Bonus season is here for many law firms, meaning its a time where many associates are pleased to receive compensation for a year of hard work. But one law firm has upset its associates by locking its bonus allocation behind some tricky requirements.

It is not unusual for firms to match the bonuses offered by their competitors in order to retain associates from year to year. $64,000 appears to be a market standard for higher-level associates in 2021, and that’s exactly what this one firm is offering, albeit with a powerful caveat.

The spring bonus at Covington, which is payable in May, is based upon an annualized hours requirement of 1950 for hours worked from April 1, 2020 to March 30, 2021. The year-end bonus is also based on an annualized hours requirement of 1950, but for hours worked during the “typical” bonus year (i.e., January through December). Not only does this screw associates whose practices were affected by the pandemic, but that means there’s no opportunity for associates to catch-up in their hours to earn back the spring bonus, because the next bonus period is based on hours logged during a completely different time frame.

One associate described their frustration with the situation this way:

These conditions do not acknowledge the contributions of associates who did not make the hours benchmark during the pandemic for whatever reason. It does not take into account contributions of associates that did not have a full billable workload last spring at the beginning of the pandemic, those who started at the firm in the fall, or those who have had a slow start to 2021. Nor is this a match to the market. Other firms have not made the bonuses contingent on hours (let alone a yearlong period outside of the calendar year), nor have they delayed payment until next January. Associates were hoping that the firm would recognize all of our challenging experiences during the pandemic.

Bonus allocations can be a helpful motivation to reward employees’ hard work, but compensation hidden behind bait-and-switch caveats can, as reported in this story, cause negative impacts on employee contentment.

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