In their quest to retain midlevels, are firms neglecting a perk that has become routine in corporate America—the 401(k) match? In comments from our Midlevel Asssociates Survey, respondents bemoaned the lack of retirement benefits offered by their employers, calling on them to kick in to associate 401(k) plans.
The complaints come as firms begin to recover from the downturn, giving associates the luxury of worrying about the details of their benefit plans. "Given the profitability of the firm, I feel strongly that the firm should offer 401(k) matching contributions," wrote one Drinker Biddle & Reath associate (Drinker Biddle declined to comment). Midlevels at Davis Wright Tremaine; Fish & Richardson; Hughes Hubbard & Reed; K&L Gates; Littler Mendelson; Morgan, Lewis & Bockius; Morrison & Foerster; Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr; and eight other firms all expressed simliar sentiments.
Davis Wright managing partner David Baca says that his firm has periodically reevaluated the issue but that associates had other priorities. "By and large the associates have told us, 'We have debt loads, and we would rather have as much money in our pocket as possible,' " Baca says. (A Morgan Lewis spokesman also said his firm has found that associates are more interested in other benefits.)
Several other firms, including those mentioned above, declined to comment on the topic. K&L Gates chairman and global managing partner Peter Kalis said he couldn't respond to any questions about the firm's lack of 401(k) matching because he had no context on how the rest of the market dealt with associate retirement benefits.
Philip Deitch, a principal at Pricewaterhousecoopers who specializes in law firm actuarial planning related to pensions, says law firms that offer 401(k) matches to associates are the exception. "For that group of lawyers, the cash is valued higher than deferred money, which is effectively what retirement contributions are," Deitch says.
A secondary reason for the move away from asso­ciate matching, Deitch says, concerns Internal Revenue Service rules that were triggered as law firms began shifting partner retirement funds into defined benefit plans in the early 2000s. Firms found it easier to comply with an IRS requirement that "highly paid" employees receive similar benefits to "non–highly paid" staff by cutting out contributions to associates, who fall in the highly paid camp.
An associate at one Am Law 100 firm, who asked to remain anonymous, says that inquiries to management about why the firm didn't match contributions were met with a response of "You are not getting this, because it's not market." Says this associate: "At some point people will realize, 'I can make almost as much going in-house to a client, and I'll also get these extra perks, get weekends [off], and be able to take three weeks off a year.' Ultimately it will damage firms, not just ours, as they lose higher-level lawyers."