Very few people work in Biglaw for the thrill of being surrounded by lawyers. Nor are Biglaw refugees heard lamenting, on the odd chance they are lamenting leaving Biglaw at all, the fact that they are no longer surrounded by fellow attorneys. What do they miss, if anything? The money.
Biglaw refugees are not the only ones stirred by the thought of Biglaw’s outsized profits. Those profits are the nectar that draws the droves of worker-bee law students into the welcoming embrace of law schools. And the gruel that sustains the overworked bodies and minds of Biglaw’s associates and junior partners as they slave in the mineshafts hoping for their day in the sun. Biglaw’s millions are also the elixir that lubricates the arthritic joints of senior partners who insist on staying in their positions of power well past the expiration dates that their forebears adhered to. More than ever, it is about the money….
In a previous column, I commented on Biglaw’s peculiar approach to discussing how much everyone makes. For partners, it is simple. You are in either an open or closed system. And if your firm is open but not lockstep, you are probably on at least a moving walkway towards a closed system. Associates? Unlike many industries, Biglaw is surprisingly open about how much its professionals make. Compare trying to determine the going rate for fifth-year associates in Houston with the going rate for a newly-minted attending at Memorial Herrmann. Unlike other industries, where companies are protective over their salary structure for “their talent,” Biglaw takes the opposite approach. It is a tacit admission that without the high salary, many sane people would never choose the associate lifestyle.
You can also contrast Biglaw’s openness about associate salaries with the deafening silence about how Biglaw’s staff are paid. Based on the volume (both in quantity and noise level) of complaints commonly shared among Biglaw staff regarding their pay — especially during holiday season (where holiday parties are still around, but staff bonuses face extinction) — it seems like it is only Biglaw’s lawyers who keep silent about staff pay. To find that out, a partner usually needs to be on some form of management committee at the firm. Or horror of horrors, ask a staff member directly.
When it comes to figuring out what people actually make, your typical Biglaw firm is very much like your local Wendy’s: the owner knows what everyone makes, but no one knows what the owner pulls in. Figuring out what is paid to employees can be very easy when it comes to the minimum wage cashier, and a little harder when it comes to the store manager — but the important thing is that those salaries are orders of magnitude lower than what the owner is capable of bringing home. Have fun figuring out who the equivalent of the Wendy’s franchise owner is at your firm.
Ultimately, though, even lawyers who are conditioned to getting to the truth through direct questioning are usually very reluctant to ask someone directly: “How much do you make?”
There is an amusing article in the current Esquire in which the author recounts the responses he received when he started asking people directly about what they made. The responses are revealing, and underscore the identity-defining nature that the answer to that question has for many people. Biglaw partners are no exception. Even those in closed systems have at least a voyeuristic interest in what their colleagues are making. And that is within their own firm. Walk around the office when the Am Law 100 comes out — you will see partners studying the chart with the same fervor as the average commuter devotes to the latest mindless game available on their iPhone.
Everyone in Biglaw should be prepared to answer the question “What do you make” intelligently and with confidence, meaning that they can divulge the number without hesitation or sheepishness. More importantly, if you are in Biglaw, you should be prepared to explain (first to yourself, and then to others) why you make what you make. That is actually the first step to having a rational basis for determining what you need to do to make more (if that is your goal). Hopefully you have a good explanation for that number, whatever it is. And hopefully your pay is sustainable in the current Biglaw climate.
Not every answer to that question is a good one for a Biglaw lawyer. “I was lucky enough to graduate in 1985 instead of 2005, and even though I have no clients and bill 1400 hours a year, I make $825,000 a year as an eminently replaceable third-chair litigator” probably suggests trouble for you. And remember that “What do you make” is not the same question as “What do you think you should make?” Playing that game is a losing proposition, especially if you become too wrapped up in envying how others are doing. In today’s Biglaw, adopting that attitude is sure to get you branded unfavorably.
I would never suggest that what someone makes is not important. People work hard and sacrifice a lot of time and energy in an effort to earn a living. Nor will I ever begrudge anyone’s human right to earn as much as their talents and drive allow them to legally earn. But after more than a decade in Biglaw, I find the following an important reminder for myself and others: you are not what you make, unless all you want to be is someone who makes that much.
How would you answer the question, or could you feel comfortable asking others that question? Let me know your thoughts by email or in the comments.
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.