Howrey's recent announcement that it would discard lockstep compensation for its associates in favor of merit-based pay garnered lots of attention over the summer.
But to lawyers at Jones Day, the giant 2,200-lawyer law firm, it's nothing new.
"We've always been a one-guy-at-a-time, merit-based firm," said Joe Sims, a Jones Day litigator since 1978. "It was this way when I joined and as far back as anyone here can remember."
At the firm, associate compensation is set by an end-of-the-year review, based on evaluations from every partner and senior associate the young lawyer has worked with that year, said Sims, who helps oversee the California region for the firm. (At the end of this year, 2007 bonuses and 2008 salaries will be computed.)
The reviews take into account all aspects of an associate's performance, not just hours, Sims said. And though the market for associate salaries is a consideration -- the firm pays its first-years at market -- it's not the main one.
"We take account of other people's published or leaked numbers or ranges," said Sims. "But the fact of the matter is that, in any given year, we'll have people who are below those ranges, at those ranges or above those ranges depending upon their contribution."
Thomas Rector, a senior litigation associate in the firm's San Francisco office, said he likes the merit-based pay system, which is also a closed one in which no one is told what their colleagues make.
"In terms of focusing on the merits of your work, it encourages you to do good work," said Rector, who worked at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman before coming to Jones Day in 2003.
Rector said that at firms that base pay more on hours billed, associates spend too much time trying to rack them up. Not at Jones Day, he said.
"There's no doubt in my mind that between associates, it encourages work sharing," he said. "You're not incentivized to hoard work to get more hours."
That's not to say that newcomers aren't skeptical of the Jones Day system, Sims said, which requires attorneys to trust the higher-ups to make the right recommendations based on all their evaluations and the managing partner of the firm to set their compensation based on those recommendations.
So far, Rector said, it's worked out.
"If you do good work, you're going to be taken care of," he said.