Law Firms

New Competency Programs Can't Be Just a Cover for Pay Cuts


Law firm managers are closely watching Pittsburgh’s Reed Smith as it moves ahead with its new talent-development program it’s calling CareeRS.

But Human Resource Executive reports that some critics remain skeptical that the program, at first geared toward the firm’s associates, will succeed.

Under the program, associates are no longer classified by their year, but rather by competency level: junior, midlevel, or senior.

One purpose is to keep low-performing associates from just moving ahead in rank, while at the same time better identifying and partner-tracking high-performing associates.

Yet Human Resource Executive reports that observers have pointed out that this model will also make it easier for the firm to cut costs if it doesn’t have to advance associates in lockstep.

John J. Myers, a labor and employment lawyer from Pittsburgh’s Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott told the publication that it remains to be seen whether Reed Smith’s approach, essentially holding associates more accountable for their performance, will improve performance and expand opportunities.

“Associate development is critical to the life of a law firm and it appears that this program has the attention of Reed Smith’s senior management, which is a good thing,” Myers is quoted saying. “Terms like ‘core competencies’ make the hearts of human resource professionals go pitter patter, but unless this program actually accelerates the opportunities for associates to take on increased responsibilities apart from legal research and third-chairing the defense of depositions, it is not going to breed a new generation of skilled lawyers.”

The firm’s commitment to teaching core competences is key, agreed, Garry Mathiason, a senior partner in the San Francisco office of Littler Mendelson.

Mathiason further observed that “the success of the Reed Smith program and the many more [that will soon be] following the same path, will be how it is perceived by those covered. It cannot become a cover for pay reductions, longer hours and a competency-based exit strategy–although, as a byproduct of the program, many of these events may happen.”

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