The Belly of the Beast

Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s new column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

I like what Steven Harper’s doing these days. After 30 years at Kirkland & Ellis, he retired from the fray, and he now comments on big law firms from an outsider’s perspective, at The Belly of the Beast. Although Harper’s critiques are often cutting, I think they reflect his underlying concern, not animosity, about law firm life.

But, to my eye, Harper recently missed a trick. In a recent column at the AmLaw Daily, Harper speculated that big law firms may prefer lockstep compensation to merit-based systems because merit-based reviews require partners to invest nonbillable time thinking carefully about associate performance. There’s no incentive for partners to invest that nonbillable time, says Harper, so firms settle for lockstep — and firms thus delay giving meaningful (and ultimately helpful) guidance to associates.

I think it’s worse than that. I think there’s actually an invidious incentive for partners at large firms to mislead associates about their performance. Why?

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