Working in the business of law has its challenges. First of all, there are all the lawyers (ba-dum-bum-CHING). Actually, it’s the lawyers that make our jobs interesting. SEO. Not interesting. Explaining to lawyers why SEO is important, now that can be fun and challenging.

A common “challenge” we – legal marketers, partners, administrators and clients – share in common is what to do about those darn associates. These kids are coming out of law school making $135,000-160,000 a year. They don’t want to bill the hours required to pay the salaries. They aren’t profitable until they’re mid-years. They want flexible hours to pursue outside interests. They want a part-time partner track. To top it off, clients don’t want to train 1st years on their dime.

Dan DiPietro proposes in the American Lawyer article, Pay associates by performance, not by class year, that moving away from the lockstep to a performance-based system can resolve many of these issues.

According to the National Association for Law Placement, firms lose 80 percent of law school hires within five years. With the decline in law school applications in recent years, it’s going to get even harder for firms to recruit and retain top talent.


… performance-based pay gives partners an effective means to encourage star performers and boost the performance of mediocre associates. Nearly every law firm would pay its top performers more to keep them. A lockstep compensation system not only prevents firms from doing so, it forces them to pay mediocre performers at the same rate as stars. Knowing that mentoring, training, and feedback will all feed into associate compensation, partners should be more willing to put the time and
effort into such programs to keep their top talent happy.

I have yet to meet someone in our field who does not agree that law school graduates are ill prepared to practice law the day they pass the bar. Their first few years are in fact an internship, yet they begin their careers in the top 10% of household incomes. On day one we reinforce the entitlement behavior we all loathe.

By tying salary and bonuses not to a lockstep system, but to performance, we will be able to guide, mentor and promote associates who are better prepared to succeed in private law practices. Motivation of lawyers will move away from a number and towards something they must earn. While we might never be able to “put the genie back in the bottle” as to starting salaries, we can at least mitigate the damage it can cause.