New federal rules on incentive-based compensation that aim to keep "excessive" compensation and incentivized risk out of banks don't define "excessive." The lack of specificity can only lead to greater examiner leverage, said Ballard Spahr partner Mary Mullany. Financial institutions already under scrutiny can expect examiners to take a long, deep look at their compensation plans, she said.

"The health of an organization will play a big part (in compensation-focused exams)," Ms. Mullany said. "If the regulator has a safety and soundness concern with an institution and then finds that it's paying compensation at the upper end of the scale for similar-sized institutions, that institution will be at more risk for having their compensation challenged."