Best Practices for Associate Compensation

March 28

Welcome back to our in-depth exploration of compensation within law firms. In our previous post , we emphasized the significance of establishing a robust compensation system to attract and retain top talent and keep them motivated. In this post, we'll discuss the crucial components needed to make an effective compensation plan for associates within the firm.

Compensating associates is a multifaceted task that law firms tackle annually to attract and maintain a talented workforce. Unfortunately, numerous small to mid-sized firms lack a robust structure that anticipates market trends and internal changes, and they also often need a simplified process for determining raises and bonuses. 

Key Considerations for Developing Compensation Plans for Associates:

Here are some essential considerations and approaches for creating a comprehensive associate compensation plan.

  1. Benchmarking: Regularly compare your firm's compensation rates with similar firms in the market. Utilize surveys, recruiter feedback, and consultancy services to stay up-to-date with current trends.

  2. Performance and Experience-Based System: Establish a fair and predictable progression system. This system should consider the associate's experience and contribution to the firm.

  3. Alignment with the Firm's Goals: Reward behaviors that foster the firm's success. By aligning bonuses with the firm's objectives, you encourage associates to strive towards those goals.

  4. Transparency: Keep associates informed about their earning potential at various career stages. This openness fosters trust and motivation.

  5. Regular Feedback: Implement a regular system of performance appraisals. This feedback allows associates to understand the connection between their work and their remuneration.

  6. Flexibility: Balance consistency with a measure of flexibility. At times, it makes sense to accommodate individual needs and circumstances.

  7. Timeliness: Set a schedule for raises and bonuses and stick to it. We suggest doing raises in the summer and bonuses at year. Regardless, publish a schedule and stick to it.

By implementing these best practices, you can increase your firm's odds of attracting and retaining the best-fit associates.

Capacity and Performance Expectations

Establishing a compensation structure begins with assessing attorneys' current and future economic and qualitative potential. Firms should project the expected performance and contributions over the first eight to ten years of an attorney’s career in the firm. 

  • Production Capacity - How much work will the attorney handle, and what is the value of that work? Production metrics may include billable hours or caseload, expected billings and collections, and, by extension, rates and realization.
  • Qualitative Performance - Which skills does the attorney need to succeed in the position/ to create value? Consider legal skills, case management, business development contributions, compliance/ interpersonal skills, recruiting support, etc.
  • Profitability - How much economic value should the attorney create beyond their cost? (Expected profit or profit margin)

The qualitative increases in value and objective contributions to revenue and profit indicated in the table below provide an example of the most common factors. Contributions should be considered in the context of increasing long-term value and offering short-term profits. 




  Quality of professional work

Personal Productivity

   Work ethic

  (consistency of quality and quantity)

Profitability of others

(supervision and training)

  Client relations and service


  Personal development and accountability

Recruiting profitable lawyers

   Business development contributions

  (networking, publishing, speaking, etc.)

Business hygiene

(timekeeping, billing, collections)

  Cultural support


  Firm building

  (recruiting, training, process development, etc.)


  Adding to the reputation of the firm



The table below indicates an example of expectations by experience level.




  Approaching consistent 


 Not expected at the experience level 






Training Supervision

Profit Threshold

Billing Management
























A firm may combine all economic scores and consider the aggregate result as a qualitative factor. As long as the selected system is consistently applied, room exists for customization. 




Work Ethic

Work Quality

Bar, Professional Civic

Content Publishing Speaking 

Business Development Competence

Recruiting Contributions

Client Relations and Service

Pro Bono






















Designing a rewarding compensation strategy is essential for maximizing the value from your law firm's legal team. This involves careful deliberation over economic and qualitative criteria. Balancing these factors and customizing your approach enables your firm to attract and retain top lawyers while nurturing a consistent organizational culture.

  1. Start by clearly defining the skill set that brings long-term value to your firm and reward attorneys accordingly to ensure retention of the most compatible talent.
  2. Employ strategies to recognize and financially reward lawyers who consistently excel in high-value areas such as work ethic, quality, and client service, thus motivating them to sustain their high performance.
  3. For firms with top lawyers nearing retirement, devise a compensation plan that encourages emerging talents to take on leadership roles, guaranteeing a smooth transition and enduring success.
  4. Recognize and remunerate specialized expertise appropriately, for instance, by providing incentives to skilled litigators in a trial-focused litigation firm.
  5. Acknowledge and reward qualitative achievements, like the publication of influential content, encouraging lawyers to align with the firm's broader objectives.

It is also necessary to acknowledge the value of specialized expertise and reward it accordingly. For example, if trial experience is highly valued in your litigation firm, compensating successful litigators who excel in this area is an excellent strategy. Finally, recognizing qualitative accomplishments, such as publishing high-quality content, can motivate your lawyers to contribute to the firm's mission.

A compensation strategy that considers both qualitative and economic performance is vital for motivating and retaining the best-fit individuals for your law firm. By extending recognition beyond mere base salary increments to contributions that exceed expectations, you uphold the fairness and prosperity of your organization.

Join us as we continue to explore compensation best practices for law firms. Stay tuned for upcoming articles that will provide in-depth insights and actionable guidance on creating compensation systems that not only draw in and retain top legal talent but also bolster the firm's long-lasting prosperity and cultural ethos.


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