Biglaw, Bonuses, Martin Lipton, Nauseating Things, Skaddenfreude

Skaddenfreude: Wachtell Lipton’s ‘Midyear Bonuses’

100 dollar bill Above the Law Above the Law law firm salary legal blog legal tabloid Above the Law.JPGThis just in: Earlier this month, M&A powerhouse Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen, & Katz bestowed generous “mid-year bonuses” upon its associates. The dough was distributed “without prejudice” to Wachtell Lipton’s legendary year-end bonuses, which in recent years have come in anywhere between 40 to 80 percent of an associate’s base salary. (WLRK’s base salaries are already at the top of the New York market.)

Your next question: How much? We hear that associates who graduated law school in the class of 2000 received a midyear bonus of $40,000, and associates who graduated in the class of 2002 received $30,000. So we’re guessing that the bonuses were distributed in $5K increments, with class of 2001 associates getting $35,000. (But perhaps the more senior people received bonuses reflecting bigger jumps; Wachtell, like many other top firms, likes to reward those who stick around.)

If you’re thinking that $40K doesn’t sound like that great a bonus for billing 3000 hours, please remember: This is just mid-year beneficence from Marty Lipton and Herb Wachtell. Year-end bonuses at Wachtell Lipton are expected to be better than ever, owing to the firm’s banner year on the corporate side. Back in the summer of 1998, believed to be the last time the firm doled out midyear bonuses (equal then to two months’ base salary), the end-of-year bonuses roughly equalled base salaries for associates. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, WLRK bonuses are lockstep based on seniority — they’re not tied to hours or to an assessment of the associate’s merit.)

What does Wachtell’s move mean for associates at other top New York firms? Well, probably not much — WLRK has always been in a class of its own in terms of compensation, paying bonuses that are more like investment banking bonuses than law firm bonuses.*

But Wachtell Lipton’s move could at least do this: It could prevent firms that raised base salaries earlier this year from “undoing” or “taking back” those raises, by reducing year-end bonuses by a commensurate amount. Now that Wachtell is taking in money so fast it’s GIVING it away — to its own associates — it would ill behoove Cravath and Sullivan to pull such a cheap trick on their associates. In the wake of Wachtell’s midyear bonuses, a top firm that raised associate salaries earlier this year, but then tried to keep total associate compensation unchanged by cutting year-end bonuses, would suffer a definite “shame sanction.”

Disclosure: Yes, we once worked at Wachtell Lipton, from 2000 to 2003 (i.e., we missed some of the fattest years). And yes, we are depressed this morning.

* Yes, obnoxious-lawyers-turned-obnoxious-bankers, we know: I-banking bonuses are often a multiple (x2, x3, etc.) of the banker’s base salary. Banker bonuses frequently run into the seven figures — unlike Wachtell bonuses, which at least have the decency to stay within six figures. And don’t get us started on the hedge fund people…

Earlier: Prior Skaddenfreude coverage (scroll down)

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