Associate Salaries

Last week’s column was not intended for a particular group, other than those who enter the world of Biglaw and then wonder what has become of their work/life balance. Some accused me of whining. If that is how you comprehended my message, it speaks to a lack of either comprehension on your part, or writing talent on my part. I was not complaining, I was preaching — or trying to preach. I receive so many letters from young (inexperienced) attorneys and law students asking me about the mythical work/life balance that I took the opportunity to blow off some steam in an attempt to speak truth. I feel that I may not have been thorough, and want to further elucidate (bloviate).

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Would you go to work as a deep-sea welder and then complain that you don’t get home enough? Or how about an over-the-road truck driver? Or a fireperson(?) who works three on/three off shifts? No, you wouldn’t. And who would be so dim, right? People going into those jobs know the requirements up front, and still choose them. They don’t later bitch and moan that what they lack is a fireman’s committee that will present grievances to the higher-ups – and they especially don’t complain about this falsehood called work-life balance.

At my last firm, there was just such an “Associate’s Committee,” and they put together a manifesto of sorts that they presented to the partnership. And you know what? Not a damned thing changed, except the partners got angry. And I was angry. It was embarrassing to me that I would be viewed by some partners as actually agreeing to that tripe. I knew what I was in for when I signed on for firm life so very long ago. Don’t get me wrong, I am not taking the tack of a codger lecturing to newbie “why, in my day…” To the contrary, I am speechifying that if you find yourself in a position at a law firm in which you are unhappy, it is likely your own damn fault.

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Many good things can be said about Jenner & Block. Above the Law readers who work there give it an overall grade of A-minus. It’s a top law firm for diversity.

The firm has a long and distinguished history of pro bono work. And it’s a leader in the area of government service. Many of its lawyers used to work at the Justice Department, the White House, and other top governmental entities. And many high-ranking government lawyers, such as solicitor general Donald Verrilli Jr., used to work at Jenner.

But what if you’re less interested in public service and more interested in debt service — specifically, retiring your own substantial law school loans? Is Jenner the best place to work?

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Law schools, don’t expect your applications to rebound anytime soon. The Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) recently released data showing that fewer people took the February 2013 LSAT than any administration of the February test ever.

Forever ever? Forever ever. In fact, the number represents one of the smallest amounts of test takers since 1988.

1988, folks. The Berlin Wall was still up. People were listening to Rick Astley and not ironically.

The reduced number of test takers is certainly a result of students beginning to question the value proposition of law school. But some of it is undoubtedly the result of intelligent students questioning the value proposition of being a lawyer.

Would you want to go into a field that hasn’t seen a starting salary raise since 2007?

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Everything’s humming along nicely at Bingham McCutchen. The firm just named 13 new partners, up from nine partners last year. The firm was once again honored by Fortune magazine as a best company to work for (which marks the ninth straight year, for those of you who are counting).

And the firm just announced its bonuses, both ordinary and “extraordinary.” Let’s see the numbers….

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We’re in the middle of what we previously referred to as the second wave of law firm bonus announcements. Later today, for example, we’ll write about the Latham & Watkins announcement from yesterday. (So far we’re hearing mixed things; if you’re at Latham and would like to opine on the bonuses, feel free to email us or text us (646-820-8477).)

Right now we’re going to discuss the bonuses announced at Goodwin Procter (which actually just hired a partner, Brynn Peltz, away from Latham). The Goodwin bonus announcement came out on Tuesday of this week.

So what do 2012 bonuses at Goodwin Procter look like?

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160, 170, 185, 210, 230, 250….

Today is January 17, so you should have received your first paycheck for 2013 by now. Was that paycheck smaller than you expected?

Well, it wasn’t your imagination. Due to the non-extension of the payroll tax holiday, if you’re earning the same salary this year as last year, your take-home pay should now be smaller.

But what if you’re an associate at a major law firm with a lockstep compensation system? You should see a seniority-based raise reflected in your first paycheck of the year, correct?

Earlier this week, associates at two leading law firms flipped out when their paychecks weren’t what they expected….

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A few months ago, we wrote a story about the $160K-Plus Club: those law firms that pay their first-year associates more than $160,000 a year, the going rate within Biglaw. Earlier this week, we covered which cities give young lawyers the biggest bang for their buck — i.e., cities where the buying power of the median salary for that city is the greatest.

Let’s mash up these two stories. Today we bring you news of a law firm that (1) pays a starting salary of more than $160,000 and (2) is based in a city that’s in the top ten for buying power. Associates at this firm are — by our calculations, based on the NALP Buying Power Index — living as well as someone earning $414,000 in New York City. That’s a staggering sum for a first-year associate.

So which firm are we talking about? And are they hiring?

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Back in 2011, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) produced an extremely useful chart for people trying to figure out where to start their Biglaw careers. The chart, which tracks buying power based on starting salaries for associates, is a great way to find out where you’ll get the most bang for your buck if you land a lucrative Biglaw gig.

NALP’s Buying Power Index continues to use New York City ($160,000) as the baseline. It takes the median starting salary for the class of 2011 and the cost of living index for NYC and sets that figure at 1.00. Cities with a better purchasing power than NYC have a value greater than 1.00. In all, 76 cities have been ranked.

When we first wrote about this, associates in New York City were crestfallen when they found out that their city was number 42 on the list — they realized they were essentially throwing their money down the drain. This year, NYC has tumbled even further down the list.

How badly are they getting screwed, and where can you go if you want greater purchasing power?

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We’re tempted to do what we proposed last year regarding Sidley Austin bonuses, by simply writing: “Sidley bonuses are out. The scale is not transparent, so some people may be happy with their bonuses and others may be unhappy. Here is an open thread for you to discuss. Thank you.”

That would at least spare us from some of the criticism we’ve received for our coverage of the Sidley bonuses in recent years. In 2010, we initially wrote a very positive post, which we got criticized for by people who saw it as too positive. In 2011, we went in the other direction, reporting that Sidley’s bonuses drew yawns from associates — an assessment that drew flak for us from happy campers at Sidley (and there are many happy campers at the firm; it enjoys an A- rating from ATL readers who work there).

So we realize that covering the sensitive subject of Sidley bonuses is a bit like trying to reach a budget deal: you can’t make everyone happy, just varying degrees of unhappy. But we’ll give it our best shot….

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