Killing Lockstep

Wilmer Hale logo.JPGThe Day That Lockstep Died
(to the tune of “American Pie”)
My, my, pushin’ lockstep aside,
They say merit — do they mean it? ‘Cause my raise has run dry.
But top-tier firms are not inclined to comply:
Sayin’, we’re not sure if this s**t will fly; we’re not sure if this s**t will fly.

What started out as a trickle is turning into a flood. Orrick and DLA Piper have already announced new associate compensation models for 2010 — and now WimerHale wants in on the action. The firm announced the change in a memo to all of its associates:

The Firm has decided to transition to a merit-based compensation program for associates and counsel in our U.S. offices. This afternoon we will hold local office meetings to discuss the details with you followed by an open forum for questions. Shortly you will receive a calendar invitation for this meeting, but first we wanted to provide you with background on the plan, the timing, and our thought process.

Before we lay out the details of the new model, it is important to recognize that this step is one that falls within a much larger framework. As you have heard us say before, whether at the State of the Firm address or in smaller group settings, the traditional structure and method of doing business for law firms is changing and needs to change.

The plan will be phased in through 2012 — but why wait until 2012 to address labor costs, when you can freeze associates’ salaries for 2010? Today’s WilmerHale announcement includes the news that the firm will be freezing associate salaries (except for second-year associates, who will be bumped up to $165K).
Additional details on the new compensation scheme and the full memo, after the jump.

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2009 Associate bonus watch above the law.JPGThis morning brings associate bonus news from Fried Frank. The firm’s bonus announcement reflects the broader Biglaw trend of moving away from a lockstep compensation system.
Last year, Fried Frank employed a standard bonus schedule, along Cravath lines, with bonuses paid out in accordance with seniority. This year, the firm has ditched the traditional class-year bonus schedule, instead paying “year-end bonuses to New York associates in varying amounts up to $35,000.”
So the firm is doling out bonuses “in varying amounts,” up to $35,000 — the top of this year’s Sullivan & Cromwell bonus schedule. But Fried Frank provides no information as to distribution of bonuses, mean or median amounts, etc. (unlike, say, Latham, which does provide such distributional info about bonuses).
What determines the amount of your bonus at Fried Frank? Several factors, including “seniority, levels of activity, quality of and hours worked, client service and contributions to pro bono activities.” Translation: the firm reserves complete and total discretion with respect to bonuses. There isn’t even a bonus guarantee based on hitting certain billable-hours targets.
The full memo appears after the jump. If you’re at Fried Frank, feel free to compare notes about your bonuses in the comments. Is this opacity a way for Fried Frank to get away with paying out less in bonuses? Or is the firm paying out basically the same as under a lockstep system, but just rewarding the high performers and punishing the laggards?
As always, please send us law firm bonus news to us by email (subject line: “[Firm Name] Bonus News”). Thanks.
P.S. The Fried Frank bonus announcement is for New York. We don’t know what FFHSJ plans to do for its D.C. or international associates.

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DLA Piper logo.jpgYesterday we reported that DLA Piper will be moving away from a lockstep system. The firm will implement a three-tiered seniority and compensation structure, in which 15% of associate salary will be withheld until the end of the year — pending a performance review that will be graded on a curve.
We promised you further analysis and reaction — but first, a correction. Yesterday I said that the “freeze is still on,” referring to the fact that DLA froze salaries at 2008 levels and will be carrying that scale forward to 2010. That’s not entirely accurate. Multiple tipsters and commenters pointed out that after freezing salaries in 2008, DLA cut salaries in 2009.
That’s correct. We reported on DLA’s 10% salary cut back in May. The National Law Journal puts DLA’s new three-tiered system into the proper perspective:

Salaries for associates in Level 1 will start at $145,000 in major markets. Level 2 salaries will range from $170,000 to about $200,000. Level 3 salaries will be around $250,000. Associates generally will remain at a certain level for two to four years. The new pay plan will affect approximately 500 associates.

Compare those numbers to the Orrick structure we reported on last week. Orrick is still starting at $160,000. And their “managing associates,” the Orrick equivalent of DLA’s Level 2 associates, start in the range of $185,000 – $205,000. Only at the top levels do the salaries start to match-up.
But that is not taking into account DLA’s 15% salary withholding, which is what most of our readers and commenters want to talk about. Let’s take a closer look at the withholding after the jump.

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DLA Piper logo.jpgIf you thought you left the curve behind when you graduated law school, think again. DLA Piper has decided to throw its hat into the killing lockstep arena. In a long memo released to associates this morning, DLA outlines its intention to withhold a greater percentage of associate compensation until the end of the year. Associates will have an opportunity to get this money back, if they perform well on their performance reviews.
But the performance reviews will be curved, bringing a sense of the grading competition and bitterness from law school and adding it to firm life.
Let’s jump into the details, after the jump.

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Orrick logo.JPGAt an all associates meeting today, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe revealed its much talked about new associate compensation structure. Starting in 2010, Orrick will be moving away from lockstep in a big way.
Essentially, Orrick has separated associates into three classes: associates, managing associates, and senior associates. Advancement from one level to another will be based on merit — not time served at the firm.
The biggest news is that starting salaries are going to remain at the $160K level. Orrick wants to recruit and compete for top talent. The firm isn’t using the move away from lockstep as an excuse to cut first year pay.
And the firm will still pay the prevailing market bonus. In fact, the firm will pay the market bonus, plus a little extra to its highest performing associates. The goal appears to be giving their superstar associates a big reward for good work, instead of reducing costs on the back of associate compensation.
Check out the new salary structure chart from Orrick after the jump.

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Career Center AboveTheLaw Lateral Link ATL.jpg
Our recent Career Center survey asked about compensation structure for salaries and bonuses at your firms.  The results reveal that reports of the death of lockstep compensation have been greatly exaggerated: a large majority of respondents — over 75% — say their firm still pays base salaries on a lockstep scale.  And despite the tough economy, over 96% of respondents expect a bonus this year.   
Check out the full survey results after the jump — and visit the Career Center, powered by Lateral Link — for more on which firm has announced an end-of-year salary freeze, the latest firm to join the hybrid-lockstep compensation bandwagon, and which firm is now rescinding offers to new associates.

Full survey results, after the jump.

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Baker Botts logo.JPGBaker Botts will be throwing itself into the killing lockstep camp sometime in 2010. A tipster reports:

So, Baker Botts – Houston (should be firmwide, though I don’t have have all the details) is adopting a form of the Reed Smith pay structure. …
My understanding may be imperfect, but the notion is that it’s something like a three part system of junior associates, mid level associates, and senior associates, with pay discrepancies laid out among the three. No more lockstep. Unclear what the bonus structure is beyond the nebulous “merit” nonsense.

Reed Smith.jpgThe Reed Smith structure has received a lot of attention. Last month, we mentioned that Reed Smith will categorize associates as junior, mid-level, or senior associates. But those classifications won’t necessarily be tied to how long an associate has been out of law school. So you could see a fourth-year classified as a senior associate making significantly more than a sixth-year classified as a midlevel associate.
Today, the Legal Intelligencer reports that the Reed Smith plan will also include a cut in associate salaries and billing rates:

Reed Smith has cut starting salaries by about 20 percent for the 51 first-year associates set to start in January and, in turn, is cutting their billing rates by the same margin.

You can read the full Reed Smith memo about its salary and billing rate reductions after the jump.
Will the Reed Smith system become the template for associate compensation at other firms? Let’s take a look at what Baker Botts is planning.

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(Plus more news from Reed Smith.)

Morgan Lewis.JPGIn July, Morgan Lewis & Bockius announced that it would be ending lockstep compensation for its associates in 2010. At the time, the firm furnished this statement to Above the Law:

“We’re running our own business and focusing relentlessly on client relationships,” said Francis M. Milone, Chair of the Firm. “Doing so responsibly means continuing to reduce expenses, committing to the people in whom we are already invested, and looking at compensation across the board to ensure our structure matches the reality the entire legal industry must face.”

The July announcement was the culmination of the effort made by MLB and its chairman, Francis Malone, to reform the Biglaw business model. Back in April, Milone gave an interesting interview to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Question: Law firms are still very profitable. Why do they need to downsize?
Answer: You have to make a judgment about whether you can keep people busy going forward. It is not healthy for a lawyer to not be busy, to have free time on his or her hands. You don’t grow, you don’t develop, you’re not happy.
And from a cultural perspective, you don’t want to build a firm that culturally is populated by a lot of people, or too many people, who don’t have enough to do.
Q: Is that the only reason?
A: The other piece of it is the feedback we got from clients. Because they’re looking at the way they want law firms to act. They’re not going to be as willing to pay, frankly, to train new lawyers. So it’s going to be harder to find things for new lawyers to do. And when we’re paying new lawyers $160,000 and clients don’t want to pay for them, you’re putting them in a position where there may not be a lot of things for them to do.

Well, 2010 is almost upon us. But MLB is suddenly not so excited about ending lockstep compensation. Milone conducted a firm-wide video conference yesterday, and tipsters report his enthusiasm for ending lockstep compensation was noticeably lacking.
Details and a statement from the firm, after the jump.

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drinker biddle logo.jpgBack in May, Drinker Biddle came up with a radically different program for first years. For the first six months, first years at Drinker are more like apprentices than traditional first years. They get intensive training, but are only paid $105,000.
Despite those changes, the firm has still decided to lay off attorneys. Multiple tipsters report that 22 Drinker Biddle associates were laid off yesterday.
Drinker Biddle spokespeople did not comment about the news. But tipsters report that the significant cut to first year salary did not end up saving the jobs of more senior associates.
Details on departments and offices and an update after the jump.

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Reed Smith.jpgEd. note: We mentioned it briefly in Morning Docket, but thought we’d say a bit more (and give folks a place to comment).
A number of large law firms — although, interestingly enough, not the Cravaths and S&Cs and Davis Polks of the world — are moving away from a lockstep system of associate compensation and promotion. See our collected coverage under Killing Lockstep.
The latest one to jump on the bandwagon: Reed Smith. From Ashby Jones of the WSJ Law Blog:

On Tuesday, Reed Smith announced yet another way to skin the cat. Starting early next year, the firm will go to a sort of hybrid lockstep/merit-based pay system for associates, called CareeRS (get it?). Associates will be categorized as junior, mid-level or senior depending not on how many years they’ve served, but on whether they’ve demonstrated certain “core compentencies.” That is, a particularly talented third-year associate might achieve the “mid-level” designation; a fifth-year on a slower pace might still be a “junior.”

According to the firm’s chairman, Greg Jordan, the move was a response, at least in part, to client demands. “The most painful conversation you can have with a client is to tell him that that all of a sudden, you’re charging more for an associate just because the associate has aged a year,” says Jordan. “Something needed to change. The recession made that clear.”

When the WSJ asked Jordan if the majority of associates would progress normally — getting bumped up to midlevel associate after three or so years, and to senior associate after six or so years — he was a bit vague:

“That may be what ends up being the typical pattern. But we really don’t expect that everyone will take this path. Some will advance quickly, others will need time.”

Hmm…. Should this be cause for concern among associates? How many will, like not-so-smart grade schoolers, get “left back” each year?
Some perspectives, after the jump.

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