It took a little longer than most of you expected, but Cravath, Swaine & Moore just announced its 2011 associate bonuses (not long after announcing its new partners). Barring something very unforeseen, these bonuses are what many Biglaw firms, in New York and across the land, will pay out this year to their people. Historically Cravath has set the market with respect to year-end associate bonuses at major law firms.

The Cravath bonuses are what you might expect. They are in line with recent years, nothing crazy high or ridiculously low. Both Occupy Wall Street types and law firm associates can put away the pitchforks.

Let’s take a look at the official memorandum, and engage in some analysis….

Here’s the memo (via the WSJ Law Blog, which has received the firm’s leak for the past few years now):

We are pleased to announce that the year-end bonus amount for each associate class is as follows:

Class of 2010 — $7,500
Class of 2009 — $10,000
Class of 2008 — $15,000
Class of 2007 — $20,000
Class of 2006 — $25,000
Class of 2005 — $30,000
Class of 2004 — $37,500

Bonuses will be paid on Friday, December 9. Absent special circumstances (approved by the Managing Partners), an associate must still be at the Firm on December 9 to be eligible for the bonus. The Firm does not apply any billable hour or similar criteria in determining eligibility for associate bonuses. As always, while receipt of the bonus for each individual attorney is dependent on suitable performance at that attorney’s experience level, virtually all of our associates will receive the full bonus. To be eligible for a bonus, an associate must have been employed at the Firm prior to September 1, 2011. Attorneys who are working part-time will receive a pro-rated portion of the applicable class-level bonus. Bonuses for senior attorneys, specialist attorneys, discovery specialist attorneys and foreign associate attorneys will be determined on an individual basis.

We very much appreciate your efforts during 2011 and wish you a happy holiday season and new year.

E. R. Chesler
R. H. Baron
C. A. Parker
S. A. Barshay

David Lat here. A few observations:

1. In terms of amounts, this bonus schedule is pretty much identical to the 2010 Cravath bonus scale. The only difference is that seventh-year associates under the 2011 scale receive $37,500 instead of $35,000.

(UPDATE (4:50 PM): As noted by Am Law Daily, the $2,500 increase may be “a reflection of the slightly larger bonuses given to seventh-year associates at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and Sullivan & Cromwell in 2010.”)

2. In terms of timing, this is slightly later than usual. In 2009, Cravath announced on November 2. In 2010, Cravath announced on November 22. This year, they announced on November 28, about a week later than last year (and after Thanksgiving instead of before).

3. Note the absence of any mention of spring bonuses. I was wondering whether Cravath might dangle a tantalizing reference to the possibility of spring bonuses in its memo; no such luck. (But that doesn’t mean spring bonuses won’t happen; just look to someone else, like Sullivan & Cromwell, to take the lead on any such trend.)

4. My own take: these amounts — which are the same as the 2010 and 2009 bonus scales at CSM, except for the most-senior associates — are fair. The past three years — 2009, 2010, and 2011 — have been fine for Biglaw, but not amazing. To the extent that firms are treading water a bit, it’s reasonable for them to keep associate compensation at the same levels.

But perhaps some will disagree with me? Your views are welcome in the comments and by email (which is where you can also send us your own firm’s bonus memo when it appears).

I will now turn the floor over to my always opinionated colleague, Elie Mystal….

UPDATE (4:50 PM): Elie here. Now we begin the wait for spring bonuses. Since old man Cravath has decided to offer the same cheap-ass regular bonus it initially offered last year, it’s pretty clear that the firm is giving itself maximum wiggle room as it waits to see how spring bonuses shake out.

Really, it’s the smart strategy. Spring bonuses mean that the firm gets to wait until its final collections are in before paying a real bonus to its associates. Meanwhile, Cravath lets other firms make the first move into spring bonus territory, knowing that it has the ability to come over the top if necessary. It’s like check raising in poker — it’s a dick move, but extremely effective if done correctly.

And maybe, just maybe, nobody moves on spring bonuses, and Cravath gets away with these cheap bonus payouts.

Now, yes, I understand that I just called a $7,500 bonus for first years “cheap” and “a dick move.” Most Americans (including me) would break legs for a $7,500 bonus. If I was still at Debevoise, I’d be getting an extra $37,500 this December (excuse me while I have a shot of a gun, and a glass of Jamie).

But if you really think that this bonus figure represents Cravath’s honest appraisal of how well it did in 2011 — i.e., just the same as 2010 — please raise your hand. (No, Lat, I’m not talking to you.)

Look, we can think of bonuses as deferred compensation. We can think of bonuses as retention awards, or recruiting gambits. And if we look at bonuses in these terms, Cravath (wisely) paid as little as they could. That’s their right, and if you don’t like it, you can open your own law firm.

But if we think of bonuses as sharing the wealth, if we think of bonuses as a way for owners to share the profits of the business with employees in thanks for a profitable year, then these bonuses are cheap. Depressing even. These bonuses are an indication to employees at Cravath that extra effort is for chumps. It shows that Cravath isn’t interested in rewarding associates based on the profitability of the firm (again, raise your hand if you think Cravath’s profits were flat this year), but based on the lowest dollar amount it can get away with. That doesn’t make anybody feel good.

It’s hard to believe that a law firm could turn $7,500 into an insult, but there you go.

Batten down the hatches, folks: the flood of firms eager to behave exactly like Cravath starts in 3… 2… 1…

How do readers feel about these bonuses? Let’s find out….


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