The message of the comparison with international diplomacy is simple: leave no one of consequence out of the process and try to engineer a solution that avoids leaving a defeated faction. Beneath this message lies a deeper reality: Like nations, law firms differ widely in their history, leadership, capabilities and many other attributes. For this reason there is no one-size-fits-all pay scheme and there are no “5 Rules for Perfect Partner Pay.” At each firm, partner compensation arrangements need to arise out of the preferences of the partners themselves. As in international diplomacy, the objective is an inclusive, stable solution in which even a dominant majority achieves something less than total victory so that minorities are not driven to defection.

Except among firms that have a long tradition of stable pay arrangements into which generations of partners have been born and bred, the leaders of a law firm should expect that the dispersion of opinions about pay determination will be wide. No such assumption is required, of course, when dissatisfaction has prompted the re-think—then you know that dissent is in the air.

Because preferences are likely to be diverse and exclusion from the process must be avoided, the preferred method of inquiry in a partner pay re-think is the one-on-one interview. The sample of partners surveyed in this fashion should be a large fraction of the pay scheme’s population insofar as practical. Averages and other generalizations tend to mislead and loud voices drown out softer ones. Inclusiveness at the start is a crucial part of the formula for getting pay right.

Whether the issue is governance, a revision of partner pay arrangements or any other decision-making likely to importantly affect the livelihood of the members of the partnership, a well-managed round of interviews is the way to go.

Have the big meeting at the end.

–By Richard Rapp


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