Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: partner compensation

Mar 25, 2014

Law Firm Associate and Non-Equity Partner Compensation: Is There a Cap or Ceiling?


I am the managing partner of a 16 attorney insurance defense law firm in Kansas City. We have two equity partners, four non-equity partners, and ten associates. Only the two equity partners bring in client business. Since our clients are insurance companies most of our work is new business from existing clients. Unlike other firms doing insurance defense work our billing rates are low and we have to put in a lot of billable hours and maintain a high ratio of associates and non-equity partners to equity partners.

In the past our associates stayed for a while and left after several years. As a result about the time they reached the higher compensation levels they left and we replaced them with lower cost associates. In the last few years – with the economy and the oversupply of lawyers – they are staying much longer. While we – the equity partners – want to be fair and are willing to share – we are concerned about our reducing profit margins and at what point an associate or non-equity partner's compensation is "maxed out." We would appreciate your thoughts.


Law firms of all types of practice are experiencing this dilemma. The problem is even more evident in insurance defense firms where much of the work is routine discovery work that can be handled as well by an attorney with two years' experience as by an attorney with ten years' experience at lower cost. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Use the formula – 3 times salary as a general guide to determine where you are regarding working attorney fee production from each of your attorneys. If you are paying an associate or non-equity partner $100,000 a year salary you should be collecting $300,000. The goal is that 1/3 of each fee dollar goes to association of the attorney, 1/3 to overhead, and 1/3 to profit – this a 30% profit margin.
  2. Dig into your financials and determine your contribution to profit from each of your attorneys. Allocate all direct expenses and indirect overhead and calculate profit margin. Click here for an illustration on how to allocate overhead
  3. Profit margin should be between 25%-30%.
  4. Use the margin to establish a theoretical salary limit in absence of other contributions such as management, client origination, additional business from existing clients, etc.
  5. Cap salaries with the exception of periodic cost of living adjustments.
  6. Use a client or referral commission bonus, production/hours bonus, and bonus pools to reward exceptional performance.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Mar 12, 2013

Partner Compensation – Two Attorney Start-up Firm


I am a solo practitioner in Chicago. I've been offered by another solo to join him as a partner, and was wondering if you could suggest any articles or books I could look at to think about how to structure the partnership.  We bill about the same number of hours, but his rate is 50% higher than mine (300 v 200) and he has 20 years on me in age and experience.


I am a believer in true partnerships as they seem to work best and the compensation system that seems to work the best is where the partners share and share alike the profits based upon their ownership percentage. Initially a percentage is agreed upon based upon the revenue/profit
history and experience that each brings to the firm. If the level of contribution changes over time you talk about it and the percentages are adjusted. You may want to start by looking at your fees and profits over the last five years and compare them to his and use this as a starting point. Consideration should also be given to his experience. Hours don t matter as much as dollars. Then determine that ratio. Often in an arrangement such as this, depending on the ratio, it might be a 60%/40% split. If this is what you agree to then establish your capital accounts in accordance with that ratio (initial firm investment in the form of cash or other assets) and then split profits according to this split. Over the years adjust as needed. If you have a healthy partnership you will be comfortable discussing this subject.

Other approach if you want to be lone rangers would be a formula eat-what-you kill approach.

Here are my blogs on this topics generally: 

Here are a couple specific blogs:

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC


Dec 07, 2011

Client Origination Credit and Importance in Law Firm Partner Compensation Systems


Our firm is a 18 attorney insurance defense firm located in Chicago. We are in our second generation and none of the original founders are still working in the firm. The majority of our insurance company clients have been with the firm for decades and were inherited. Our current crop of partners are primarily "worker bees" and have not developed "rainmaking" skills. We have not added a new client to our client roster in years. In the past two years we have lost several clients due to mergers, consolidations, and partner defections. This concerns us. Currently partners are rewarded and compensated totally on "working attorney" fee collections. We are considering changing our compensation system to including a credit for origination of new business. What are your thoughts regarding client origination credit?


All law firms need a mix of finders, minders, and grinders. Finders (client originators) are needed to provide sufficient work to keep the workers busy. Minders (responsible matter attorneys) are needed to manage the portfolio of client work. Grinders (working attorneys) are needed to service and produce client services. While there are exceptions, in most firms partners must hit on all three of these cylinders. In other words, most of the partners must do well at finding, minding, and grinding. Partners may perform some of these roles better than others, however overall they should be competently performing each of the roles. Very few firms can afford the luxury of having several senior partners only bringing in business without being required to maintain personal production levels as well. Partner compensation research concludes that the most a law firm can afford to pay a rainmaker – over and above his or her own billable hours (fee collections) is the marginal profit derived from the associates the rainmaker can keep busy, regardless of how many partners he or she occupies. The most valuable partners are those who offer a balance of skills: worker, delegator, supervisor, and rainmaker.

Since origination of new clients is the lifeblood of any firm it is a key factor that should be recognized in any compensation system. The exact weight that it is given will depend upon the firm and how dependent it is upon constant client replacement, only a few institutional clients, turnover of clients, leverage ratio, etc. A firm that has a well diversified base of institutional long time clients will typically weigh client origination much lower than a firm that has to constantly replace individual clients.

Actual approaches to implementation will depend upon whether your system is a subjective or a objective (formula system). However, the pitfalls are the same. Actual assignments of origination credits to partners can be difficult to initially determine. When and how should origination credits be shared between partners? Who determines and monitors such determinations? How long should the credit be awarded?

Origination credit becomes counter productive when it encourages senior partners to become comforable on the income received from origination credits from clients they brought in 20 years ago to the extent that they no longer develop new sources of business nor generate working attorney fees.

For this reason we believe origination credit should have a sunset expiration provision and that a firm should set time limits on origination credits – say five years on a reducing schedule – and have partners share origination credit with other members of the firm who develop business by cross-selling the firm's services to clients whose accounts were originated by another partner. In addition, offer "maintenance credit" as long as the originating partner continues to perform tasks that reinforce the relationship between the client and the firm.

Click here for our blog on compensation

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Sep 14, 2010

Characteristics of Successful Law Firms – Basic Building Blocks – Block 4 – Partner Compensation

For the past three weeks I have been discussing the characteristics of successful law firms and introduced the following basic building blocks that successful firms typically have in place:

Partner relations, leadership building, and management blocks have been discussed. 

The fourth basic building block is partner compensation. Successful firms have a good partner compensation in place. Partners frequently advise us in confidential interviews that they are more dissatisfied with the method used to determine compensation than with the amount of compensation itself.

How much and how partners are paid are probably the two most challenging management issues that law firms face. Many law firms are struggling with compensation systems that no longer meet the needs of the firm and the individual partners. Failure to explore alternatives to failing systems often result in partner dissatisfaction leading to partner defections and disintegration of the firm.

In many law firms compensation systems have been counter-cultural and failed to align compensation systems with business strategies. As more law firms move toward teams many are incorporating new ways to compensate partners in order to develop a more motivated and productive workforce. Team goals are being linked to business plans and compensation is linked to achieving team goals. Such systems reinforce a culture that significantly advances the firm’s strategic goals.

People tend to behave the way they're measured and paid.

What gets measured and rewarded – is what gets done.

However, be advised that compensation does not drive behavior – it maintains status quo. Motivation requires leadership which can have a greater impact upon a firm than anything else.

Compensation systems should do more than simply allocate the pie – they should reinforce the behaviors and efforts that the firm seeks from its attorneys. Many firms are discovering that desired behaviors and results must go beyond short term fee production and must include contributions in areas such as marketing, mentoring, firm management, etc. to ensure the long term viability of the firm.

Click here to read my article on the topic

I will address each of the other building blocks in upcoming postings.

John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC


Jul 16, 2010

Law Firm Eat What You Kill Partner Compensation Systems


We are current using an “eat what you kill” compensation system in our firm. Is this appropriate method for our firm to use?


 It depends. You must ask yourself what kind of firm you want to be – team-based firm or group of space sharers or partnership of individual firms. Such systems are not appropriate for law firms that want to build a firm and create a team-based practice since such compensation systems typically reinforce “lone ranger” behavior resulting in a “me first vs firm first” orientation. It is hard to build a team-based firm with such an orientation. However, some firms do not want to practice as team-based firms – they want to practice as groups of individuals. For these firms such a system may be appropriate. The challenge will be to nail down a method of allocation revenue and overhead that is fair and equitable to all members concerned. Compensation systems should do more than simply allocate the pie – they should reinforce the behaviors and efforts that the firm seeks from its attorneys. Many firms are discovering that desired behaviors and results must go beyond short term fee production and must include contributions in areas such as marketing, mentoring, firm management, etc. to ensure the long term viability of the firm. Eat-what-you-kill systems discourage these behaviors.

John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

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