Save the Firm - Objective Compensation Can Help Your Firm Keep The Best People

Welcome to our detailed exploration of law firm compensation systems. This approximately hour-long webinar, led by Gary Allen, the founder of LeanLaw, aims to provide valuable insights into the financial dynamics that drive successful law firms.

About Gary Allen

Gary Allen has been a practicing attorney at a mid-size firm in Boise, Idaho, for about 35 years. Although he retired in February, his passion for improving business practices within law firms keeps him actively engaged. Throughout his career, Gary experienced the ups and downs of working in various firms, some of which struggled with inefficient business practices. His journey led him to a well-run firm where he spent 30 fruitful years, sparking his dedication to helping other law firms achieve similar efficiency and financial success.

The LeanLaw Initiative

Gary founded LeanLaw, a legal billing software company, to assist law firms in optimizing their financial performance. LeanLaw is designed to be a critical component in achieving desired financial outcomes, though it is not the sole solution. This webinar aims to explore these concepts in depth.

Key Financial Metrics for Law Firms

The webinar begins with an overview of essential financial metrics that distinguish top-performing law firms from average ones. These metrics include:

  1. Capacity: The total amount a firm can bill.
  2. Utilization: The percentage of billable hours worked.
  3. Realization: The percentage of billable hours that are actually billed.
  4. Collection: The percentage of billed hours that are collected.
  5. Overhead: The percentage of revenue spent on expenses.

Financial Performance Analysis

Gary presents a comparative analysis of two law firms: one that performs averagely and one that excels. Both firms have 10 lawyers, each capable of billing $500,000 annually, leading to a potential revenue of $5 million.

  • Utilization: The top-performing firm achieves a utilization rate of 95%, resulting in $4.75 million in billable hours, while the average firm reaches only 90%, or $4.5 million.
  • Realization: This metric further differentiates the two firms. Top performers bill a higher percentage of their worked hours.
  • Collection: Effective firms also excel in collecting billed amounts.
  • Overhead: Keeping overhead low is crucial. The goal is to maintain overhead at less than 25% of revenue.

The Six Pillars of Financial Performance

Gary introduces the six pillars that support top financial performance in mid-sized law firms:

  1. Effective Utilization: Maximizing the percentage of billable hours worked.
  2. High Realization Rates: Ensuring a large percentage of billable hours are invoiced.
  3. Efficient Collection Processes: Maximizing the collection of billed amounts.
  4. Controlled Overhead: Maintaining overhead expenses below 25% of revenue.
  5. Capacity Management: Optimizing the total billable capacity of the firm.
  6. Supportive Business Practices: Implementing practices that support financial goals.

Retaining Legal Talent

A significant focus of the webinar is on retaining top legal talent. According to Gary, the key factors include:

  • Compensation: A fair and transparent compensation system is crucial.
  • Professional Development: Opportunities for growth and development.
  • Positive Culture: A supportive and positive work environment.
  • Flexibility: Offering flexible working arrangements.
  • Effective Communication: Ensuring open and honest communication.

Gary emphasizes that while money is a significant factor, other elements such as professional development, culture, flexibility, and communication also play essential roles in employee retention.

Utilization Rates

Gary Allen, with his 30 years of experience in billing clients, emphasizes the significance of utilization rates. In top-performing firms, utilization rates should be around 95%. This means that 95% of the billable hours are actually billed to clients. On the other hand, average firms might achieve only 90% utilization, or even lower. This difference can lead to a substantial revenue gap. For instance, a firm with a 95% utilization rate compared to a 90% rate can open up a half-million-dollar revenue gap.

Realization Rates

Realization rates measure the percentage of billed hours that are actually collected. Gary’s firm typically hit 97-98%, although 95% is still commendable. Average firms might achieve only around 90%, with some even boasting about rates in the 80s. This creates another significant revenue gap.

The Impact of Overhead on Financial Performance

Overhead expenses can vary dramatically between firms and have a substantial impact on profitability. Gary points out that calculating overhead as a percentage of revenue is the most meaningful way to assess it.

Overhead as a Percentage of Revenue

A top-performing firm typically maintains overhead between 20% and 30% of revenue. Gary’s firm, for example, achieved around 30% for many years and recently managed to reduce it to 20%. In contrast, average firms might have overhead as high as 45-50%. This difference creates a significant disparity in profitability. For instance, a top-performing firm could have a profit of $3.2 million to distribute among 10 lawyers, whereas an average firm might have only $1.8 million.

What Counts as Overhead?

Gary clarifies that overhead includes all expenses outside of compensation for billers (associates, partners, etc.). This includes staff expenses, building expenses, and other operational costs. By maintaining a lower overhead percentage, top-performing firms can significantly enhance their profitability.

The Long-Term Financial Impact

The difference between top-performing and average firms is stark. A lawyer in a top-performing firm could make an additional $139,000 per year compared to one in an average firm. Over a 40-year career, this amounts to over $5 million. Gary challenges us to consider if we can afford to leave such a significant amount of money on the table over the course of our careers.

Leadership and Management: The Key Differentiators

The primary difference between top-performing and average firms lies in leadership and management. Many lawyers, including managing partners, prefer to focus on practicing law rather than managing the business aspects. Gary recalls his experience as a young associate in a mid-sized firm, where he was shocked by the high overhead costs. Despite recognizing the need for change, the firm struggled to address the issue effectively.

Embracing Efficiency and Accountability

Gary emphasizes the importance of creating an efficient and accountable culture within law firms. This involves not just focusing on revenue but also managing overhead effectively. Leaders and managers play a crucial role in this process. By being intentional about efficiency, firms can significantly improve their bottom line.

The Benefits of a Well-Run Firm

Working in a well-run firm offers numerous benefits, including greater freedom for lawyers, happier clients, and a more satisfying work environment. It also provides a better retirement outcome for lawyers. For managers, it means a more fulfilling work environment and a clearer understanding of their value to the firm.

Achieving Top Performance

Gary encourages firms to strive for top performance and offers a report card to help firms assess their current standing. This report card provides a grade on various metrics and includes strategies for improvement. By aiming for a 51% profit relative to capacity, firms can ensure happier lawyers and a more successful practice.

The Role of Objective Compensation Systems

Creating a best-in-class financial performance requires more than just efficient operations. Gary outlines six key factors that contribute to this goal, including an accountable culture, efficient operations, technology, tailored products, appropriate marketing, and a clear succession plan. Among these, an objective compensation system is crucial.

The Importance of Cash Reserves

Gary stresses the importance of maintaining cash reserves and avoiding reliance on debt. This discipline ensures that the firm can operate smoothly and remain financially stable.

Incentivizing Revenue Generation

Gary advises against compensating partners based on billings alone, as this can lead to socializing risk and privatizing profit. Instead, he advocates for incentivizing lawyers to bring in revenue directly from clients. This approach ensures that those responsible for generating revenue are also the ones benefiting from it.

Partner Compensation

Gary believes that partners, as risk-takers in the firm, should not receive fixed salaries. Instead, their compensation should be tied to their performance and contributions to the firm’s success.

Trust as a Cornerstone

One of the foundational elements of a successful compensation model is trust. Trust among partners ensures that everyone is working towards the firm’s collective goals rather than individual gains. In a firm where trust is paramount, partners are chosen carefully, and there’s a mutual understanding that everyone is contributing fairly to the firm’s success. This eliminates the need to constantly monitor each other’s productivity and compensation, fostering a more collaborative and positive work environment.

Ensuring Fairness

Fairness in compensation is another critical factor. It’s vital that all members feel they are being treated equitably. Fairness helps in maintaining morale and motivation among the team, reducing the chances of internal conflicts and dissatisfaction. When everyone perceives the system as fair, it promotes a sense of belonging and loyalty to the firm.

Accountability Mechanisms

Accountability is essential to ensure that all members are contributing effectively to the firm’s success. A transparent compensation model that includes accountability measures ensures that everyone is responsible for their performance and contribution. This helps in maintaining a high standard of work and a clear understanding of how each person’s efforts impact the overall firm.

Models to Avoid

While there are many ways to structure compensation, some models are less effective. For instance, lockstep models, where compensation is based solely on seniority, can be detrimental as they do not reward performance and can demotivate high achievers. Similarly, compensation committees can often lead to suspicion and politicking, which can harm the firm’s culture. Anarchy in compensation, where there is no structured system and everything is negotiated individually, often leads to inconsistencies and dissatisfaction. Bureaucratic models, though potentially well-intentioned, can become overly complex and lose their effectiveness over time.

Successful Compensation Models

One of the successful models is the Finder, Minder, Grinder system. This model, pioneered by the Boston firm of Hale and Dorr, recognizes and compensates different roles within the firm:

  • Finder: The person who brings in the client.
  • Minder: The individual who manages the client relationship.
  • Grinder: The one who performs the actual work.

Additionally, firms may compensate for management roles, marketing efforts, and other intangible contributions. It’s also important to consider longevity and equity, ensuring that those who have built and sustained the firm’s success continue to be rewarded.

Weighting Factors

The weighting of these factors can vary significantly between firms. A typical distribution might look like:

  • Origination: 10%
  • Responsible: 5%
  • Working: 75%
  • Contribution to Equity: 10%
  • Management Compensation: Variable, but often higher due to the opportunity cost of management versus billable work.

Embracing Simplicity in Compensation Models

Simplicity in compensation models cannot be overstated. A straightforward system ties back clearly to the core values of trust, fairness, and accountability. It ensures that everyone understands how they are being compensated without needing complex calculations. This transparency fosters a sense of security and satisfaction among the firm’s members.

Complexity, on the other hand, can be divisive. When compensation involves numerous special deals and exceptions, it can lead to resentment and suspicion among partners. Moreover, managing a complex system is expensive and time-consuming. Maintaining intricate compensation spreadsheets can cost significant resources without necessarily adding proportional value. Therefore, it is crucial to keep the system simple and aligned with the firm’s values.

Key Personas in a Law Firm

To effectively retain top talent, it’s essential to understand the various personas within a law firm and their unique needs and contributions.

  1. The Founder (Horace)
    • Characteristics: Highly accomplished, deeply invested in the firm’s traditions and values, significant equity stake, and extensive client origination.
    • Compensation Needs: Values equity and origination credits. May need to make accommodations for an objective system but is crucial for setting and maintaining the firm’s cultural and ethical standards.
  2. The Managing Partner (Atticus)
    • Characteristics: Younger, balancing management duties with law practice, often stressed, and may feel undercompensated for management responsibilities.
    • Compensation Needs: Needs fair compensation for management duties without compromising his law practice.
  3. The Young Rainmaker (Julia)
    • Characteristics: Emerging as a successful partner, potentially undercompensated in a lockstep system, highly marketable.
    • Compensation Needs: Requires recognition and compensation aligned with her contributions to ensure retention and satisfaction.
  4. The Lifestyle Partner (Francesca)
    • Characteristics: Talented, values work-life balance, may have external commitments, intends to ramp up practice in the future.
    • Compensation Needs: Needs flexible arrangements that allow for long-term engagement and gradual scaling of her practice.
  5. The Hardworking Associate (Marvin)
    • Characteristics: Highly talented, hardworking, on a salary, possibly feels underappreciated compared to peers.
    • Compensation Needs: Requires opportunities for growth and recognition of his hard work, balanced against the risks he is not yet taking.
  6. The Minimalist (Glenda)
    • Characteristics: Takes advantage of a fixed salary system to do the minimum required, may not be highly motivated by money.
    • Compensation Needs: Needs a system that incentivizes higher performance or self-selects out those who do not contribute significantly.

Encouraging Self-Selection Through Objective Compensation

An objective compensation system can also aid in self-selection. Individuals who do not align with the firm’s performance expectations may naturally seek opportunities elsewhere, thereby maintaining a high-performance culture within the firm. This self-selection process reduces the burden on the firm to manage underperforming individuals and helps retain those who are truly committed and productive.

Minimizing the Management Burden in Mid-Sized Law Firms

In mid-sized law firms where practicing lawyers often take on leadership roles, minimizing management burdens is crucial. Practicing law is already demanding, and adding management responsibilities can be overwhelming. If managing compensation and personnel becomes too time-consuming, it detracts from billable work and overall productivity. An objective compensation system can alleviate this strain, addressing about 80% of potential issues by aligning pay with performance.

When compensation criteria clearly reflect firm performance expectations, it becomes easier to identify and address underperformance. If someone is paid less due to poor performance, it should be transparent and in line with established criteria, ensuring fairness and clarity. This system helps ensure that the most valued members of the firm succeed financially, maintaining motivation and satisfaction among high performers.

Evaluating Different Personas Under Various Compensation Systems

To effectively retain top talent, it’s essential to understand how different compensation models impact various personas within a law firm.

  1. The Founder (Horace)
    • Profile: Horace is a founding partner, a significant rainmaker, and still actively managing clients and performing equity duties.
    • Compensation Impact: Under a lockstep system, Horace would earn significantly due to his tenure. However, an objective system that considers origination and productivity might reduce his earnings, though he would still make a substantial income. This requires negotiation and compromise to retain other valuable members.
  2. The Managing Partner (Atticus)
    • Profile: Atticus is a younger managing partner balancing law practice and management responsibilities.
    • Compensation Impact: In a lockstep system, Atticus earns a decent salary, but an objective prorated system could slightly increase his earnings due to his contributions. This system rewards his management duties fairly, ensuring his satisfaction and retention.
  3. The Young Rainmaker (Julia)
    • Profile: Julia is a successful young partner with significant origination and workload, currently undercompensated in a lockstep system.
    • Compensation Impact: A prorated or proportional objective system would significantly increase Julia’s earnings, reflecting her hard work and contributions. This ensures she feels fairly compensated and reduces the likelihood of her leaving for better opportunities.
  4. The Lifestyle Partner (Francesca)
    • Profile: Francesca is a talented partner balancing work with personal commitments, producing less than full-time colleagues.
    • Compensation Impact: An objective system would likely reduce her current earnings but align them more fairly with her production levels. This adjustment is necessary to balance her contributions with compensation, ensuring long-term engagement without overcompensating.
  5. The Hardworking Associate (Marvin)
    • Profile: Marvin is a hardworking associate earning a fixed salary, feeling undercompensated compared to his efforts.
    • Compensation Impact: An objective system would provide Marvin with a significant raise, aligning his compensation with his hard work and motivating him to continue his high level of performance.
  6. The Paralegal (Glenda)

Glenda, a paralegal generating approximately $200,000 in revenue annually and earning a salary of $70,000, represents another vital persona in our analysis. Her current compensation seems fair, but the challenge arises when considering overhead allocation. A pro rata overhead allocation, where she would bear the same overhead as lawyers, is clearly not suitable. Instead, a proportional overhead system better aligns with her role and maintains her compensation around current levels. While Glenda might not be the highest priority for adjustment, it’s essential to ensure she remains fairly compensated within the objective system.

Comparative Analysis of Compensation Systems

Let’s revisit the different compensation models by applying them to our personas to highlight their impacts:

Lockstep System

The lockstep system, where compensation is based on seniority rather than individual performance, results in significant discrepancies:

  • Horace (Founder) earns substantially more than others due to his tenure.
  • Atticus, Julia, and Francesca receive the same pay despite varying levels of production and contribution.
  • Marvin and Glenda are detached from the economic realities of their specific roles.

Such a system may cause dissatisfaction among high performers like Julia, who feel undercompensated despite their substantial contributions, leading to potential retention issues.

Pro Rata Overhead System

A pro rata overhead system levels the playing field significantly:

  • Horace still earns more, but the difference is less pronounced.
  • Atticus, Julia, and Francesca receive compensation more aligned with their actual contributions.
  • Glenda requires special consideration as she cannot bear the same overhead levels as lawyers.

This system promotes a healthier firm dynamic by ensuring that compensation is more equitable and reflective of individual productivity, reducing disparities and fostering a sense of fairness.

Proportional Overhead System and Other Strategies

In a proportional overhead system, different strategies can be employed to allocate overhead more fairly:

  • By Class of Personnel: Different overhead allocations can be set for partners, associates, and paralegals. This ensures that each group bears a reasonable share of the overhead relative to their roles and contributions.
  • Specific Allocation to Individuals: Overhead can be allocated based on specific factors such as office size or administrative support. However, this approach can be divisive, leading to potential conflicts over minor overhead details instead of focusing on revenue generation.

Rational Basis for Negotiation

Regardless of the system chosen, the key is to establish a rational and transparent basis for compensation:

  • Horace and Atticus: Founders and managing partners need to balance their significant contributions with fair compensation that encourages retention of other valuable members.
  • Julia: High performers like Julia need to feel fairly compensated to stay motivated and committed.
  • Francesca and Marvin: Individuals balancing work and personal commitments, or hardworking associates, need a system that acknowledges their efforts fairly.
  • Glenda: Paralegals and support staff require a compensation model that recognizes their contributions without unfairly burdening them with overhead.

Overhead Allocation Strategies

Allocating overhead in a law firm can be complex and time-consuming. It’s essential to strike a balance between fairness and simplicity. Here are some strategies to consider:

  1. Proportional to Revenue: Allocating overhead proportionate to the revenue generated by each lawyer or team can provide a fair basis for distribution.
  2. By Class of Personnel: Different overhead allocations can be set for partners, associates, and paralegals. This ensures that each group bears a reasonable share of the overhead relative to their roles and contributions.
  3. Specific Allocation to Individuals: While it is possible to allocate overhead based on specific factors such as office size or administrative support, this approach can be divisive and overly detailed. It might lead to conflicts over minor overhead details instead of focusing on revenue generation.

A practical compromise, such as allocating overhead by class or proportionate to revenue, can simplify the process while maintaining fairness.

Implementing an Objective Compensation System

Setting up an objective compensation system can streamline firm operations and enhance fairness. Here’s a quick run-through of how to set up such a system and why it’s beneficial:

  1. Establish Clear Criteria: Define the metrics for compensation, such as origination, billable hours, and revenue generation. Ensure these criteria are transparent and aligned with firm values.
  2. Respectful Conversations: Engage in discussions with your team about the reasons behind the objective system. Explain how it fosters trust, accountability, and a sense of fairness.
  3. Align Values and Culture: Ensure that the compensation system reflects the firm’s culture and values. This alignment helps in building a cohesive and motivated team.
  4. Focus on Practice and Clients: By reducing the time spent on compensation disputes, lawyers can focus more on their practice and client service, which is the primary goal for everyone.

Benefits of Good Financial Practices

Addressing overhead and inefficiencies can have a significant impact on a firm’s financial health. Here’s why it matters:

  • Longevity and Savings: Reducing overhead and improving efficiency are one-time efforts that yield long-term benefits. Once fixed, these improvements contribute to the firm’s financial health indefinitely.
  • Revenue Focus: By setting up efficient practices, firms can shift focus from daily revenue chasing to long-term financial stability. This stability allows for better planning and growth.
  • Respectful Negotiations: Having an objective system provides a principled basis for compensation discussions, reducing annual disputes and fostering a healthier work environment.

Taking Action

If you believe an objective system could benefit your firm, start by having respectful conversations about the potential changes. Discuss the benefits of such a system in terms of trust, accountability, and fairness. Align these discussions with the firm’s values and culture to gain buy-in from all stakeholders.

Remember, the clock is ticking. The sooner you address overhead and inefficiency issues, the sooner your firm can reap the benefits. Aim to have a new system in place for the next fiscal year to start seeing improvements.

Q&A Session Highlights

Data Sources for Overhead Metrics: Finding reliable data on law firm financial performance can be challenging. Studies and anecdotal evidence from partners suggest that firms with higher staff-to-lawyer ratios may have overhead percentages around 50%. Detailed data and studies will be shared in follow-up communications.

Availability of Slides: Slides and additional information from this discussion will be provided to participants.

Success with Primarily Objective Systems: Firms can successfully implement a primarily objective system with a small subjective component. This balance ties compensation to values while allowing for necessary flexibility.

By addressing these elements, law firms can create a more equitable and efficient work environment, ensuring long-term success and satisfaction for all members.

Balancing Objectivity and Flexibility

In an objective compensation system, predictability and fairness are paramount. Lawyers shouldn’t have to worry about arbitrary decisions significantly impacting their compensation. However, incorporating a small subjective pool, such as 5%, can enhance the system. This approach allows for recognizing exceptional contributions that might not be captured purely by numbers.

A completely objective system can sometimes be too rigid. For instance, a lawyer may have an outstanding year in terms of non-billable contributions, such as mentoring or business development, which might not reflect directly in their compensation if it’s purely numbers-based. Having a flexible component helps address such nuances, ensuring the system is fair and comprehensive.

Implementing a Humanized Compensation System

While objectivity forms the backbone of a good compensation system, human elements shouldn’t be overlooked. For example, associates should not bear the risk of collections. Instead, their compensation can include a salary and a bonus component based on production numbers. This setup ensures they feel secure and motivated without the stress of collections.

Additionally, incorporating discretionary bonuses, like a Christmas bonus, can further humanize the system, making it more motivating and rewarding.

Defining Operating Expenses

Operating expenses should ideally constitute around 30% of the total expenses, excluding billers’ compensation. This includes:

  • Staff expenses
  • Rent and building costs
  • Technology expenses

By keeping these operating expenses at a manageable level, firms can improve profitability. This model has been successfully implemented in various firms, some achieving even lower overhead percentages through a mindset of low overhead and efficient use of technology.

Managing Expectations and Transparency

Dealing with unrealistic expectations, whether from junior or senior attorneys, involves a cultural and educational approach. It’s crucial to ensure that all team members understand how they are compensated and why. Transparency about personal production and performance metrics can demystify compensation processes and align expectations.

For example, during reviews, associates should be shown their billable hours, collected amounts, and any adjustments due to write-downs. This practice not only educates them about the firm’s financial workings but also prepares them for future roles as partners.

Advocating Transparency

While full transparency of the firm’s P&L might not be necessary, transparency regarding individual performance is essential. This approach builds trust and ensures everyone understands how their contributions impact their compensation.

By educating lawyers about their production and collections from day one, firms can foster a sense of ownership and responsibility. This preparation encourages associates to bring in their clients, work diligently, and stay motivated due to the clear linkage between their efforts and rewards.

Resources and Next Steps

To further assist in this journey, we are providing several resources, including:

  • Slides and Recording: From our recent webinar.
  • Financial Report Card: A detailed look into your firm’s financial health.
  • Law Firm Compensation Calculator: To help you design a fair and effective compensation system.
  • Ebook Chapters: The first three chapters of “The Linchpin,” which narrates a law firm’s transformation journey.
  • Q&A Compilation: From our last compensation webinar, addressing common queries.


In summary, improving financial performance and developing effective compensation systems in law firms are crucial for retaining top talent and driving success. By focusing on key financial metrics such as utilization and realization rates, maintaining low overhead expenses, and implementing supportive business practices, firms can achieve significant financial gains. Effective leadership and management are essential in this process.

LeanLaw offers valuable resources and tools designed to support these improvements, emphasizing the importance of strategic financial management. Creating a fair, transparent, and motivating compensation model that aligns with the firm’s values and rewards the right behaviors is key. By fostering an equitable and accountable environment, firms can enhance retention, improve financial health, and create a more satisfying work environment for their lawyers. Despite potential resistance to change, taking these necessary steps can yield substantial benefits, allowing everyone to focus on serving clients and growing the practice.


Here are some resources to help your firm optimize it’s financial health: