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Associate Compensation: The ATL Debate at UCLA


There isn’t much I wouldn’t do for free food.  Once I faked a free email address to cadge a free hotdog from the Stanford Undergraduate Karate Club (SUKC). So when Above the Law editors David Lat and Elie Mystal came to Southern California to discuss law firm compensation, I was intrigued.  When I heard they were serving turkey wraps, I was sold.

This is more or less how I ended up at UCLA law school to hear a Federalist Society sponsored debate about the so-called “lock-step” vs. “merit” bases for associate bonuses at BigLaw firms.  A lock-step structure entails that everyone from the same hiring year gets the same bonus, regardless of any other factors.  First year associates make x, second year associates make y, et cetera.  The good part about all being paid the same is that it tends to breed less competition and unfriendliness among associates.  The crap part is that if you do something great (bill lots of hours or write a brief that rivals the Upanishads), you get paid no more than the schlep down the hall who sniffs glue all day long.

In a merit-based bonus structure, associates are paid bonuses based on… merit.  The good news is that this allows for good old-fashion Machiavellian competition (which is kind of why you went into BigLaw in the first place, right?).  The bad news is that the concept of merit seems to be difficult to quantify, and because it’s so hard for partners at BigLaw firms to get their minds around, they’ve historically interpreted it as synonymous with billed hours.  So interpreted, a merit based system might encourage the bilking of clients and a preoccupation with quantity and not quality legal work.

The well-attended debate lasted about an hour and a half.  David Lat, who argued for merit- based systems, was convincing when he called into question Mystal’s claim that slackers mostly don’t exist at elite BigLaw firms.  Those of us who suffered through the too recent Bush administrations realize that slackers can exist at all levels of public and private practice.  It strikes us that free-riding is as old as the sun and likely infects even exclusive law firms, especially when doing enough work to kill an average attorney still qualifies as “free-riding” at such places.  Elie Mystal was equally convincing when he claimed that in 700 lawyer firms, with offices are spread around the globe, there is no coherent way for partners to compare the “merit” of various associates.  Without any basis of comparison, partners generally end up advocating for their associates, and unsystematic chaos ensues.

By the end of the Q&A, the consensus from the audience and speakers alike seemed to be that both lock-step and merit bonus systems were band-aids on the hemorrhaging wound that is the billable hour in BigLaw culture.  The speakers urged the law students in attendance that the big firm life of the 80’s and 90’s might be a thing of the past and the historic security of law firm life was now in question.  On the happier side of things, it seemed clear that many well-established firms will endure the contracting economy, and new models of practicing law will emerge from the downsizing ashes that might actually be more profitable and humane than the current interpretation of billable hours at BigLaw firms.

All that was fine, but so many people showed up for the debate that mere crumbs were all that remained of the turkey wrap platters by the time I got there.  Undeterred, I moved on to the reception at Cork Bar downtown (part 2 of the ATL extravaganza) intent upon feasting on the promised hors d’oeures.  Donning a pair of grey suede heels and the de rigueur name tag, I soon found myself engaged in spirited discourse about the glass-ceiling female associates face at BigLaw firms.  As the hour grew late, I clicked my heels twice, snagged a focaccia canape, then drifted into the night.

Article by Jodi Triplett of Blueprint LSAT Preparation.