For a large number of law firms, the answer is clear: associate compensation. For many of these firms, associate compensation has become a serious vulnerability in the competition to recruit and retain good lawyers.

Reviewing and improving your firm's associate compensation system need not be time-consuming or involve high consulting fees. Moreover, improvements now can begin to produce a return on investment as early as the first quarter of 2022.

Look at it this way: What would be the long-term cost to your firm - not only in terms of lost fees but also in terms of the loss of a future partner - if you lose one of your most promising associates?

What do associates want?

Let's be clear. Notwithstanding all the breathless headlines in the legal press about ever-higher first-year associate salaries in the so-called "BigLaw" firms, most lawyers work in small and midsize firms. Research conducted by Walker Clark LLC over the years, as we work with law firms worldwide confirms that salary alone is a relatively unimportant -- yes, unimportant -- consideration in associate retention. Newly admitted lawyers tend to prioritize opportunity over cash: the opportunity to develop expertise; the opportunity to do significant client work; the opportunity to advance in the legal profession, to name a few things that most associates tell us are more important than salary.  Salary is important, to be sure, but it seldom is the decisive factor between remaining at one's law firm and moving to another one.

What do associates and your law firm need?

There is a powerful  developmental aspect to associate compensation that most law firms, in our experience, completely overlook. How does associate compensation reinforce and recognize the mastery of skills and the building of experience that a law firm needs in its partners of the future? Too often it reinforces only hard work: billing hours and collecting fees. Those tasks are important, to be sure, but they do little, if anything, to build the business and professional skills that associates will need to become productive partners.

This is why we recommend that associate compensation be linked to more than hard work. It should function in a structure that also manages professional development and career advancement. In these integrated systems, an associate advances in professional status in the firm and earns a higher salary only by learning and demonstrating the business and professional skills that are needed for the next level up. Bonuses for associates are linked to individual performance, usually defined in terms of specific, measurable goals, not just to a firm having a "good year" or "bad year."

Next steps for your law firm

For more than 19 years, Walker Clark LLC has been helping law firms worldwide to review and improve their associate compensation structures and policies, as part of an integrated system that promotes professional development and provides a rational structure for well-managed career advancement. We deliver practical recommendations and implementation strategies that are custom-designed for your firm, not off-the-shelf "best practices" or one-size-fits-all templates.

Our associate compensation and career management reviews can be completed in less than 90 days, which means your firm could even implement your improvements in the first quarter of the new year.

For a complementary video consultation with a Walker Clark compensation consultant, click on this link to send us an e-mail or telephone the number at the bottom of this page.

Norman Clark