Merit Based Compensation

In terms of firm finances, Paul Hastings had a perfectly decent 2011. Revenue and profits were fairly stable, according to Am Law Daily. Gross revenue fell by 2 percent to $884 million, and profits per partner fell by 1.3 percent to about $1.97 million. On the brighter side, revenue per lawyer surpassed the $1 million mark for the first time, hitting $1.01 million.

So how are those revenue-generating worker bees being compensated? Bonuses are out at Paul Hastings. How are PH associates reacting?

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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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The firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe has been a leader in instituting a merit-based compensation system. Two aspects of their system make Orrick’s commitment to merit-based seem genuine:

1. Partners put in significant time so that merit evaluations are more than just hours cut-offs.
2. Orrick is transparent about how many people get paid.

You can’t run a merit-based system with a Jones Day-like approach to transparency without everybody feeling like they are secretly getting screwed. If you do it out in the open, at least the low-hanging fruit will know that other, better work paid off for others in their class.

So let’s look at the memo. While Orrick generally does a good job of looking at associate productivity instead of mere man-hours, make no mistake, the firm still wants you to bill, and in a timely fashion….

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Today everyone’s talking tech, thanks to Facebook’s upcoming IPO. In light of how Silicon Valley is dominating the news cycle, it seems fitting to discuss the recent bonus and salary news from Wilson Sonsini — one of SV’s top firms, and counsel over the years to many startup companies turned tech giants.

(But not Facebook, at least with respect to the IPO. That’s being handled by Fenwick & West and Simpson Thacher.)

So what kind of bonuses did WSGR just announce? Let’s find out….

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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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In the throes of the recession, many Biglaw firms jumped on the bandwagon to kill lockstep compensation in favor of a more merit-based system (though some have already fallen off the bandwagon). With a variety of compensation models currently in use among firms today, we want to hear from you about how you get compensated at your firm — and how you prefer to get compensated.

Please take our short survey, brought to you by Lateral Link, and tell us how you are compensated at your firm. Then check back later for the survey results. As always, your survey responses will be kept completely confidential.

Check out the survey, after the jump.

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What’s going on over at Orrick? Spring bonuses, that’s what — but with a twist.

As we’ve noted before, Orrick remains committed to merit-based compensation, even though some other firms that started moving away from lockstep have returned to it. Orrick’s approach to spring bonuses reflects the meritocratic orientation of its compensation.

Let’s have a look at what Orrick is doing here….

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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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As we’ve explained before, we want to hear about your law firm’s bonus news, even if it’s old. As long as we haven’t written it up yet, please consider it fair game. (Use our site search box in the upper-right-hand corner, or scroll through our Associate Bonus Watch archives, to see which announcements we’ve already covered.)

One firm that announced bonuses many moons ago: Winston & Strawn. This was well before the spring bonus phenomenon took hold, so the Cravath 2010 year-end bonuses were still the benchmark.

Find out what Winston did — and learn about an additional issue that is bugging some Winston associates (and maybe associates at other firms, too)….

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(And an additional issue about base salaries.)

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