Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of attending the New York holiday party of Susman Godfrey, one of the nation’s most impressive — and most feared — litigation boutiques. The mood was celebratory (and not just because of the delicious food, provided by celebrated chef Daniel Boulud, and free-flowing drink).
The associates I spoke with — who all enjoy their own private offices, no small perk in the New York law firm world — exhibited a great esprit de corps. Unlike so many other associates I meet, they seemed genuinely glad to be at their firm and enthusiastic about their work.
I recently chatted with founding partner Stephen Susman about what he described as his firm’s “unique approach” to bonuses. Here’s what we discussed — including how big his firm’s bonuses are this year….
“Big firms tend to give bonuses completely lockstep by law school graduation year,” Susman said. “But that method just views associates as replaceable cogs and rewards them for surviving another year. It doesn’t even try to reward associates for the real value they’ve brought to their cases or the effort they’ve put in this past year.”
“Other firms use outlier bonuses to boost averages and create headlines,” he continued. “We call that the ‘Bill-Gates-in-a-bar’ approach. If nine guys are sitting around in a bar and Bill Gates walks in, all of a sudden the ‘average’ net worth is $7 billion. It sounds good, but that obviously doesn’t give the complete picture.”
Susman Godfrey takes a different approach. It begins by looking at associates by “partnership class,” i.e., how long the associate has been at the firm. Everyone is up for partner after six years at the firm, if not earlier. (SG doesn’t focus on law school graduation year, since all of its associates clerk for federal judges, some for multiple judges or multiple years.)
Within each partnership class, Susman explained, “we look at the associates individually and reward truly outstanding efforts and achievements.” And the rewards are handsome:
- For associates who’ve been with the firm for one year, the median bonus is $40k.
- Two years, the median is $60k.
- Three years, the median is $75k.
- And four years, the median is $85k.
- More than 4 years, the median is $90k.
These amounts trounce the Cravath scale. Because all Susman Godfrey associates clerk for at least a year, let’s treat the most-junior partnership class at Susman as Cravath’s “class of 2011.” The comparable amounts under the Cravath scale to the numbers provided above are $14k, $20k, $27k, $34k, and $40k. So Susman is basically paying — as a median bonus, not a top bonus — an amount somewhere between two or three times the Cravath scale.
Both associates in the most-senior partnership class at Susman Godfrey made partner — which leads to another aspect worth noting about SG’s bonuses.
“Our numbers are much more impressive when you consider that other firms’ highest bonuses, by far, go to their ‘senior associates,’” said Steve Susman. “We don’t have ‘senior associates.’ Lawyers who would be ‘senior associates’ at other firms are called ‘equity partners’ at SG.”
How could you factor that in and conduct an apples-to-apples comparison?
“You’d have to include the compensation that SG’s young equity partners have been earning. And let’s just say you’d need to add a few more ’0’s’ to even get in that ballpark.”
By now some of our readers are probably thinking, “How do I apply?” But if you’re interested in Susman Godfrey, you better have the credentials — stellar academic achievement in law school, a prestigious federal clerkship (or two or three) — to back up your interest.
“We have the best group of associates, top to bottom, in the country,” Susman said. “We recruit the very best, and then we give them the best opportunities on the best cases to quickly develop their skills as top trial lawyers.”
“We’re happy to reward our associates for the role they play in SG’s continued success,” he added. “But our associates don’t come here just for the money. They come here because we’re not afraid to give real courtroom experience to our associates from day one. And they come here because, unlike other firms, we’re not afraid to make equity partners.”
Making equity partners? What a novel concept! Alas, in the “new normal” for Biglaw, many firms are coping with declining demand by shrinking instead of expanding their equity partnerships, in order to boost their profit-per-partner figures. It’s nice to see a firm that’s going in the other direction.
Congratulations to Susman Godfrey associates on their superb bonuses — plus their abundance of actual courtroom time, working on high-stakes and fascinating cases, and their bright partnership prospects. If your professional goal is to become a world-class litigator, it’s hard to imagine a better place to be.