The New Breed of Associate

  • August 28, 2014
  • Julie Stauffer

One Alberta law firm is dealing with associate compensation in an entirely different way. For the past 15 years, Calgary-based Thackray Burgess hasn’t had any associate lawyers on staff. Instead, it has a team of 20 or so “consultants,” lawyers who closely resemble associates, but who are independent contractors rather than staff members.

Thackray Burgess consultants are paid by the hour and work as little or as much as they choose. They pay the firm an overhead fee, and a percentage of the hourly rate charged to their clients goes to the firm; the remainder goes directly to them. “We call it ‘rate keep,’” explains managing partner Michael Thackray. “Whatever the rate is, they keep a portion, and that portion depends on a number of things, probably most importantly years at the bar.”

The benefits to the firm are seen in the type of lawyer it attracts. “Because it’s really ‘eat what you kill’ — if the consultant doesn’t work, she doesn’t get paid — we’ve been able to attract lawyers that are more entrepreneurial in nature,” Thackray says.

For the lawyers, the advantages are plenty, articulated mainly in no billable hour targets. “I simply could care less if you’re working 700 hours a year or 1,700 hours a year,” says Thackray. “It doesn’t matter to me, as long as the clients are served.”

The firm’s area of specialization — serving the energy and oil & gas sector — attracted Karen Hall to Thackray Burgess. A 1997 call, she has been a consultant at the firm for almost ten years after spending two years at two big law firms in Calgary. She describes becoming an independent consultant as “scary.” “It’s a bit of a leap of faith,” she says, “but you can make a lot more if you’re working a lot … it seems more fair,” she adds with a laugh.

Jose Rodriguez, who was called to the bar two years ago, articled at Thackray Burgess and has been there ever since. “My role here has expanded enormously,” he says. “I’m approaching my second year of call, but I think that I’ve got a solid four or five years’ experience already, based on what I’ve had to do and the amount of work I’ve done —while making pretty good money doing it.”

The freedom and potentially lucrative income are what Mr. Rodriguez enjoys most about working for the firm. “I work a lot because I want to,” he says. “But this summer I plan to take three weeks off, and that’s what I’m going to do.”