SAN FRANCISCO — This Friday 400 officer-level employees at Robertson Stephens will find out how much they will own of their firm — if they stick around three years.

In an attempt to bolster employee morale and retention, the San Francisco investment banking firm has agreed with its parent, FleetBoston Financial Corp., to give employees with the rank of vice president and above shares from a 30% stake in the firm.

The program, unveiled to the firm’s staff last Friday, is the result of several months of negotiations with FleetBoston but falls short of a broader plan bandied about by senior management at both companies last year — a partial spinoff of the company. By some calculations, the potential market capitalization for a public Robertson Stephens could be as much as $4 billion — a hefty incentive.

The program would also be a turning point for employees of the firm, which has gone through a series of owners in recent years. In 1997 the old BankAmerica Corp. bought the privately held firm. After BankAmerica merged with NationsBank Corp., it sold Robertson Stephens to BankBoston Corp., which merged with Fleet Financial Corp. in 1999.

Robertson Stephens’ management has worked with FleetBoston to retain a degree of autonomy from the much larger commercial bank parent. And observers said this equity program could be a stepping stone to some kind of spinoff.

“Equity brings a longer-term perspective,” said Robert Emery, president and chief executive officer of Robertson Stephens, on the subject of using some kind of shareholder structure as an incentive program.

A spinoff would be a long time in coming. Since last summer, when Fleet chairman Terrence Murray told investors at a conference that the Boston parent company had considered a partial spinoff, the climate for initial public offerings has decidedly worsened. In the second half of last year the volume of U.S. IPOs plunged 50% from the previous half, according to CommScan LLC.

And volatility in the capital markets, particularly with Nasdaq-traded stocks, has hurt the firm’s performance. Robertson Stephens made a name for itself by specializing in bringing emerging technology firms public.

“They are beholden to the IPO calendar and to the market,” said Thomas Theurkauf, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.

In the fourth quarter Robertson Stephens contributed about $24 million, or about 3%, to FleetBoston’s net income, down 44.2% from the third quarter and 46.6% from a year earlier.

And like other investment banking firms, whose stellar growth over the last few years has been tied to New Economy companies, Robertson Stephens has also imposed layoffs in at least its research department, according to sources close to the firm.

Still, it continues to compete for talented professionals, and observers said any kind of equity-incentive structure should be a positive feature.

“It’s a smart move,” said Barbara Estes, a San Francisco senior consultant for William M. Mercer Cos., which specializes in compensation issues.

The problem with these structures, however, is that, “they’re just really difficult to set up,” she said.

Indeed, Robertson Stephens, which in a recent branding campaign identifies itself as simply “Investment Bankers,” has turned to outside support to set up the program. The investment banking company Lazard Freres has been hired to help.

Ms. Weber declined to comment on the value of the stake to be shared with employees, and said the firm was still working out details on how often the company’s value would be adjusted.

But come Friday, those awarded grants will have some glimpse at how much their firm is worth and how much they own.

“This is not about going public,” said Courtney Weber, a spokeswoman for Robertson Stephens. “It’s about ownership and giving employees a direct stake in the company.”

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