Do you remember the first time you said “but you promised” to somebody who was probably older than you and in the process of not giving you what they said they’d give you? It’s a pathetic feeling: you’ve been counting on something, you see it being pulled away from you, and all you can do is throw yourself upon the mercy of another person’s sense of fair play.

That hopeless feeling is what Sullivan & Cromwell lawyers are feeling as a globally-warmed winter gives way to spring. S&C promised they’d be paying spring bonuses. But here we are, in the spring, and the firm is still silent.

Did they think everybody would forget? Or do they just think that breaking their word is no big deal?

Let me take you back to the heady days of December 2011 — a time when many thought Cravath’s embarrassingly low bonus numbers would be laughed out of the market by firms who wanted to reward employees for a successful year. Back then, S&C made a promise. As we reported at the time of S&C’s regular bonus announcement:

Here’s the exact language about spring bonuses from the S&C memo: “As in past years, the Firm currently expects to pay a bonus in the Spring.”

Maybe that should have included: “And by ‘expects,’ we mean we expect that our low performing service partners who couldn’t make rain in monsoon season won’t have the audacity to complain about a middling additional payment to our hardworking associates.”

Honestly, I think this spring bonus cheapness is being driven by the low performing partners who are staring off de-equitization right in the face. It just doesn’t make sense for a comfortable and secure Sullivan & Cromwell partner to be this cheap and casual with the firm’s reputation as a market leader. The partners at S&C who are going to be there for the long haul realize that saving whatever they’re saving by denying a 3rd year associate an extra $15,000 is a short term cash grab that makes the firm look untrustworthy in the long term.

But not all partners are created equal. For the ones who aren’t sure how much longer they’re going to be able to hang on before their fellow partners start wondering where the business is, they want to grab all the cash they can right now. And maybe if the firm has one less expense, the bean counters won’t take one more look at who isn’t generating enough income.

Not that I expect everybody to appreciate the possibility of internal divisions among the partnership. Right now, S&C partners are putting out one, united front — that they mislead their associates about spring bonuses. If we ran a most honest law firm contest this year, S&C would have been a first round upset.

Earlier: Associate Bonus Watch: Sullivan & Cromwell ‘Beats’ Cravath — and Promises Spring Bonuses


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