The Merits of Merit-Based Pay
posted by Michelle Harner
Yesterday, Bingham McCutchen announced its move to a merit-lockstep compensation scheme. Under the scheme, associates’ base salaries will be determined on a lockstep basis that considers years of experience and hours billed. So if you are a second-year associate who bills 1,900 hours or more, you make $170,000. If you are a second-year associate who bills less than 1,900 hours but 1,500 hours or more, you make $165,000. If you bill less than 1,500 hours, your salary is frozen (see here). Bingham McCutchen’s bonuses, however, will be based on a more individualized merit evaluation. In contrast, firms like Drinker Biddle, Howrey and Orrick are moving to a complete merit-based compensation structure that generally places associates in different tiers tied to individual evaluations. (For a discussion of the difficulties of transitioning to these new schemes, see here.)
In theory, merit-based compensation structures sound great. Consider Howrey’s description of its new procedures: “‘We will expect certain levels of performance and certain levels of experience, and it will be the responsibility of the law firm and the partners that oversee them to make those experiences available to them.’ . . . Associates will be assigned to partners who will be responsible for their development and their individual evaluations.” More mentoring and individualized supervision of associates would enhance not only law firm productivity but also client service, the quality of law firms’ products and the profession generally.
But will merit-based compensation really encourage more meaningful partner/associate dialogue and professional development efforts or just re-emphasize the importance of billable hours? Most firms using merit-based compensation structures consider an associate’s billable hour number as a significant factor in her evaluation. More billable hours do not, however, translate into quality products or meritorious performance (see here and here). In fact, efficiency itself may be among the best indicia of a truly talented associate. Will merit-based compensation structures account for and reward efficiency, or will they encourage greater inefficiency? The answer, I think, depends largely on firm culture and the individual partners performing the evaluations, but I have to say I have my doubts.