Associate Salaries

* The $160K-Plus Club welcomes its newest member: Duval & Stachenfeld, a real estate firm in NY, is more than doubling its starting salary for associates to $175K. Look for them recruiting at your “tier one” school soon. [New York Law Journal]

* In this economy, bankruptcy firms are being hit hard: Stutman Treister & Glatt, a top L.A. firm that once assisted in cases against Lehman Brothers and Enron Corp. in their Chapter 11 proceedings, is closing up shop. [WSJ Law Blog (sub. req.)]

* It ain’t easy being dean at the law school with the best Biglaw prospects — oh wait, yes it is. Congrats to Gillian Lester, who will serve as Columbia Law’s fifteenth dean come January 2015. [Columbia News]

* “Do I think he thought he was gonna beat it? Yeah.” The district attorney who brought charges against Stephen McDaniel thinks the law school killer was too big for his chainmail britches. [Macon Telegraph]

* From catcalling to “jiggle tests,” NFL cheerleaders have to put up with a lot of really ridiculous stuff. Not being paid the minimum wage is one thing, but having to put up with being groped is quite another. [TIME]

Earlier this month, we asked: What’s Going On At Kirkland & Ellis? Some observers wondered whether K&E, arguably the nation’s best overall law firm, was experiencing an unusually high number of prominent partner departures.

We received some interesting responses from Kirkland sources, some defending the firm and some more critical. Let’s hear what these readers had to share with us….

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Congratulations to the 10 new partners at Bingham McCutchen. They’re a diverse group, coming from a wide range of practice areas and six different offices. The gender balance could be better — only two of the new partners are women — but on the bright side, the group includes two former Supreme Court clerks.

And congratulations to Bingham McCutchen associates on their bonuses, which the firm announced yesterday. How are they looking?

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Some large law firms, when announcing year-end associate bonuses, also announce base salaries for the new year. In Biglaw, the salary scale hasn’t budged since January 2007, when Simpson Thacher announced the $160K scale (providing for base salaries ranging from $160,000 for first-year associates to $280,000 for eighth-year associates).

You could view this as a compensation cut, since we have had some inflation (even if not high inflation) since 2007. According to the inflation calculator of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $160,000 in 2013, the latest year available, had the same buying power as $142,407 in 2007. Of course, law school tuition has climbed quite a bit since 2007 — so even for the lucky souls who land Biglaw jobs, the value proposition of a law degree isn’t as appealing today as it was back in 2007. You’re paying more for a degree that gets you less.

What’s the solution? Work for a firm that will pay you more than $160,000 as a starting salary, of course! Let’s say hello to the newest member of the $160K-Plus Club….

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The law firm of Goodwin Procter is in the news these days. Some of the firm’s top trial lawyers are defending Mathew Martoma — formerly of SAC Capital and Harvard Law School, where he famously falsified a transcript — in one of the biggest and most exciting insider-trading cases in history.

(Fun fact: one of the members of Martoma’s trial team, Roberto Braceras, is the son-in-law of Judge José A. Cabranes. So if the Martoma case ever winds up before the Second Circuit, Judge Cabranes may have to recuse.)

Martoma earned millions while at SAC Capital, and some of that money will be making its way into the coffers of Goodwin Procter. And some of that money will then get paid out as associate bonuses, which the firm recently announced….

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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?

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Well, the bonus scale has been set. Cravath led — by copying their bonus payments from last year — and now everybody is following. I’m on record saying that these bonuses are underwhelming and disappointing.

Gone are the days where the first-year bonus represented a significant chunk of your law school debt. Sure, you can pay down some interest with your bonuses, or you can prudently save it, or maybe even invest it. But you can also blow it. I mean, it’s a “bonus,” right? In this depressed market, your bonuses look less like deferred compensation and more like “found money.” Instead of making a fiscally sound decision, using your bonuses for profligate, discretionary spending might make you feel better. (Disclosure: Elie Mystal is not a registered financial adviser and is too… stupid to follow a budget.)

Bonuses range from $10,000 for first-year associates to $60,000 for senior people. Professor Paul Caron of Tax Prof Blog tells me that associates can expect to take home about 60% percent of that, depending on where they live and how many dependents they have.

What can a young lawyer buy with that? In addition to what’s in the ATL holiday gift guide, here are 10 things…

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The days of wild spending on associate salaries seem like a distant memory washed away in the Great Recession. It was an exciting time to be a lawyer when every year (or even mid-year) a firm-wide email would explain that the pay scale was going up as part of the ongoing arms race among Biglaw firms to attract talent. That trickled down to Midlaw and the Boutiques and suddenly there were coke-fueled orgies all around.

While the country’s financial outlook doesn’t inspire much excitement, lawyers might be getting back in the high life again, with a pay bump expected next year. NY to 190?

So how much more are you about to make?

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[T]here is nothing about the current market that suggests starting associate salaries will be moving up any time soon.

James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), crushing the hopes and dreams of future Biglaw associates across the nation. Salaries for entry-level attorneys have been “essentially flat” since 2007 (although median pay rose to $160,000 once again after slipping to $145,000 last year).

You mean this groundbreaking Newtonian equation might be wrong?

One of the things I’ve learned in my time here at Above the Law is that most people are desperate to justify the decisions they’ve made, even if you can logically show them that they made the wrong call. People who go to terrible law schools argue endlessly that either their law school isn’t so terrible, or that they personally made a good call to go to a terrible school. People who are willing to take a massive pay cut to get the hell out of a soul-destroying Biglaw firm will still tell you that they “really valued” their time there. Obama voters look the other way while the “progressive” president allows robots to indiscriminately rain down death from the sky. Republicans act like they’re just supporting the “conservative fiscal policies” of the nutjob racists and homophobes they vote for.

Everybody wants to feel like every decision they made was the “right” one in some way. People like me who are willing to publicly admit that they’ve made some freaking awful decisions that haunt them to this day (like defaulting on my debts) are rare.

I don’t think we needed a whole study to make that point. I certainly don’t think we learn a lot by asking lawyers — generally employed lawyers — if they are “happy” with their decision to go to law school. What are they going to say? “Dear God, no. I hate my life. Please help me.”

But some law professors did ask that question, and SURPRISE, it turns out that going to an “elite” law school doesn’t automatically make you happier with your career decisions than going to a slightly less elite law school. Wow. In other super shocking news, marrying the hottest stripper in the club doesn’t make your marriage significantly more stable than marrying the second hottest stripper in the club….

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