Biglaw, Money, Partner Issues, Partner Profits

Partners, I Feel Your Pain

I bet partners could use a hug.

If you thought that obsessing about money and feeling underpaid and underappreciated when it comes to your compensation stops once you become a Biglaw partner, think again. Am Law Daily reports on a new study done by Major Lindsey & Africa. The study shows that 61% of partners think they should be paid more.

Oh, you partners are generally satisfied with your take home. It’s just that, like Mr. Burns, you’d give it all away to have just a little bit more.

To which I say, yay (or “Huzzah” if you prefer). Welcome, Biglaw partners. For too long you have talked in the shadows, wondering how your pay stacked up to that of your peers, hoping to somehow find a way to maximize your earning potential. We know your struggles: mortgages, private schools, alimony or divorce settlements (for the unluckiest among you) — it all adds up. You’re working just as hard as you’ve ever worked, dealing with the pressure that can only come from having final responsibility over a project or an entire client strategy. And there’s always the expectation to bring in business, keep business, and generate new business, even during a down economy.

You put in all that time and effort for a take-home pay that shames you when you talk to your friends in finance and business. It’s not right, is it? So welcome, welcome, this is a safe place. Your financial desires commingled with your sense of entitlement will find friends here…

The raw dollar amounts from the survey look staggering. But you’ve got to put these numbers in context. You’re talking about a group of people over a decade into the career they’ll likely have for the rest of their lives. While a young associate who’s 25 years old might still hope for a future of obscene wealth, a young partner of 45 knows that this represents the best they are going to be able to do financially:

The respondents’ compensation ranged from less than $100,000 to, in one case, more than $6.1 million. The average was $640,000. That’s significantly lower than the reported compensation–all partners for The Am Law 100 and The Am Law 200 in 2009, which was $843,400.

One reason for the discrepancy is that the Major Lindsey data set included some partners from boutiques that are too small be on The Am Law 200, although 78 percent of survey respondents identified themselves as members of firms of 200 or more lawyers. A majority were at firms of 500 or more lawyers. Firm size made a big difference financially. On average, respondents at firms with fewer than 50 lawyers earned $388,000, while respondents at firms with more than 1,000 lawyers earned $881,000.

At $881,000 a year, even I will admit that you are living a rich life, but you’re not going to own a sports franchise. You fly first class, but you don’t have your own jet. You’re a big fish in a big pond, but you’re not a shark.

And you’re still in the service industry. You still pull long hours, and there is still pressure to work for as many of those hours as you can, since your firm likely still profits based on billable hours. Your clients still bitch you around, and many of them are so much wealthier than you. They’re so wealthy that they can afford to pay your fees, but they still hate doing it. In this economy, some clients will make you hound them and beg them — like an animal — for money that they already owe you and your firm.

Salary satisfaction isn’t just about raw numbers; it’s about the lifestyle that salary buys you, and the expectations you have about that lifestyle relative to your peer group. Keep that in mind as you read the salary satisfaction stats from the study:

The findings, based on responses from 1,873 partners, provide information about the ranges in partner compensation, the criteria firms use in setting it, and whether partners are happy with what they earn.

The answer to the last question is yes, generally. Of respondents nationwide, 24 percent said they were “very satisfied” with their pay, and another 52 percent said they were “somewhat satisfied.” Another 17 percent said they were “not very satisfied,” and 6 percent said they were “not at all satisfied.” Still, 61 percent of the respondents said they thought they should be paid more.

People always want more. They can’t just turn that off just because they made partner. In fact, it was probably “wanting more” in situations where others would have been satisfied that propelled them to becoming partner in the first place.

And it’s not like lawyers in smaller cities are more satisfied than lawyers in NYC (who are comparing themselves against the ridiculous conglomeration of wealth that exists here in NYC):

Respondents in New York reported earning more than in any of the other ten cities surveyed, with average compensation of $938,000 coming in 29 percent greater than the next highest, Los Angeles, and 155 percent more than the lowest, Seattle. But despite the spread, partners in the Big Apple and the Rain City shared a relative dissatisfaction with their pay: Of the 11 cities surveyed, New York and Seattle ranked tenth and eleventh, respectively, in the percentage of respondents who said they were “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with their compensation.

When looking at the entire lawyer life cycle — from law students and their debts, to associates and their bonuses, to partners and their profits — only one piece of advice makes sense. Do not become a lawyer unless you enjoy being a lawyer. Do not go into this profession for the money. Because chances are that even if you are one of the financially lucky people who makes it all the to the ranks of Biglaw partner, you’re still going to be left with a case of the “mehs,” and you’ll still shrug your shoulders when somebody asks you about your pay.

Remember, this was a study of partner compensation satisfaction. One would expect a study of partner career satisfaction to produce more positive results.

Survey: Partners Generally Satisfied With What They Earn [Am Law Daily]

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