Killing Lockstep

To pass the time while commuting, I like to listen to podcasts. If ATL had a podcast I would add that to my listening rotation (especially if Lat is able to pull in sitting judges to guest host or as interview subjects). But this is not a column about podcasts. Though the idea for this contest came from a podcast I was listening to, the B.S. Report with Bill Simmons. The host was interviewing a former ESPN colleague, and they were discussing how certain statistics in baseball are misleading.

An example? Wins for pitchers. Apparently there is a movement to abolish that statistic. Why? Because a pitcher can pitch a terrible game, and still come away with the win, assuming his lineup bails him out. Conversely, a pitcher can pitch a beautiful game, and lose just because his hitters decide to approach their at-bats like the pudgy partner from bankruptcy at the annual intra-firm softball game. To prove the limited utility of using wins as a proxy for determining who is the best pitcher, consider the following. By nearly all accounts, Clayton Kershaw of the L.A. Dodgers is the single most dominant pitcher in baseball today. Unsurprisingly, he is reportedly in line for the richest (around $30 million a year or so) contract extension for a pitcher — ever. But he has fewer wins this season (so far) than Bartolo Colon, a 40-year-old journeyman pitcher (on his sixth team, and nearly a decade removed from his last All-Star game appearance), who is making non-equity service partner money ($3 million) by baseball standards. Wins simply do not tell the whole story.

Biglaw has its share of statistical shortcomings….

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160, 170, 185, 210, 230, 250….

Today is January 17, so you should have received your first paycheck for 2013 by now. Was that paycheck smaller than you expected?

Well, it wasn’t your imagination. Due to the non-extension of the payroll tax holiday, if you’re earning the same salary this year as last year, your take-home pay should now be smaller.

But what if you’re an associate at a major law firm with a lockstep compensation system? You should see a seniority-based raise reflected in your first paycheck of the year, correct?

Earlier this week, associates at two leading law firms flipped out when their paychecks weren’t what they expected….

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Maybe they’re on to something….

Here’s an interesting irony: some of the Biglaw firms that spend the least amount of time thinking about money are the ones that enjoy the most of it. A number of super-elite New York law firms have lockstep compensation systems, in which partners are paid purely based on seniority, and these firms are among the most profitable in the country. These firms focus on doing great work for their clients, not on divvying up the spoils from such work — and, in the end, there’s more than enough filthy lucre to keep everyone smelling like money.

On an individual level, some of the wealthiest lawyers in Biglaw — the ones who make partner, and remain partner, for years and years — don’t fixate much on money either. They focus instead on their work, which they seem to just love (often more than any hobbies, and sometimes more than their families). As for the money, well, it just comes — in copious quantities.

Let’s take a closer look at these phenomena….

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We’re getting back into the Biglaw bonus beat here at Above the Law. Yesterday, for example, we covered Winston & Strawn’s bonus news.

Today we’ll take a look at bonuses over at Baker Botts. Is it true that everything is bigger in Texas?

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Back in 2009, when killing lockstep was all the rage, a number of large law firms announced that they would be moving to some form of a merit-based compensation system. Now that we’re a few years into those systems, how many firms have stuck with the plan? And which systems do associates prefer?

Of the 86 distinct Biglaw firms at which survey respondents work, 63% of the firms pay base salaries on a lockstep system, and the remaining 37% of firms use a merit-based system or hybrid-lockstep system for paying base salaries. The vast majority of respondents, 70%, say they prefer the lockstep model for base salaries because of its transparency and predictability.

For year-end bonuses, 70% of the firms utilize a merit-based or hybrid-lockstep system, while 30% have a lockstep system based either on class year or billable hours. According to 62% of respondents, the most preferred type of year-end bonus allocation system is a merit-based or hybrid-lockstep system.

After the jump, find out how various combinations of compensation systems measure up against market.

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The official title of the NALP conference panel that I attended on merit-based compensation contained a playful shout-out to Sarah Palin: “How Is That Performance-Based Compensation System Working for Ya?”

The panel was originally supposed to have featured a representative of the now-defunct Howrey law firm. So the snarky answer to the question presented might be, “Not well.” (In fairness to merit-based compensation, however, Howrey’s dissolution didn’t have much to do with its model for training, promoting, and compensating associates.)

No mention of Howrey was made during the introductory remarks (or anywhere else in the discussion, for that matter). Rather, the panel focused on the positive — and offered useful advice for firms that are contemplating adoption of performance-based systems….

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Well that didn’t take long, did it? On Tuesday afternoon, we wrote about associates at Winston & Strawn who were upset over the lack of news on seniority-based salary bumps. Since we’re well into a new year, associates at top law firms should be getting raises, with first-years becoming second-years ($160K to $170K), second-years becoming third-years ($170K to $185), etc. But the Winston tipsters hadn’t heard anything — even though historically they’ve received pay raise news in early February, and now it’s mid-March.

Today, however, the Winston associates received some good news — very good news, in fact. “Salary memos went out today,” one Winston source reported. “The bottom line is that those who were not at market rate now are. They’ve abandoned the ‘merits-based’ system and have gone back to lockstep.”

Wow. Is merit-based compensation becoming a casualty of the economic recovery? Back when merit-based systems were all the rage, we created a category on ATL called Killing Lockstep. Perhaps now it’s time to create ones called Killing Killing Lockstep, or Lockstep Resurrected?

Regardless of whether or not this becomes a trend throughout Biglaw, Winston associates are happy — and grateful….

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Morgan Lewis & Bockius associates: your long nightmare might be at an end. All the way back in July of 2009, MLB became one of the first firms to announce its intention to do away with lockstep compensation. Back then, the firm was still in the teeth of the recession, it had canceled its 2010 summer program, and at MLB (and firms around the country) killing lockstep and moving towards a low base-salary, high merit-based bonus structure for associates seemed like an appealing way to reduce employee costs.

But months and months passed without MLB actually implementing anything. We kept hearing vague “details” about the new merit-based system, but nothing actually became formalized, even as other firms went full steam ahead into the merit-based unknown.

Well, the uncertainty is over. At a video-conference yesterday, Morgan Lewis chairman Francis M. Milone announced that the firm is mothballing plans to move towards a fully merit-based system for associate compensation and development. At least not in the three-tier, random factors for advancement, format that some firms rushed to implement in 2009.

Oh, and bonuses are supposed to “substantially larger” than last year for MLB associates…

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While expressing a commitment to maintain its new, incredibly transparent, merit-based salary structure, Orrick is moving its base salary back to reaffirming its commitment to $160,000 for first-year associates working in major markets. That’s right, the time for $145K in big offices is almost at an end.

UPDATE: Initially spokespeople from Orrick termed the move as one back to $160K, but our previous reporting didn’t indicate that Orrick ever came off the $160K starting salary — even after its switch to merit-based compensation. Sources now confirm that Orrick was at $160K all along; today’s salary announcement will primarily affect veteran associates.

From the memo associates received from Orrick’s CEO, Ralph Baxter:

I am pleased to announce an increase to our 2011 base salary schedule for partner track associates in our US offices. This salary schedule will be effective January 1, 2011. We will continue to monitor the legal market and will make any further adjustments necessary to remain competitive.

This change in our salary scale reinforces our continued commitment to be competitive with the world’s leading law firms and to attract and retain the best legal talent. We will continue to ensure that your total compensation reflects the increasing value you contribute to our clients and the firm through the new talent model’s performance-based career progression and bonuses that are driven by merit rather than solely by billable hours.

And there’s more good news: Orrick bumped up each of its associate “tier” levels. This means that, assuming Orrick associates get promoted “on time” relative to their peers at lockstep firms, Orrick’s base salary will once again match the market…

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It must be a slow news week over in mainstream media land. Earlier this week, the New York Times did a survey piece about American salary cuts that tangentially touched on lawyer salaries — old news for people on top of the legal market, but probably new to a more general audience.

Today, the Boston Globe is getting in on the lawyer pay action. Its report focuses on the move towards merit-based associate compensation that’s been happening for at least a year:

Boston’s top law firms are dramatically changing how they pay young lawyers, adapting to a changing market by adopting Wall Street-style compensation systems that rely on performance bonuses for large shares of annual earnings.

Major law firms have traditionally hired junior lawyers at six-figure salaries and awarded annual increases based on the number of years at the firm, a system known as “lockstep.’’ But several of Boston’s largest and best-known firms are telling associates that they no longer can count on automatic raises. Instead, they will receive salaries and bonuses based on how partners assess their performance.

Wall Street-style compensation, is it? Well then, I guess we should expect bonuses in Boston this year to be all over the map, instead of in strict lockstep with what peer firms end up paying…

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