Which system should associates prefer?

Many firms that abandoned lockstep in favor of merit-based compensation a year ago are now reversing course. The prevailing explanation is backlash. Associate dissatisfaction pervades big law–some saw “competency models” as thinly disguised efforts to reduce associate wages. Restoring lockstep, the argument goes, should enhance morale.

But when firm leaders decide they really care about morale, they’ll ask associates to evaluate partners on mentoring, training, and overall humanity–and, at least to some extent, partner compensation will reflect the results. Instead of looking into those unpleasant mirrors, managers are likely to form a new committee investigating the “associate problem,” as if it were a mystery.

One way to improve morale would be to tell associates the truth earlier. But delivering a quality merit review is tough work. And doing so properly is not in most large firms’ short-term economic interests. For starters, the reviews take time–time the partners can’t bill to clients.

When I chaired my firm’s associate review committee in the 1990s, the process focused on a single goal: Identifying the best associates among a distinguished group. That meant evaluating specific skills, identifying developmental needs, and considering future prospects. To squeeze out personality conflicts and internal politics, partners from outside their assigned associates’ practice areas gathered the necessary performance information. Then the committee actually deliberated for an entire day.