Back in New York from a solid week of meetings in London (17 in five days) and a few observations, reflections, musings, and speculations come to the fore. And no, these will pointedly not include whether the US or the UK’s version of being seized by political dementia—The Donald vs. Brexit—is more awe-inspiring, nor what inferences might be drawn from the two countries’ distinctive preferences in nonstop televised indoor sports: Poker (US) or snooker (UK).
By way of background, our meetings covered a cross-section of Law Land: US- and UK-based firms, global players and boutiques; firms embracing new technology and “agile” working and firms dismissive of new-almost-anything; and perhaps most importantly firms with clearly articulated strategies and those seeking new compass readings.
A couple of issues, as you might imagine, came up with some regularity, including compensation and the so-far unanswerable but large question of whether new entrants (Axiom and Riverview but also potentially looming far larger, the Big 4 Accountancies) would find market acceptance and make serious inroads.
But another issue outweighed all of these put together. We’ll come to that.
Given the venue we’ve been in the past week, much revolved around lockstep, and modifications thereof, and around its Dark Star twin, “checkbook recruiting.”
Regular readers know to a fare-thee-well and irregular readers could safely venture an educated guess that I approach the world from both an economic and a frankly American perspective. Both of these clearly influence my instinctive views on compensation, and to me constitute backdrop realities—but I try to look far beyond my own intellectual reflexes and focus on the reality, the history, and the aspirations of the firm in front of me.
So, to compensation.
We all have been immersed in the lockstep/eat-what-you-kill debate for years and years and I will have mercy upon you and not rehearse it here. The only reason I feel compelled to bring it up is that for many (a majority?) of people in the market it seems to be the primary defining distinction between the UK and the US, or London and New York.
I’m not so sure I buy this anymore. To be more precise, as soon as the terms come up (lockstep/EWYK), all intellectual and analytical processes seem to shut down. You almost never see people actually thinking through the virtues and vices of what each of those caricatured extremes represents, and where on the spectrum from one to the other their firm ought to operate in the market right now.
Instead, what happens is that one phrase or the other is lobbed into the discussion and all involved are supposed to assume, if they’re on proper behavior, that a show-stopping riposte has just been delivered. Heads nod and the subject changes.
I can’t believe this is anything other than intellectual laziness. Indeed, I’m developing a hypothesis that the extreme variety among and multiplicity of law firm partner compensation models might reveal something interesting about just how much room for flexibility and change a firm’s compensation structure might actually be able to eperience without existentially rending the firm’s fabric. Let me explain.