for law firms. Stay tuned for upcoming articles that will provide in-depth insights and actionable guidance on creating compensation systems that not only draw in and retain top legal talent but also bolster the firm's long-lasting prosperity and cultural ethos.

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