For Small Firms, Big Benefits Are Weapons In Talent War

Published on:
October 31st, 2018
Photo: Sylvie Rosokoff

Competition is stiff among the nation’s top law firms for cream of the crop associates, and while it may seem that large law firms have a stranglehold on the market for talent, small firms are stepping up with exceptional pay and benefits aimed at roping in the best of the best.

The size of small law firms enables them to offer above-average and out-of-the-box pay and benefits to associates that may not be as feasible on a large scale, and many elite boutiques are taking advantage of that flexibility in order to create an atmosphere that attracts and retains top talent that at one time may have opted for a career in BigLaw instead.

“Boutiques are in the enviable position of being able to entice attorneys because they can offer opportunities that BigLaw cannot, through policies that transcend compensation and traditional benefits,” said Jeannie CaBell, an attorney recruiter for Rifkin Consulting.

Some recent examples of small firms offering big benefits include newly launched trial boutique Reichman Jorgensen’s flexible career path, above-market pay and freedom from the billable hour; Kaplan Hecker & Fink’s dedication to public interest work as well as its Cravath-matching pay; and the generous incentive-based pay and workplace perks at Edelson PC, which include free crossfit classes and other group exercise activities during the day, daily catered lunches and optional attendance on summer Fridays.

Reichman Jorgensen, which was launched in mid-October, will operate using only flat- and success-based fees, not hourly fees, and has eliminated lockstep compensation and the partnership track in favor of advancement on an individualized basis, qualities its leaders say make it more attractive to young attorneys.

Associate pay, according to the law firm, will exceed the Cravath compensation scale. An official announcement of the exact pay scale is forthcoming, according to managing partner Courtland Reichman, but he says base pay will exceed Cravath Swaine & Moore LLP, while incentive-based pay will exceed it even further and will “have no ceiling.”

“It’s a war for talent and we plan to win the war,” Reichman told Law360 after announcing the news that his law firm had opened.

Giving Associates What They Want

Reichman, who left McKool Smith to co-found the new boutique, emphasized the importance of rewarding associates for “exceptional” work such as bringing in a large client or case, and looking at individualized advancement and compensation, things he said are easier in a smaller firm.

“If you’re setting compensation or bonuses for 500 to 800 associates it becomes very difficult,” he said. “In smaller environments you can build a model that is incredibly adaptable to the individual.”

Meanwhile, Kaplan Hecker & Fink opened up shop in 2017 and has already managed to lure talent from some of the nation’s largest and most prestigious law firms. The firm’s current team of lawyers previously worked at firms including Debevoise, Paul WeissSullivan & Cromwell, Cravath, Cleary Gottlieb, and Jenner & Block, and includes former U.S. Supreme Court, Australia Supreme Court and Israel Supreme Court clerks.

“We have been fortunate to have a great deal of success competing with large firms for associate talent, even after only one year as a new firm,” name partner Julie Fink said.

Fink said that while the law firm matches the Cravath pay scale and offers BigLaw-sized bonuses to associates, it is the “less tangible factors” that she believes allow her firm to compete for top talent, including its extensive public interest work, high level litigation practice, commitment to equity and inclusion and a culture in which each member of the team is valued.

“We provide meaningful, substantive opportunities to associates at an early stage of their career, we include all associates in business development, and we involve staff and associates in firm management,” Fink said.

Chicago-based litigation boutique Edelson PC’s perks are wide-ranging and often represent a steep departure from what one would see at a traditional law firm.

They include free catered lunch every day, free group exercise activities during the day such as crossfit classes, days where the firm is shut down for the afternoon for a movie, summer Fridays where people can work from home or take a long weekend, a mandatory vacation policy, and the option to work remotely as needed.

The firm has also provided benefits on an individual basis, for instance providing advancements on bonuses so that an associate could put money down on a house, pay for a wedding, or for some other significant life event.

Edelson’s leader Jay Edelson said the perks are not aimed at taking talent away from BigLaw because he believes the type of lawyer that’s right for his law firm is usually distinct from many of those currently working at large law firms.

“We are looking for a different type of candidate than Biglaw is — someone who is more entrepreneurial, has greater time urgency, and really wants to accelerate her career,” Edelson said.

Shining a Light on Working Parents

One way many boutique law firms are amping up their benefits is by offering perks that are aimed at helping parents juggle work and their family lives, something that has historically been neglected by much of the legal industry. And while many large law firms also have stepped up on parental leave, there are some examples of boutiques that have gone above and beyond what the majority of large law firms are currently offering.

At Edelson, maternity and paternity leave are offered, providing new parents with approximately six months of paid leave.

At New York City-based Walden Macht & Haran LLP, a comprehensive maternity and parental leave program was announced in September, which the law firm said was designed to incentivize existing employees and attract talented recruits.

The program offers up to 18 weeks of fully paid maternity leave and up to 10 weeks of fully paid, gender-neutral parental leave for primary caregivers of newborn children, newly adopted children or newly placed foster children.

In addition, upon returning to work from a parental leave of at least five consecutive weeks, a nonpartner lawyer who is also a primary caregiver may elect a 16-week flex-time schedule with a workload reduction of up to 50 percent during the first eight weeks immediately following his or her return to work, followed by a 25 percent reduction for the second eight weeks. If flex-time is elected, the primary caregiver will continue to receive full pay, and performance expectations will be adjusted pro rata, the firm said.

“We decided we wanted to be competitive with the biggest firms and the most generous firms,” Walden Macht partner Catherine Sloane said of its decision to implement the new policy. “The firm in general has high expectations for where we are heading and the quality of work we do and the quality of the employees we hope to attract, so it seemed logical to shoot high.”

In addition to traditional benefits offered to parents like maternity and paternity leave, Kaplan Hecker & Fink recently went above and beyond to provide a parental leave solution for an associate who was leaving for a clerkship — where no such leave exists — by proposing that the judge have one of the firm’s other associates work with him while the clerk was with her newborn.

Others are taking equally out-of-the-box measures to provide benefits to working parents.

Real estate boutique Pursley Friese Torgrimson has created a “bring your child to work every day” policy for all employees, not just attorneys. The law firm has opened up a space — including a playroom, kitchenette and nap room — adjacent to its main office where children can spend the day with a caregiver, such as a nanny, just steps from their parents.

Firm co-managing partner Stephanie Friese said she came up with the idea along with another attorney at the law firm when the two, both mothers, decided to share the cost of a nanny and discovered that the law firm would function well as a home base for the children and caregiver between other activities and outings.

The office currently has four children who stay in the nursery space regularly and two others who stop by occasionally.

“It reduces stress for the parents, they don't have to rush out. People can come earlier or stay later if needed,” Friese said. “Lawyers work long hours. If you want to retain people, sometimes you have to provide that flexibility.”


Read this at Law360.