associate bonus watch 2007 law firm Above the Law blog.jpgWe’ve heard complaints from numerous associates claiming that their law firms are using vague bonus policies to lowball them on bonuses. While we understand why these associates are upset, we can’t say we’re surprised. The whole point of a bonus policy that contains an element of discretion is the ability to pay some associates less than others — for whatever reason, justified or not.
This is why we regard only a lockstep, non-hours-based match of the Cravath year-end and special bonuses as a “true match.” If a firm reserves the right to tailor associate bonuses — based on billable hours, quality of performance, or any other factor — expect the firm to exercise it.
So we don’t expect to write much about how firms are using slippery bonus memos to pay low bonuses (although we will bring you the results of yesterday’s bonus survey). The intricacies of an individual law firm’s bonus policy tend to be of interest only to people at that particular firm.
We are, however, interested in bright-line distinctions. For example, what firms have rejected special bonuses entirely? It turns out there are a few of them. Last week we received this info:

DLA Piper litigation associates in New York just left a “Coffee Meeting” with Joe Finnerty III, head of New York litigation. He “unofficially” announced that the bonus structure and amount will be exactly the same as last year and that there will be no market “special bonuses.”

Hmm. Did the firm not get paid enough for the Mitchell Report?
And today we received this info:

I’m an associate at McDermott, Will & Emery in the Boston office. We have all just heard through department heads that not only will the firm not issue special bonuses this year, but bonuses this year will be less than half of years past and well well below market.

For example, a 6th year associate (class of 2001) billing between 2000 and 2100 hours will get approximately $5,000. eedless to say, this is less than a first-year associate gets for simply showing up at any other firm. There is not a large or probably even a midsize firm in Boston whose bonuses are anywhere near this low.

We’re guessing that DLA Piper and McDermott, Will & Emery are not alone in nixing special bonuses. Many of the firms that have remained mum until now probably have no plans of paying special bonuses, a la Cravath.
And to be perfectly (and brutally) honest, does it make sense for firms with profits per partner that are a fraction of Cravath’s to pay bonuses at Cravath levels? Of course associates want bigger bonuses. But they also want jobs.
Nevertheless, we have no doubt that many of you are unhappy about your firm’s bonus policy. Feel free to engage in bonus bitchery in the comments. Thanks.


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