clerks screwed in recession.jpgHistorically, clerks have had a pretty sweet deal. A year spent with a judge increases their attractiveness to law firms; in the past, this translated to big bonuses for going into Biglaw. During the recession, the deal got slightly less sweet, as firms went a little sour on clerks.
Over the last month, a number of readers have anxiously emailed us about clerkship bonuses. One example:

Have you heard anything about whether firms are lowering or maintaining their clerkship bonuses? My firm said although they gave $50k last year, they are “waiting to see what other firms do first.”

In 2008, our then-survey-guru Justin Bernold created this handy guide to clerkship bonuses, laying out the going rates — ranging from $10,000 to $70,000 — for these attractive recruits. (Of course, the most attractive recruits — Supreme Court clerks, aka the Elect — command six-figure signing fees.)
So what’s happening with clerkship bonuses in 2010? We’ve talked to a few experts and a few tipsters. There’s been some scaling back already. Experts say the market rate for clerkship bonuses may come down, but in their usual fashion, firms appear to be waiting for a big dog to take the lead on that. Could Cravath be that dog?


A tipster says:

I understand Cravath has cut theirs to $25k (although clerks will still get the deferral stipend on top of that, so don’t feel too sorry for them).

The firm will neither confirm nor deny. A spokesperson ignored our inquiry. Update (Feb. 10): Another Cravath-bound law student has confirmed this:

I can confirm that Cravath told summers who asked that the clerkship bonus would be 25k.

We spoke with Mark Weber, head of Career Services at Harvard Law School. He hadn’t heard this Cravath rumor, so we’re dubious. (If you know anything about its veracity, email us.)
Weber confirmed, though, that firms have scaled back somewhat on bonuses. It’s no longer true that clerks are guaranteed a bonus for time spent in a judge’s chambers. He described three categories of clerks:

  1. Firms are honoring their commitment to those who summered with them, and clerk directly after law school.
  2. There’s an increasing number of people who “work-clerk-work,” that is, who work for a year in Biglaw before clerking. Many judges have been encouraging prospective clerks to do this. In those situations, firms are regarding the clerkship bonus as discretionary when the clerks return to the firm, said Weber. Update: When an associate leaves the firm to clerk, it’s not a given that the position will be held open for him/her to return. That will depend on whether (a) there is a business need and (b) the firm *wants* the associate to return.
  3. What if you’ve never summered at or worked for the firm that wants to hire you post-clerkship? Weber said it used to be a “no-brainer” to pay a bonus to attract this talent. Increasingly, though, these folks are not being offered bonuses. Update: The reason there are no bonuses at some firms is because those firms are simply not in the market to hire clerks; after all, many firms have 2009 deferred associates who still haven’t joined the firm.

While firms are honoring commitments to past summer associates, Weber suspects that firms will be revisiting the issue of the “automatic” clerkship bonus for the Class of 2011.
At Arnold & Porter, the bonus remains at $50k, but it is being paid out more judiciously. Reports a tipster:

A&P now gives half of the clerkship bonus ($25k) when the clerkship ends, and the other $25k after the associate has been with the firm for one year.

No more taking of the bonus and running.
We checked in with ATL old hand Justin Bernold, who is now a legal recruiter with Firm Prospects, to see what he is hearing about clerkship bonuses. He suspects top-tier NY firms will stay at $50K, but expects to see deflation elsewhere:

I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least a few firms drop from $50K to $35K, especially in non-NY markets. Drops from $35K to $10K might also come in smaller firms or smaller cities. I haven’t noticed that happening yet, but it’s still fairly early.
Firms that adopted a $145K payscale in NY are probably also more likely to drop to a $35K bonus, but I haven’t personally encountered that yet.

Bonuses are nice — but just having a job offer is nicer, these days.
If you have more concrete information about firms changing their bonus policy, feel free to leave it in the comments or submit it by email (subject line: “Clerkship Bonus Watch”).
Earlier: Clerkship Bonus Watch: Davis Polk Joins the $70K Club
Featured Job Survey: Clerkship Bonuses
Clerks: Can’t Go Home Again? (Or: An open thread about post-clerkship job prospects.)


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