Robert Ruyak doesn’t look like a revolutionary. With his full head of gray hair and conservative business attire, Howrey’s 59-year-old managing partner looks like the traditional image of a veteran litigator. But don’t let his appearance fool you. Ruyak and his management team at the Washington, D.C.-based firm are doing something that almost no other Am Law 200 firm has done: They’re revamping the tried-and-true method of paying law firm associates. Howrey is taking a sledgehammer to the established lockstep system, which guarantees associates salary increases every year. Instead, the firm is implementing a more competitive model: Raises, when they’re granted, will be based exclusively on merit.

Under the firm’s new promotion model, which goes into effect in January 2009, salary increases will be linked to evaluations and mastery of core legal skills. An associate receiving a poor evaluation could be denied a raise, while an associate receiving an exceptional evaluation might see a base salary increase greater than what the firm has offered in the past.

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