Killing Lockstep

Life outside of lockstep is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. A lockstep system for compensating and promoting associates has its drawbacks, to be sure. But at least it offers the virtues of transparency and predictability.

Earlier this week, we covered the arguably amorphous definition of “merit” at WilmerHale, one of several leading law firms to abandon lockstep. Today we turn our attention to Winston & Strawn, another prominent firm that has moved to a more “merit-based” system of compensation.

Back in February, we described Winston’s compensation scheme not as a box of chocolates — that would be sweet and delicious! — but as a black box. Among associates, nobody really knows what anyone else is making. As stated in the firm memo, “Individual associate salaries will be determined on a case by case basis based on seniority, performance and productivity factors and will be communicated separately to each associate.”

We now have a better sense of what’s going on at Winston, thanks to the recent release of individualized salary info (and some comparing of notes among Winston associates). And not everyone is happy….

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And additional info on stealth layoffs.

Back in December, WilmerHale announced that it was moving away from lockstep associate compensation. The plan will be phased in through 2012, but at the time of the announcement, WilmerHale gave precious little information about how the firm would determine which associates were meritorious and deserving of advancement. At the time, I wrote:

Many lawyers were liberal arts majors in college, so they should be comfortable with the array of soft and nebulous factors that will now determine how much they get paid.

WilmerHale supporters didn’t like that line too much. They told me that I should give the firm time. They told me that the firm would eventually come up with objective indicators of merit, so that associates wouldn’t feel that their pay was tied to soft factors and office politics.

In fact, word on the street was that WilmerHale was working with consultants to come up with the merit factors crucial to their anti-lockstep plans.

Well, a tipster reports that WilmerHale has given associates some more guidance on the new merit-based factors — and, well, you’re going to want to check these out for yourself…

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Back in December, DLA Piper decided to move to a merit based compensation system. Attendant to that move, the firms instituted a 10% pay cut, dropping starting salaries to $145,000. Despite widespread outrage among DLA associates, the firm repeatedly defended the move.

Other Biglaw firms that moved away from lockstep would not follow DLA down the salary rabbit hole.

Now, DLA Piper has given it up its quest to drive down associate salaries. The National Law Journal reports:

DLA Piper is raising associate pay by 10 percent, in a move that will return compensation to their levels before the economic downturn.

A memo released to attorneys on Thursday by firm leaders announced midyear pay increases in offices outside New York. DLA Piper raised salaries in New York in January to pre-recession levels of $160,000 for first-year associates.

Welcome back to the pack, DLA? Tipsters report that the firm is not quite there yet…

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We have good news for Morgan, Lewis & Bockius associates. Salary information is in and most people are getting raises. True-up raises at that. The class of 2008 pulled the short straw, but everybody else seems relatively happy. A tipster reports:

Please post that yesterday MLB essentially unfroze salaries (most ’08 grades only went up to 165 though) but otherwise made everyone whole, retroactive January 1, 2010.

The double-bump raise for veteran associates comes a couple of months after MLB announced big time raises for a select few associates — while most of the firm’s associates were left to wait and wonder. In January, we reported this message from Morgan Lewis Chairman, Francis M. Milone:

After considering all of these factors, we awarded base salary increases of up to $25,000 and incentive bonuses of up to $35,000 to our highest performing associates. As I advised in my November video presentation, we did not reduce associate base salaries.

According to the firm, the decision to give true-up raises to mostly everybody is in keeping with MLB’s new merit-based strategy …

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Sonnenschein logo.jpgBack in December, Sonnenschein announced the outlines of its new merit-based compensation structure. At the time, the firm promised its associates more details in March.
The firm is true to its word: we’re now in March, and we have more details. Above the Law talked with a spokesperson for Sonnenschein. Here’s the top line news:

  • First year compensation returns to $160,000 for first year associates.
  • 12% – 15% of that compensation will be paid out as a “base bonus” in 2011.
  • There are no hours or competency requirements to achieve the base bonus in 2011
  • 2010 raises for veteran associates will be in accordance with Sonnenschein’s merit based tier system

According to Sonnenschein, the decision to pay 12% – 15% of 2010 associate compensation as part of a 2011 bonus will help them transition to their new compensation model. The firm wants a greater percentage of total compensation to be paid out as merit-based, end-of-the-year bonus. That new system will be fully operational in 2011, so the firm is viewing 2010 as a transition year. Again, the firm emphasized to us that there would be no hours or merit requirements for associates to receive this 12% – 15% of 2010 money next year.
Sound good? Let’s see what the tipsters have to say.

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Bingham McCutchen new logo Abovethelaw Above the Law blog.jpgWhen you step into the killing lockstep zone, your bonus disappears into a black box. A while back, we reported that Bingham McCutchen adopted a lockstep-merit hybrid approach to associate compensation. Base salary would still be lockstep, but the bonus would be merit-based.

When we reported on the Bingham bonus, we noted that the firm intended to pay bonuses generally on the Cravath scale to its associates, based on a number of merit-based factors instead of hours.

But now our tipsters are telling us that some Bingham associates received much less than a Cravath-level payout:

A peek inside the black box, bonuses are generally well below the Cravath scale. The only associates receiving bonuses in the vicinity of the Cravath scale are those that exceeded the 2,100 hour minimum by a few hundred hours. Even bonuses in those instances were barely above the Cravath scale. Amazing considering JayZ just told the Boston Globe that the firm “had our best year ever.” Guess we know where all that money went. Morale is definitely at an all-time low. I would be shocked to see any associates making much of an effort to bill above the 2,100 hour minimum in 2010. I think “why bother” has become the most uttered phrase around the halls of Bingham over the last week.

“JayZ” refers to Bingham Chairman Jay S. Zimmerman, not the talented Mr. Shawn Carter.

But I suppose you could put Zimmerman’s positive outlook about the firm into a rap song …

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Winston Strawn LLP logo Above the Law blog.jpgFriday brought good news and bad news for Winston & Strawn associates.

The good news is that the double salary freeze, which has apparently resulted in first- through third-year associates at Winston all earning $160,000, may be thawing. Managing partner Thomas Fitzgerald sent a memo — this time to its intended recipients — indicating that raises are on the way.

The bad news is that Winston associates don’t know how much of a raise they’ll be getting — and the most they can hope for is a salary that matches the market. The memorandum contains the standard $160K salary scale — 160-170-185-210-230-250-265-280 — but states that “[s]alary levels in each associate class will range up to the maximum base compensation levels set forth” in the memo (emphases added).

The Winston associates we’ve heard from are upset. They’re unhappy not just about the move away from lockstep, but over the firm’s failure to set forth in detail how salaries will be determined. Most of the other firms that have abandoned lockstep have set forth elaborate systems for evaluating associates to determine their compensation and advancement. The Winston memo simply states: “Individual associate salaries will be determined on a case by case basis based on seniority, performance and productivity factors and will be communicated separately to each associate.”

This is a “black box” approach to compensation. It’s used by other big firms — e.g., Jones Day — but it’s a significant departure from Winston’s historical practice. It’s not what Winston associates signed up for when they joined the firm.

But then again, thanks to the Great Recession, lots of Biglaw associates aren’t getting what they expected when they joined their firms. And if associates aren’t happy, with compensation or any other aspect of their employment, their firms will tell them: you’re free to leave. In the words of an unemployed woman quoted in this weekend’s New York Times, “There are no bad jobs now. Any job is a good job.”

There’s a little more bad news about Winston associate salaries. Find out what it is, and read the full Winston & Strawn memo, after the jump.

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2009 Associate bonus watch above the law.JPGA number of firms have adopted a merit-based pay structure, and other firms claim they want to. But few firms have thought through how to make a merit-based structure work as much as Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe has. And nobody is addressing the new scheme with quite as much transparency.
Orrick sent around its merit-based bonus memo today. If you have gotten used to firms using merit compensation to hide what they are paying their people, prepare to be surprised:

82% of all US associates received a bonus. As previously communicated, we did not apply an hours threshold in determining bonus eligibility.
The following tables provide information about our US 2009 bonus distribution by new talent model role for all US associates.

That’s right, Orrick actually provided a chart showing the general bonus payouts to its associates. This is not entirely new — Latham comes to mind — but it’s certainly nice. Here are the overall numbers:
Orrick 2010 bonus chart 1.jpg
Do you want more transparency? Orrick has you covered.
The firm even provided a bonus comparison chart, so its employees know where they stand.

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Bingham McCutchen new logo Abovethelaw Above the Law blog.jpgMaybe Toyota should take a lesson from Bingham McCutchen: don’t try to cut corners when producing a hybrid.

Back in October, Bingham announced that it would be adopting a new “merit-lockstep” hybrid approach to associate compensation. The plan came with the stamp of approval from Bingham partners and associates. And a majority of Above the Law readers also approved of Bingham’s hybrid approach.

Today, Bingham rolled out its hybrid system. The firm is providing true-up, lockstep raises for people who hit 1900 hours. The double bump extends nationally, across all of Bingham’s offices. People who hit 1500 hours will only be getting a single class bump in salary. We understand that only a small percentage of Bingham associates were low enough on hours to be affected by this stratification.

At the low end, people who billed fewer than 1500 hours will have their salaries frozen again.

On the bright side, all of the people who are frozen will have their hours reevaluated in June. If they’re on pace, they’ll get their money.

The Bingham McCutchen lockstep base pay structure is clear and straightforward (see chart after the jump). For bonuses, welcome to the black box that is merit-based compensation.

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Pillsbury logo.JPGIt looks like Pillsbury is back to communicating important information via firm-wide memo, instead of via cell phone conversation on the Acela. Yesterday, the firm indicated that it is thinking about moving away from lockstep associate compensation, but it is not killing lockstep just yet.

Instead, Pillsbury announced lockstep raises — they’ll be true up raises if you hit your hours in New York. In other offices, Pillsbury has decided to lowball the market. From the firm-wide memo:

Pillsbury salary bonus 2010 1.JPG

Pillsbury salary bonus 2010 2.JPG

So, it’s a true-up raise for some, a single class thaw out for those low on hours, and a salary cut for many outside of New York. But at least it’s clear.

Pillsbury’s New York bias when it comes to salaries extends to the firm’s decisions regarding bonuses. Details after the jump.

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