The top boutiques so far in 2014 are firms that have consistently ranked highly over the last several years, including Evercore Partners with $288 million in estimated U.S. M&A fees, Centerview Partners with $277 million, Houlihan Lokey with $209 million, Moelis & Co. with $170 million and Qatalyst Partners with $129 million. All of the firms either declined to comment or didn't respond to requests for comment from CNBC.
Bankers may find employment at boutiques to be more lucrative than at big banks. For one, boutiques aren't subject to the same scrutiny of high-profile public banks. Many big banks came under fire for executive compensation after they took public funds under the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
There may also be big differences in profits and compensation at boutiques themselves. Some boutiques offer wider-ranging services than others, meaning they have higher fixed costs.
Some boutiques, including Evercore and Moelis, have become public companies. Public shareholders may become unhappy with companies if they pay their star performers too much.
A recent Euromoney interview with founder Ken Moelis shed some light on his firm's approach. Moelis pays bankers from a single pool and decides bonuses based on a careful review.
The firm considers work done to win new business and keep existing clients, not simply generate transaction revenue. "How do you reward a banker who has given the best advice to a client, which may be to do nothing? Do you give him nothing? Because if you do, that's a real culture killer," he said in the interview.
Another issue is the size of the team a boutique needs to compensate. Based on the most recent figures, Evercore employs a staff of 1,053 (though that should increase after the recent acquisition of brokerage firm International Strategy & Investment Group), Moelis has a staff of more than 500, and Houlihan employs about 900 people globally. The staff counts of Centerview and Qatalyst couldn't be learned, but they may be smaller.