Every law firm uses a formula to compute a partner's compensation. The two formulas used by most law firms is either based on a partner's billable revenues or the profits that each partner contributes to the firm's bottom line. To achieve your firm's long-term goals, this article focuses on why a profit-based system may be a better and more effective option for you.

Why Not Revenue?

Focusing on revenue can present a distorted picture of a partner's contributions. For example, Partner A generates $700,000 in billable revenues, performing all the work himself, while Partner B generates only $550,000 in revenues at the same hourly rate, but also supervises four associates who each bill 2,050 hours. Partner B clearly brings more profits to the firm, even though they personally generate less revenue. In this scenario, a revenue-based compensation scheme would reward Partner A more.

In addition, focusing on revenue fails to account for the impact of overhead and collections. The partner who generates staggering billable hours, but incurs a significant chunk of overhead, may be less profitable than one who bills fewer hours. Billed hours have no value to the firm if they are not collected — all they have done is increase overhead.

Finally, revenue-based compensation can encourage a partner to focus on billables to the exclusion of other activities that support the firm's strategic goals. For example, if the firm wants to build from within, partners must spend time training and mentoring associates. However, partners might be unwilling to do so if it eats into their billable time and compensation. If compensation instead recognizes contributions to profitability, then partners are more likely to sacrifice their own billable hours for the purposes of supervising a team of associates.

How Can You Incorporate Profits?

You have decided to choose a profitability model for partner pay. Now what? Generally, profit-based measures can be incorporated into the most common compensation systems. For example:

  • Formulas

    A firm's compensation plan may distribute net profits based on a simple or weighted formula. A simple formula might account for originating work and producing work on a 1-1 ratio, while a weighted formula assigns increased weight to the most important elements, ideally according to the firm's strategic goals. Firms with these types of formulas can increase the weight for elements associated with profitability.

  • Lockstep

    In order to incorporate profitability under the lockstep approach, require partners to first satisfy specific profit-based metrics, rather than advancing them to the next level based on the number of years they have been partner (the lockstep approach is an older system that is based on a partner's seniority, not ability).

  • Percentages or Units of Participation

    Many firms pay partners a share of the net profits by assigning each a percentage or units of participation. The primary difference is that the total percentage must equal 100, while the total units of participation can exceed 100. Consider more than just ownership interests, seniority and billables when assigning a percentage or units of participation to each partner. Profit-based metrics can play a role in the assignment by taking into account consequential non-billable time, accounts receivable aging and write-offs.

  • Reserve Systems

    Some firms use percentage or units of participation plans that include a reserve portion of net profit (usually 5% to 10%) based on the firm's performance that year. Such firms can take a profit-based approach by allocating the reserve based on realizations versus collections, work in progress, and business from new and existing clients.

But Wait, There's More

While profits may seem like the most important factor to many law firms, do not forget that management, administration and planning keep the lights on. It is important to remember to include these contributions when deciding on your firm's compensation plan.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.