Career Audit

For What It’s Worth

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The lawyer who has just brought in a windfall fee or negotiated a record settlement eventually is going to wonder about the bonus she deserves. Even those doing routine work in the law practice trenches would like to earn some extra bucks.

That’s when it’s time to focus on the craft of gentle persuasion.

Colleagues and administrators tend to keep information about bonuses secret and take a dim view of lawyers who aggressively ask for fatter paychecks, says law firm con­sultant Robert J. Henderson of Jackson Hole, Wyo. So lawyers must marshal political skill rather than demand more money, he says.

In midsize or larger firms, “generally, associates will have a mentor, and that’s the most obvious channel to go through,” says Henderson, who once practiced in Mich­i­gan. Alternatively, associates might talk with the senior partner who assigns them the most work.

Those who intend to negotiate a bonus should start by figuring out what’s standard for the employer–or, at least, what comparable workplaces are doing, Hen­der­son says. Lawyers at midsize and large firms have the advantage of checking out what’s being posted anonymously on an Internet chat board such as Also, trusted friends at comparable firms or companies may be willing to share bonus information.

Be aware, however, that many firms have a compensation scheme that includes a range of standard bonuses. The structure will vary from firm to firm, but administrators generally are reluctant to deviate from it, Henderson says. “If you have either a partner or an associate who is thinking more for himself than for the general good of the firm, that can be pretty destructive behavior.”

In addition, some firms don’t pay bonuses at all, points out a Portland, Ore., patent lawyer. “We have a system where, after people have a certain amount of experience, they are paid as a percentage of what they bill,” says the lawyer, who requested anonymity. “If you’re working more hours or you’re working harder, you’re already getting a bonus.”

Awareness Pays Off

Excellent performance can present a powerful argument for upping the ante, says Kenneth S. Lewis, a name partner in a Chicago workers’ compensation and personal injury firm.

However, there’s a right way and a wrong way to ask. Attorneys should keep senior lawyers informed of both good work and problems, as well as “sheer dollars produced.” Plus, he says, lawyers need to understand the firm’s economic situation. For example, a contingency fee firm takes on debt while preparing cases for trial. That might not be a good time to ask for a meaty bonus.

Lewis offers a hypothetical about when to broach the topic. A lawyer brings in a case that produces a $100,000 fee, but there’s no agreement that the lawyer shares in the money. “Unless you’re making a huge amount of money, I think it would be reasonable to go in and say, ‘Hey, I produced a $100,000 fee. There wasn’t that much work involved. I would like to discuss with you some kind of appropriate bonus.’ ”

Even when it’s not a good idea to lobby for more money, lawyers should remember the importance of mak­ing sure higher ups are aware of their accomplishments before compensation decisions are made, says Kathy Morris, chief career development officer at Gardner Carton & Douglas, a Chicago based midsize firm.

Many firms already invite lawyers to present their past successes and potential future contributions annually in a written format, Morris says. Those at firms not doing this should consider taking the initiative and writing a memo, she suggests.

Alert the compensation committee to noteworthy contributions, offering specific examples and conclusions about the value of the work, Morris says. “Don’t assume that your value is obvious.”

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