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Lockstep pay: the ideal remuneration model? Professional service firm leaders debate lockstep vs. “eat what you kill”

Professor Laura Empson led a heated debate on lockstep pay at Cass's fifth Discussion Forum.

A key determinant of the partnership ethos - the glue that holds a partnership together - is how you evaluate and reward your senior professionals, says Professor Laura Empson, Director of the Cass Centre for Professional Service Firms.

"I'm always surprised by the number of lawyers I meet who seem to think a lockstep system [with remuneration based on length of service rather than individual performance] is the best way to build a strong partner ethos" she comments. "In fact lockstep can breed deep resentment".

Prof Empson quoted a practice head she had spoken to during her research on the subject: "I had a partner come into my office recently saying - 'I am sick to death of getting in the office at 7:30 every morning and watching [name] walk in at 9:10 and leave at 5:00 after doing [XXXXXX-all] all day. I want him out. Get him out of here because he is pissing me off and if he doesn't go soon, I will'."

She continues: "far from being some kind of socialist nirvana, a lockstep firm needs to have stringent partner management systems if it is to be effective at promoting collegiality."

Prof Empson was speaking at the fifth Discussion Forum on leadership and change in professional service firms organised by the Cass Centre for Professional Service Firms. Prof Empson opened the event with the question "what holds a successful professional services firm together?"

According to her extensive research, socialisation processes, partner management systems, and governance structures underpin a firm's legal form and provide the answer to this question. During the event the panel - the leaders of three highly successful professional services firms - discussed themes across this spectrum with the issue of lockstep pay leading to particularly heated debate.

Asked why executive search firm Egon Zehnder International maintains a lockstep pay model CEO and Chairman Damien O'Brien answered succinctly "because it works". He continued: "Executive search is not individualistic - it's about joint leverage". O'Brien argued that the lockstep model encourages collaborative working and eliminates arguments about remuneration.

O'Brien's enthusiasm is not shared by financial advisory and asset management firm Lazard's London Chief Executive William Rucker. He states: "We reward on performance … we see very different progress from different people." Lazard rewards employees on their contribution to the firm and Rucker insists "people think it's a fair process".

International law firm Slaughter and May's Senior Partner Chris Saul also championed the lockstep approach. According to Saul performance is driven by peer pressure and by recruiting people who want to excel: "what drives people is peer group pressure ... it's a very powerful thing."

O'Brien concurred: "top teams are ruthless in pursuit of excellence. What holds it together is intolerance of mediocrity - our top people and our clients don't like it".

Saul suggested a weakness of the "eat what you kill" model is that it gives partners an excuse to "dial back and make less" for a period if they are willing to receive a smaller package.

Prof Empson also questioned the panel about how their firms socialise people into their corporate culture and what they look for during the recruitment process. According to Saul, at Slaughter and May they are looking to recruit those with intellectual ability and agility, communication skills, engagement - "fire in the belly" and something else - a quirkiness, charm or x-factor. He called the latter the 'Jo Brand' factor and said he thought Brand would have been "a great Slaughter and May partner".

The panellists were joined by an audience of around 100 professionals, academics, and MBA students.

To read the full report please contact Tara Rees-Jones on

Find out more about the Centre for Professional Service Firms.

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