Associate Bonus Watch 2012

Congratulations to the new partners at Cleary Gottlieb and Proskauer Rose. Cleary elected eight new partners and Proskauer elected three new partners, both good-sized classes.

And congratulations to the associates at Cleary and Proskauer. They just learned that their firms will be matching the robust bonuses announced by Cravath earlier this week.

Let’s get the details — including the early payment date at Cleary, and the lovely memo from Proskauer….

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When it comes to its associates, Paul Weiss has a few “crazy ones.” But when it comes to its associate bonuses, the firm is extremely rational.

Last night, around the time the Skadden bonuses came in, Paul Weiss also announced its 2012 bonus scale. Just as it did last year, the firm matched Cravath. PW will pay bonuses on December 21, the same date as Cravath and Skadden.

Was there ever any doubt that Paul Weiss would match?

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Stick a fork in it, because it’s almost done. There’s a high likelihood that the 2012 associate bonus season is complete, at least for all practical purposes, and if so, it will look a lot like past bonus seasons: Cravath leads, and everyone else follows.

“High likelihood,” but not yet a certainty. There’s one major wild card that’s still out: Sullivan & Cromwell, which sometimes takes the lead on associate compensation. Remember, of course, that the 2011 spring bonuses were brought to you by S&C. One could certainly see a scenario in which Sullivan & Cromwell trumps Cravath, in order to get Cravath back for how CSM showed up S&C on spring bonuses.

Unless and until Sullivan & Cromwell beats Cravath, though, we’re playing the usual game of follow Cravath. Let’s check out the latest firm to fall in line….

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Well, so much for that! Time for me to end my short-lived career as a fortune teller or law firm consultant.

Within minutes of my wondering whether firms might not match the generous 2012 Cravath bonus scale — and my suggesting, ever so gently, that firms might want to at least put some thought into whether matching made sense for them financially — one major law firm announced a match of the Cravath lucre.

When it comes to bonus payments, Simpson Thacher will not take a backseat to Cravath. Let’s get the details….

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Could we be looking at that rara avis, a genuinely suspenseful and surprising Biglaw bonus season?

We haven’t had one for a while. In the past few years, things have followed the usual pattern: the market leader, Cravath, announces bonuses, and everyone else follows.

The last truly interesting bonus season took place in 2008. That year, instead of waiting for Cravath, Skadden moved first and offered generous bonuses (regular year-end bonuses at 2007 levels, just no “special” or supplemental bonuses). The following day, Cravath announced bonuses that were essentially half of Skadden’s. This led my colleague, Elie Mystal, to develop and deploy the term “Half-Skadden” to refer to the bonuses offered by Cravath and its (many grateful) followers.

But this year raises an interesting question: Could Cravath get… Cravathed? Could this be the year of “Half-Cravath” bonuses?

UPDATE (11:00 AM): Or maybe not. Note the update at the end of this post about one leading firm that just matched Cravath.

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Yesterday, Cravath made it rain with a decent bonus scale, especially for those who survived the meltdown. A fifth-year associate at Cravath is making $230,000 in base salary and will receive a $34,000 bonus. Nice work if you can get it. (Actually, it’s not nice work. It’s grueling, soul-crushing. Luckily, most people can’t get it.)

Soon after the Cravath bonuses came out, Weil Gotshal issued some bonus news of its own. The firm is expected to match Cravath, but yesterday Weil announced that it won’t pay bonuses until the end of January, 2013. The timing represents a change for Weil; in recent years, the firm has paid out bonuses in December, not January.

Is it no big deal? Well, if you are a fifth-year expecting a Cravath-level bonus, it could be a huge deal. That bonus is going to push you over the $250,000 mark, and that could make a big difference if we’re talking about 2012 versus 2013…

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Lat here. Earlier this month, I wondered: could the bumper crop of new partners at Cravath bode well for bonuses? Although firms like Cravath generally make partnership decisions with a focus on the longer term, as opposed to based on short-term financial performance, a class of five partners is one of the largest Cravath has had in years. It certainly seems to reflect a good degree of confidence about the firm’s future.

Now we have our answer as to the size of Cravath bonuses. The firm just announced its year-end bonuses for 2012, and they’re not simply a cut-and-paste of last year’s numbers. This year’s bonuses are more generous than last year’s, which is great news (at least for associates trying to pay off their law school loans; partners might be less enthused).

Sit up and take notes, since the Cravath bonus scale sets the bar for most other major law firms….

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Time to start practicing the Cravath walk? (Google it if you’re not familiar.)

In an excellent essay reflecting on his time at Cravath, lawyer turned author James B. Stewart had this to say about the associates who made partner: “They weren’t necessarily the brightest…. They weren’t, as I had expected, the hardest-working…. They weren’t the most personable…. Finally it came to me: The one thing nearly all the partners had in common was they loved their work.”

Move over, Virginia. Cravath is for lovers — of work.

The firm just named its latest class of lovers. How many new partners did CSM just make, and what might this suggest about the firm’s market-setting bonuses?

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Hello associates. It is almost bonus season. For most of you, your main hopes this time of year are (1) to get a bonus and (2) no surprises. What kind of surprises are you looking to avoid? Unwelcome ones. Like your firm going from lockstep associate compensation to a “merit-based” system. Or the firm implementing a different bonus hours target at the last minute. That two-week-long summer trip to Barcelona and Ibiza? The one that cost you about a hundred billable hours? Congratulations. That one hundred hours is now costing you twenty grand in bonus money. Thanks for playing the Biglaw associate game.

So Lat asked me to give some insight into what partners think about associate bonuses. From what I can tell, the overwhelmingly majority of partners don’t think at all about associate bonuses. The reality is that nearly all Biglaw decisions are made by a very small group of partners (increasingly with the help of professional non-lawyer administrators). The ones on the Executive Committee. With an assist (on this issue) by the Associate or Compensation Committees.

Here is how it happens….

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So far, no firm has stepped up and paid out bonuses early to help people struggling with Hurricane Sandy. Given the Nor’easter, associates might just burn the money to stay warm.

But at least one firm is being proactive about adjusting expectations because of the crazy weather patterns. Sandy essentially took a week away from billables, and so the firm is knocking a week off the minimum hour requirement….

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