Associate Salaries, Biglaw, Bonuses, Money

Associate Bonus Watch: Sidley Austin

These are interesting times for Sidley Austin. Lately the firm has had lots of good news, such as its big expansion in Texas, counterbalanced by a little bad news (for an individual partner).

That’s at the partner level. What’s going on among the associate ranks?

Bonuses — announced and paid last week. Among the firms that do individualized rather than lockstep bonuses, Sidley is one of the earliest movers.

So how are Sidley Austin associates feeling about their 2013 year-end bonuses?

We’ve posted the full Sidley bonus memo on the next page. It’s basically the same as last year, just with the dates changed. Here’s the language explaining how bonuses are set:

As is our custom, we have determined bonuses on an individual basis. Year-end bonuses continue to be discretionary and, where awarded, are tailored to each associate’s circumstances. General eligibility criteria remain the same as in past years. In establishing bonus amounts, we have given substantial weight to the quality of an associate’s work, which remains the most important factor in evaluating an associate’s performance and prospects for long-term success at the Firm. We also have considered the hours that each associate has spent on chargeable, pro bono, and certain non-chargeable matters, such as legal services and other special contributions to the Firm.

Actually, based on the Sidley sources we’ve heard from, it seems that “the most important factor” appears to be hours. There might be a correlation between hours billed and quality of work — one might expect gunners to work the longest hours and to produce the best work product — but the tipsters boasting big bonuses also seem to be eating hours like ice cream sundaes. It also seems that our New York tipsters got better bonuses than associates in other offices.

Here are a few data points on Sidley bonuses. We provide them with the caveat that we obviously can’t guarantee that they are a representative sampling of the Sidley bonus pool generally. Also note that we’re intentionally being a little vague about hours and amounts to protect the anonymity of our sources. The corresponding Cravath amount for each class year appears in brackets.

Class of 2012 — hours over 2000 — bonus of $10,000 [Cravath: $10,000].

Class of 2011 — hours over 2000 — bonus over $14,000 [Cravath: $14,000].

Class of 2009 — hours over 2200 — bonus over $45,000 [Cravath: $27,000].

Class of 2008 — hours around 2000 — bonus over $25,000 but under $30,000 [Cravath: $34,000].

Class of 2008 — hours over 2300 — bonus over $55,000 [Cravath: $34,000].

Class of 2007 — hours over 2000 — bonus over $30,000 but under $40,000 [Cravath: $40,000].

And here are reactions from Sidley sources, in no particular order:

“Unsurprised. Some who billed well over 2000 made two or three times market. But everyone else pretty much just got market as we expected.”

“I haven’t heard anyone complain, but I also haven’t really heard anyone brag. I know of at least one associate in my class who billed about 1800 (below normal bonus level at Sidley) who received a check (size unknown), so maybe the black box was generous this year overall.”

“This is a better ratio (as compared to Cravath) than last year.”

“I am pretty sure bonuses are below market across the board.”

“Haven’t heard from anyone else yet. No specific numbers are announced publicly.”

“Sidley announced bonuses today. The scale isn’t public, but it seems that people have generally received less than Cravath.”

“Sidley matched in its normal way. Additional bonuses for hours past 2000. Seems cheaper than in years past…. Put me down as nonplussed, PPP keeps rising, midlevels getting murdered, yet they apparently are looking to skimp a little bit on high billers.”

Taken as a whole, the reactions seem neutral to negative — which, come to think of it, is how Biglaw associates generally seem to be receiving this year’s bonuses. A few are happy — like the Sullivan & Cromwell associate who reacted with “Hooray!” to the S&C announcement — but most associates seem either unsurprised or slightly disappointed.

(You can flip to the next page for the Sidley Austin bonus memo. It also includes the firm’s 2014 base salary table, consistent with the Simpson Thacher $160K scale that has been in place since early 2007.)

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