Clifford Chance (CC) has broken its core lockstep in London and New York to use the ‘super-point’ tier reserved to reward star performers, with the news emerging as the firm considers placing some of its international offices on a lower rung of its lockstep to boost profitability.
The magic circle firm, which overhauled its three-tier lockstep system in 2015, has long had the ability to reward top-performing partners by moving them above its core 100-point plateau, but has previously opted against such a move – even for lateral hires in the highly competitive US market.
However, this stance has changed in recent months, with at least one partner in London and the US now receiving either 115 or 130 points, according to former partners.
“Super points have been used recently, especially in the US, and in one or two other special cases where people’s practices have performed well over a sustained period,” said one source close to the firm.
An ex-partner added: “I heard that more than one London plateau partner was going to get super points last year and I heard it had happened earlier this year. They are rewarding London superstars so that they stay.”
He also said some partners in New York were handed super points.
The firm’s decision to use the top rung of its three-tier lockstep comes as plateau partners across the firm’s network are seeing their positions on the lockstep reviewed, with German partners already set for a cap at 70 points instead of 100, and similar moves expected elsewhere.
Many partners in offices across continental Europe, the Middle East, Australia and parts of Asia are expected to see their positions capped at 70 points from May, as a result of a review that started around October last year.
CC’s Beijing and Hong Kong offices are not thought to be affected, but Legal Week understands that the firm is looking to drop all Germany, Australia and Dubai plateau partners down to 70 points from 2017-18.
Plateau partners in London are also understood to be at risk.
“They have been aiming for a very significant culling of points,” said one former partner, adding that the firm wanted to cut more than 10% of points in circulation to boost average profit per equity partner (PEP).
CC increased PEP by 9.8% during the last financial year to reach £1.23m, although it still lags magic circle rivals such as Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Linklaters, which posted 2015-16 PEP of £1.47m and £1.46m respectively.
The lockstep review comes after CC partners first voted through a proposal in May 2015 enabling the firm to take advantage of super points to retain more star talent, while also nudging down underperformers.
At that time, a number of City partners were moved from 100 points to a new 70-point gateway, from which they are able to climb back to 100 points, subject to performance.
The firm also has a lower lockstep ladder capped at 70 points in place in some jurisdictions, such as eastern European offices including Warsaw, Prague and Budapest.
Former partners said it was not yet clear whether the international offices under review would be moving to the lower lockstep ladder or that it would just be partners seeing their pay cut back to the 70-point gateway. Individual star performers in these offices will still be able to attain 100 points, according to ex-partners.
One ex-partner said: “They have demoted partners off the plateau down to 70. They get held for a bit there, but there’s a possibility to go up. There was concern previously about demoting individuals – some people liked the idea of moving an office, as it is less of a personal affront.”
One current CC partner added: “There’s a lot of thinking about adapting the system to the market situation. There is a delicate balance between treating partners the same way or more individually.”
The lockstep review comes after CC carried out a restructuring in Germany in 2015 that saw around nine partners exit the firm that year. The review, the firm’s largest region-specific appraisal in years, was focused mainly on the local corporate practice.
CC declined to comment.
Copyright Legal Week. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.