It’s September. South Florida’s long, hot summer will soon give way to the not-quite-as-long and not-quite-as-hot late summer, known in other parts of the nation as “fall.”
Ah, the sights and sounds of a South Florida late summer: football, Halloween, the unlamented passing of another hurricane season, and every lawyer’s favorite water sport — guessing how big a ladle each partner will get to dip into the bonus pool this year.
The bonus pool has been a little shallow recently, to put it mildly. We’ve all gotten memos from the executive committee talking about sacrificing for the good of the Firm (they leaven the even more frequent memos about dunning clients so we can get A/R in before the last accounting period of the year).
What is overtly intended, of course, is to lower expectations from bonus gulp to bonus sip. If you tend to believe the worst of people (I know, we’re lawyers, it’s our job to believe the worst of people — but only because we see it so often), you realize that the intention behind the overt intention is to preserve as much as possible of the rapidly evaporating bonus puddle for the Partners Who Count.
We all know, in our resentful heart of hearts, that the top dogs will take care of themselves; the goal is to get as much as we can from what’s left over. Think of those Safari Channel scenes where the hyenas feed in order from biggest to smallest. By the time the runt gets to the zebra, there’s nothing left but the stripes. Competition for bonus is the same idea.
The precise strategies for maximizing bonus when you’re in the middle of the pack depend critically on exactly how the Firm determines bonus amount. (Forget it if you’re in the runty end of the group — nothing you do will have appreciable impact. You’re better off trying to get some adjunct professor job as a supplement.)
In some firms, especially in Medium Law, bonuses are highly subjective. The compensation committee (i.e., the Managing Partner’s cronies) examines a number of factors — are you a team player? What’s your book of business? How many hours did you bill? Did you spill your mojito on the boss at the retreat? — and comes up with a number.
In such a situation, you have to think long term. Build up important relationships with influential partners so that they can appreciate the nuances of your practice and its unlimited potential for future billings. Let them know the many intangible (read: non-billable) contributions you make that are invaluable (read: can’t be valued in dollars) to the Firm. Remember to bring a camera to next year’s retreat and stay late to catch incriminating photos.
In other firms, there’s a formula. At least, management says there is. The bonus formula is more closely guarded than the recipe for Coca-Cola. The reason is obvious: If everyone knew the numbers and how to plug them in, they could all calculate the bonus they had earned. Worse still, they could calculate what everyone else had earned. What’s wrong with this? Nothing — until what’s earned is compared to what’s actually paid.
At that point, the emperor’s lack of clothing becomes undeniable and a palace coup becomes highly likely.
No, better for all, for the Firm, and, especially, for management, if the exact technique for the bonus sausage making goes unknown. The mid-pack partners can emphasize this number or that, pump the potential value of this or that contact, or show (if truly desperate) how they didn’t spend all their discretionary fund and, thus, saved the Firm money, all to justify some bonus increment.
Then, on bonus day, they can open that envelope and find: a memo announcing a capital call.