PERSONAL
02/05/2020 16:41 EST

Employees Earn More Than I Do At My Law Firm, And I'm All For It

Business owners have a responsibility to reject an economic system that pools profits at the top.

We’re living in an age of the worst income inequality we’ve ever seen, and that needs to change. While I can’t fix this problem across the country, I can do it where I have control — my law firm, which I co-founded — and serve as an example of someone who takes their responsibility to society seriously.

Just this year, it took top Canadian CEOs about two days to make more money than most people will earn in an entire year. I happily pay some of my employees more than I pay myself.

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An economic system that pools profits at the top is unsustainable.

I’m writing as someone who has benefited significantly from the accumulation of family wealth. I enjoyed the privilege of having my undergraduate degree, law school education, housing, living expenses and business capital funded almost entirely by it. I worked very hard, but I’m not going to pretend that my hard work is the sole reason for whatever success I’ve achieved.

Privilege starts young. I met my current business partner when we were just 17 years old. We dreamed about going to law school and, one day, opening a law firm together. We were fortunate enough that we both started out with the means and resources to make those dreams a reality. We co-founded KPA Lawyers in Mississauga, Ont. about a decade later.

Few people would fault me if I had decided to follow the traditional compensation structure that has been the cornerstone of law firms for generations: hire an army of junior associates, work them to the bone with excessive targets for billable hours — upwards of 1,700 to 2,500 a year, in my experience, not counting non-billable time — and keep the vast majority of the wealth created in the hands of the partners.

But would it be worth it? I’m not so sure. The negative effects of this model are clear. The average lawyer’s income tends to be higher than the average Canadian’s, but the reality for most associates is not what you see on TV. The profession is plagued by depression, substance abuse and mental health challenges. All that extra time at the office means less time for family, exercise and self-care.

To allow unfair levels of income inequality to go unchecked could very severely undermine our economy’s ability to properly function.

Even when we look beyond the world of law to other sectors, from food service to industrial work, this divide harms society and impacts Canadians’ health and happiness. Our current economic system seems to be built upon the idea that the people at the top are deserving of the vast majority of the profits generated by employees. It is a system that keeps wealth concentrated in the hands of a few and deprives it from the vast majority of the population.

I’m a big fan of Simon Sinek. He once said that “leadership is neither a rank nor a title. It is a choice. It is a choice to provide care and protection for those for whom we are responsible.” I have, more than once, failed to live up to that ideal in my approach to business, but it’s an ideal that I’ve tried very much to internalize.

I have a great deal of influence over the lives of the lawyers who work for my company. As Sinek would say, I am responsible for them. I must add my voice to a growing chorus of voices declaring that this type of income inequality is unacceptable.

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Paying employees equitably was a sound strategy that helped grow my business.

To some extent, all successful business owners and highly paid executives share in this responsibility as well. To ignore this responsibility, and to allow unfair levels of income inequality to go unchecked could very severely undermine our economy’s ability to properly function.

Even the most self-interested CEO must admit that overworked and underpaid workers are not productive workers. Billionaires who force their employees to choose between paying the rent and paying for groceries will eventually have a workforce that is primarily hungry or homeless, neither of which puts people in a position to meaningfully perform at their jobs.

‘Those at the top do have a responsibility to society’

Before my business partner and I had even hired our first lawyer, we were inexperienced business owners figuring it out as we went. We had a mountain of cases that needed attention, and not enough associates on our team. We knew that we needed to grow.

One idea we discussed was paying associates a significant percentage of the value of their billable hours, rather than pooling profits at the top. Basically, among other benefits we extended to potential employees, some lawyers were given a path to earning more than what we were paying ourselves.

It hardly sounds like a profitable or secure business plan — employees would earn more the harder they worked, while we shouldered the risk — but the results were amazing.

A CEO single-mindedly pursuing personal profit enriches themselves at the cost of their employees.

Our small firm exploded with growth, hitting seven-figure revenues in its first couple of years. I watched some lawyers blossom from nervous recent graduates to seasoned, confident and shockingly happy lawyers. Some of those same employees now earn a little more than double my executive compensation some years, and I’m perfectly fine with that. If anything, those lawyers are our firm’s greatest assets, even compared to the presumably critical functions that “C-suite”/partner members perform.

I’ve had the pleasure of watching one of my associates pay off large chunks of her law school debt while also funding her wedding through her hard work. Another associate, a former teacher, has the time and money to afford to keep part of her identity as a teacher through hosting pro-bono public information sessions for people who need legal information but can’t afford a lawyer.

If you’re wondering whether job satisfaction was obtained at the cost of business success — it wasn’t. After covering the business’s overhead, and taking care of our team, I still feel that I’m reasonably compensated for the work that I do.

As a founder, I think those at the top do have a responsibility to society (regardless of their industry) to create happy, actualized employees — and can still enjoy a comfortable life for themselves. A CEO single-mindedly pursuing personal profit enriches themselves at the cost of their employees.

As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it recently, “No one ever makes a billion dollars. You take a billion dollars.”

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