Associate Salaries

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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Last year, I complained that the complicated compensation system at Vinson & Elkins was giving me a headache. What’s wrong with a Cravath-style system of lockstep salaries and bonuses? Or a Kirkland- or Latham-style system of lockstep salaries and individualized bonuses? Is it really necessary, for purposes of paying associates, to utilize a system involving deferred compensation?

Luckily for me and my limited quantitative-reasoning ability, V&E has decided to streamline their system. Let’s learn about what they’re doing, which they revealed in the course of announcing their bonuses.

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Last week I discussed the associate bonus process from your typical partner’s perspective. I want to talk a bit more about ways firms can take advantage of the glut of prospective associates out there, while increasing the odds of finding those rare jewels who will make partner — with each associate making less, but getting a better lifestyle (and a shot at a Biglaw career) in the bargain.

Some caveats. First, the ideas below are not intended for the Simpsons — this Simpson, not those Simpsons — of the world. They will continue to attract the very best, and should continue their current structure. Why? Because the Cravath model that the elite firms instituted makes for great partners and strong law firms. The problem is that almost every Biglaw firm adopted the Cravath model, and not all of them should have. Most firms do not have the institutional client base of the elite firms, and therefore don’t need the tremendous fixed costs and inflexibility with respect to associates that the Cravath model brings. As firms expand, contract, or just struggle to stay afloat post-Biglaw Breakdown, it seems like a great time to try some new approaches to talent structures and compensation. There is nothing wrong with some experimentation, as long as the protocols are transparent, and management is prepared to cut bait quickly if things are not working out.

Now over the years we have seen firms experiment with their junior associate hiring models. Most of these programs involved trying to turn junior associates into some form of quasi-apprentices. None seem to have taken root. And in my mind there is no sense in implementing a drastic, global overhaul of your associate model, before trying some more limited changes on the practice group level.

Here is what I would try….

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As we recently mentioned, Biglaw is not all about the benjamins. There is so much more to the practice of law than the monetary rewards. Focus on doing the best work you can for your clients and your colleagues, and the money will take care of itself (well, at least most of the time).

Of course, it’s much easier to take a relaxed attitude towards money if you have a good amount of it. It’s easy for well-paid partners to tell young associates not to worry about money, when the partners enjoy seven-figure paychecks while the associates struggle under six-figure student loans.

If you’re a young lawyer dealing with educational debt, you know that every extra dollar counts. Every dollar earned means you’re one buck closer to liberation from loans.

Which leads us to today’s question: which law firms pay the largest starting salaries to their associates?

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We haven’t had a good New York to 190 post in a while, and maybe there’s a reason for that. While many associates (and partners) feel that they’re long overdue for a raise, starting salaries have grown stagnant in New York — and across the country, for that matter. Remember back in 2007 when we first reported that Simpson Thacher raised incoming associates’ base salaries to $160,000? That was five years ago, and these days, you’ll be lucky if you’re making what you would’ve been taking home before that $15K salary bump.

While that $160K sweet spot for first-years is still the norm in many large markets, it’s no longer as widespread as it once was. In fact, that figure represents only 46 percent of first-year salaries in firms with more than 700 lawyers — and that percentage has been on a steady decline since 2009, when layoffs and terror ran rampant in Biglaw.

Sorry about that tiny pink paycheck of yours….

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Fair is fair: I wrote last week about “what drives partners nuts.” Having armed associates with the ammunition needed to drive partners crazy, it’s only right that I arm partners with ways to drive associates nuts. (I realize that many partners are quite good at this even without my help, but I figure a stray few could use some guidance.)

Come on, partners, how can you drive associates nuts?

First: Give associates disembodied projects!

If you wanted someone actually to be interested in a project, you’d tell that person what the project was about. You’d explain what the transaction entails, what the client needs, and the critical issues likely to arise. In litigation matters, you’d explain who’s suing whom for what, the path the case is taking, the client’s main concerns, and the likely endgame. That would put a person’s brain in gear, and the person might actually care about his or her work.

So don’t do it!

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Scenic waterfront of Wheeling, West Virginia. And the town got a traffic light too!

We’ve written extensively about the offices of Orrick in Wheeling, West Virginia. It’s the place where non-partner track associates go to perform the kind of quasi-paralegal tasks that you really shouldn’t have to pay somebody $160,000 a year to get done.

Here’s the thing about these “onshore,” “insourcing” operations: they are successful. Ridiculously successful. In an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Orrick chairman Ralph Baxter called the decision to open the Wheeling center “one of the smartest decisions we’ve ever made for the firm and our clients.” And that’s coming from a man who made the smart decision not to merge with Dewey Ballantine.

That’s why every Biglaw managing partner, and every law student thinking of taking out hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to law school, should pay attention to what’s going on in Wheeling…

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What Husch Blackwell first-years look like right now.

* The Apple Samsung carnival returns to court today. I can’t wait to see what happens. We will probably have more on this later. [Bloomberg Businessweek]

* After being found guilty of judicial misconduct for misappropriating public funds, Michigan state Judge Sylvia James will be removed from the bench for the remainder of her term. [Detroit Free Press]

* London-based Herbert Smith poached six partners from Chadbourne, including the head of the firm’s litigation group, Thomas Riley, and Gregory Loss, who helmed the products liability group. [Thomson Reuters News & Insight]

* San Bernardino is the newest California city to declare bankruptcy. The city apparently has over $1 billion in debt. I wonder if they had to cut their prosecutors’ salaries also. [Wall Street Journal]

* First-year associates at Husch Blackwell will see a nice salary bump this year. Oh boy! [Blog of the Legal Times]

* President Obama nominated prosecutor Pamela Chen to be a new judge for the Federal District Court in New York. If confirmed, she would become the second female Chinese-American federal judge in U.S. history, and also would be one of the first openly lesbian federal judges. [Metro Weekly]

* Republicans filibustered the Obama administration’s high-priority cybersecurity bill. [New York Times]

Last month, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) released information about the overall employment rate for the class of 2011 — information that seemed dismal, at best. The American Bar Association then followed up with its own employment data, and it was “just as dire” as everyone expected, if not worse.

We know that the overall employment rate for the class of 2011 is lower than it’s been in 17 years. But even members of the class of 2011 who managed to secure employment have been screwed. Median starting salaries for new law school graduates have dropped by 35% over the past two years.

Since prospective law students are not great with facts and numbers, NALP was kind enough to put together some pretty pictures to help people understand….

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Big Bay Boom

* What kind of a Dewey pun will be used later today when we discuss this global “clawback” deal for former D&L partners? I dunno, but “Dewey know how f**ked we are?” seems rather appropriate at this point. [Wall Street Journal (sub. req.)]

* Judge Lucy Koh recused herself from a Facebook privacy lawsuit without providing a reason for doing so. Given that a petition to impeach her popped up online, she probably doesn’t want to piss off any other tech companies right now. [Reuters]

* Mississippi: a state where legislators want to protect women from unscrupulous abortion practitioners their own choices about their bodies. A judge has extended a temporary order to allow the state’s only abortion clinic to remain open. [CNN]

* Good news, everyone! Median starting salaries for recent law school graduates are no longer in the six-figure range due to an “erosion in Biglaw jobs.” Still think you’re going to make big bucks? [ABA Journal]

* A San Diego, California fireworks fiasco that lasted all of 15 seconds yielded not only a bunch of fabulously entertaining YouTube videos, but also great lawsuit fodder for environmental groups. [National Law Journal]

* Note to unemployed law school graduates in New Jersey: selling black-market kidneys isn’t a half-bad career choice, because if you get caught, you’ll likely only be sentenced to 30 months in prison. [Bloomberg]

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