Partner Compensation reality
September 2023 it was announced that three Kirland & Ellis partners would move to Paul Weiss. According to people close to the matter, the trio would each receive $20 million in annual compensation at their new firm. This is quite exceptional as today at Am Law 25 firms, only a handful of partners have comp in excess of $20 million. The news will undoubtedly leave a number of partners elsewhere in town feeling all at once very unhappy and under-rewarded.
For compensating its partners, most firms today have a system that includes elements of merit based compensation as well as seniority based. Some well-known firms with pure lockstep have introduced merit based differentiators in order to retain and attract star partners. What the modified lockstep looks like varies wildly. Most firms have adopted a set of – sometimes very detailed and complicated – rules for calculating each partner’s profit share. Others involve a compensation committee or have the managing partner decide.
Compensation for yardstick
Why is partner compensation such a hot topic in many law firms? Partners in business law firms invariably earn more than 99% of the population, so why not just be happy with it and focus on clients and family? One reason is that partner compensation is used as a yardstick for the success of the firm. Partners always compare PEP with other firms, seeing a close competitor have higher comp will trigger a heated debate on the firm’s strategy and sometimes results in star partners leaving. Also the opposite is true: a highly competitive partner compensation is a prerequisite for lateral hiring of rainmakers, which in turn could help the firm become even more successful. This is what’s happening at Paul Weiss.
Which compensation model is best?
Ideally in a firm, all partners are equally successful in the market and are happy to cooperate with each other. If the bandwidth between partners is narrow, there will be no need for merit based differentiation and lockstep will help avoid partners starting to compete with each other. Each partner will always act with the interest of the firm in mind.
Unfortunately there is no ideal world in which each partner is equally successful and also partners are inclined to prioritize self-interest before firm-interest. This will even happen in lockstep firms as each partner is under pressure to meet his/her target. Partners start monopolizing client relationships and are trying to get files in which also other partners are active, to be administered under their name. Now the solidarity which underpins the lockstep is compromised, cracks will start to appear. Collaboration will suffer and star partners will demand action against slackers.
One could also start from the other end assuming that self-interest is the norm and make the compensation fully merit based. This could even go as far as partners charging internally for helping out in another partner’s file. Such ‘eat what you kill’ compensation systems will allow for a very large bandwidth in partner performance, but provide no incentive for collaboration. Fully merit based systems also give young new partners a difficult start as in order to make an income they will have little alternative than working in other partners files at a reduced rate and without quickly growing a client base of their own.
Since both lockstep and ‘eat what you kill’ have their problems, it comes as no surprise the hybrid modified lockstep has become the most popular. In reality the modified lockstep suffers from the same issues: collaboration remains an issue and the weak partners irritate the star partners.
“There is no evidence to support that compensation impacts partner performance”
Carrot and stick
As stated, in our practice we have seen a great many different partner compensation models. Most of them have a few things in common: they favor a small group of partners and they aim to influence partner behavior. Let’s examen both in more detail.
Mostly compensations systems favor the more senior partners with an established practice. One argument could be the firm must prevent such rainmakers to leave. While there certainly is some truth in that, it also creates problems, notably when it comes to succession. Also this group is typically also involved in the leadership of the firm whether it be formal or informal. Granting themselves the largest cut can in a way be self-serving. And I have not even mentioned ‘origination credits’, which also disproportionately favors this group.
Over there years we have done multiple in depth analysis and never have we found any evidence that individual partner performance and behavior can be significantly influenced by compensation. Never have we seen a weak partner show better performance after his/her compensation was cut. Receiving less money will not transform a weak partner into a strong partner. This is similar for other aspects that are part of a partner compensation formula: rewarding collaboration hardly increases real world collaboration. Partners that feel comfortable collaborating will collaborate regardless and those that prefer to work on their own will continue to do so even it this means they will miss out on a small percentage of their compensation.
As a rule of thumb: partner compensation is not the right tool to change the status quo. Only culture can do that.
The bigger picture
Partner compensation is one of those topics that we come across a lot when working with our clients. Many law firms spend disproportionate amounts of time discussing how to divide the profit among the partners. The problem I see is that having lengthy conversations on how to distribute profit does not make the firm as such more profitable. These discussions are just inward looking and a time and emotions consuming energy drain.
We have found there are typically two triggers for discussing partner comp. The first is heavy lifters complaining about partners that seem to enjoy a free ride and don’t put in the effort. The other trigger is the wish to change partner behavior, typically this means stimulating collaboration.
As mentioned before, there is no evidence that partner compensation changes partner performance. Taking away money from a weak partner will just legitimize their weakness. Giving more money to a top performer will only keep him/her happy for so long.
We have looked in depth at lateral movements of partners across a number of markets. In some markets lateral movements are common in other markets they remain rare and are frowned upon. One thing partners that move firm have in common: the primary motif for moving is rarely money. Typically, they have lost confidence in their firm’s strategy or have developed cultural or interpersonal issues. A partner that likes the firm culture, gets along with other partners and feels supported, is unlikely to leave for more money.
Using PEP as a yardstick for performance also has its flaws. Generally we at TGO Consulting prefer to look at profit margin, revenue per lawyer and a number of other indicators more relevant to a firm’s performance.
Law firms are well advised to have a permanent focus on performance and profitability on a firm level and not so much on an individual partner level. Partners should spend less time discussing internal matters and more time identifying and sharing business opportunities. Firms should invest in creating or maintain a result driven, inclusive, collaborative culture. Partner compensation should not disproportionally favor a small group and should be supportive for young partners who are still developing their practice. Any system that meets these criteria will do.
Writing this article I noticed there is so much to cover when it comes to partner compensation, that it is impossible to squeeze it all in 1000 words. Potentially this is a good topic for my next book, what do you think?