Associate Bonus Watch 2010, Biglaw, Bonuses, Money

Did Kirkland & Ellis Already Promise to Blow Cravath’s Bonuses Out of the Water?

The happiness emanating from the offices of Biglaw partners is palpable. Cravath paid a 2009 bonus despite a stronger 2010, and lowballing associates means more money for partners. Partners are giving anonymous quotes expressing their happiness. Skadden whipped off its Cravath-matching bonus memo so quickly it looked like a damn blog post. And, predictably, consultants are now scrambling to support the low bonus numbers.

It would seem that Biglaw has successfully colluded settled upon this year’s bonus schedule, and it is what it is.

But what if a firm already privately promised its associates a bonus scale that is better than last year? Would such a firm happily break its unwritten word just because Cravath set the bonus bar so low? Looks like we’re going to find out.

If you’ve been reading the comments on our bonus posts, you already know that Kirkland & Ellis associates expect to be paid more than the Cravath scale, because that’s what Kirkland has told them…

In the comments, Kirkland associates have been claiming that their firm will “shatter” the Cravath bonus scale for 2010. At first I thought this was the usual Kirkland Kool-Aid, from the people there who always act like their firm is one of the top Biglaw operations (more on that later).

But this time it appears there is reason for the unbridled optimism of K&E associates. Apparently associates have already been told to expect bigger bonuses this year than last year. A source reports:

This fall meetings were held with associates at each of Kirkland’s domestic offices regarding (legitimate) concerns about low associate morale. Associates were told that this year’s bonuses would be higher than last year in an attempt to boost morale. Hopefully the firm will follow through despite Cravath and Skadden’s bonus announcements.

Everyone is paying attention to see how the firm will treat its associates — will they reward people for working hard in a busy year of strong profits? Or will they follow suit with disproportionate bonus numbers because they can justify it based on what other firms have done? There’s no question the answer will have an effect on morale around here.

I don’t expect Kirkland (or any other law firm) to care about associate morale. But I continue to hold out hope that these Biglaw firms do care about keeping their word. I expect Biglaw partnerships to care about their reputation amongst their peers.

Kirkland & Ellis, this could be your moment. You guys constantly strut around like you are a major player in the Biglaw market. Well, now is your opportunity to prove it. Firms that have already established themselves as major players for the most talented associates and laterals can afford to pay as little as possible (so long as everybody else follows suit). But Kirkland, you’re not quite there yet. You need a moment like this to distinguish yourself from the group of 10 or so firms who are pretenders, not contenders.

Kirkland trolls, I’ll make you a deal: If Kirkland beats the Cravath scale at all levels, I’ll say nothing but positive things about the firm for a whole year. I’ll drink your Kool-Aid! If I’m forced to report on negative things at the firm, I’ll do it in the most happy-clappy manner possible. I’ll submit to your incessant positivity about the firm.

UPDATE: Yes, we know that K&E bonuses are non-lockstep, since we report on them every year. But we expect that the median bonus payments at Kirkland for each class year, for associates receiving the standard “with class” rating, could (and should) easily beat Cravath’s standard payment for associates of the same seniority in 2010. The general feeling last year was that K&E bonuses were underwhelming for most people (and based essentially on the Cravath scale, for the average associate with average hours).

But… if K&E roughly follows Cravath, you people have to stop for a year. Seriously, every Kirkland post we write, we have to deal with these ridiculous people who act like Kirkland has never done anything wrong. If we write a non-positive sentence about K&E these people act like we have a vendetta against the firm. We know Kirkland & Ellis has PR people who post comments on stories about the firm. It’s annoying to everybody else.

If Kirkland squanders this opportunity to be truly special, then these people need to sit down and accept that Kirkland is just Sidley Austin with stronger financials. If Kirkland can’t come in and beat this Mickey Mouse bonus engineered by a true Biglaw leader like Cravath, then Kirkland really needs to go sit at the kids’ table when Wachtell, Cravath, Sullivan & Cromwell, Skadden, and Davis Polk are in the room. It’s a fine firm, but it’s not on the level of the top five Biglaw bigboys, and I want the Kirkland trolls to admit it!

If they beat this bonus, that’ll be something. You want people who are sitting on offers from Cravath and Kirkland to choose to go to Kirkland? Well then, just once K&E is going to have to pay more money than Cravath.

Earlier: Cravath Bonuses Are Out: The 2010 Bonus Season Is Under Way!
Associate Bonus Watch: Skadden Matches Cravath

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