Perks / Fringe Benefits

While 7.1 million Americans enrolled in Obamacare and Fox tries to explain why this is a bad thing, the majority of Americans just sauntered along with their employee health plans like nothing ever happened.

But in the legal sector, a lot was actually happening. By and large, law firms were engaged in what can be called “stealth cost shifting” where the high-profile benefits remained unchanged while the firms subtly reduced the cost of plans through other avenues.

Basically, this means employees pay more for stuff they don’t need. Now you know how the client feels…

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Non-lawyers are often surprised to learn of the lockstep salary schemes of large law firms and the near-perfect information we have about them. (Recall Kevin Drum’s befuddlement at the bi-modal distribution of law graduate salaries and the “weird cultural collusion” it suggested.) Even annual bonuses are frequently spelled out in what amounts to public memoranda and are typically some variation of the “market” dictated by our Cravath overlords. Of course, there are some “black box” firms and a few gilded outliers such as Wachtell Lipton or Boies Schiller, but generally speaking, the world of large firms practices a degree of relative transparency around compensation that is unsurpassed outside the public sector.

In order to distinguish among firms, we have to look to the margins. For example, law firms vary quite a bit when it comes to paying for the bar and living expenses of incoming associates. Some firms may reimburse for covered expenses after the fact; others may pay some expenses directly to the provider. Some may give a stipend to cover living expenses, whereas others may offer the ability to take out an advance on salary.

Greater transparency (or, at least, aggregated information) on these questions might make one firm’s offer more attractive than another’s, or perhaps even give an offeree some basis for negotiating a package upgrade (but of course tread very lightly there)….

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Each year in January, Fortune releases its list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For. As in years past, a few law firms have managed to sneak their way onto a list that includes employers like Google, the Mayo Clinic, and Goldman Sachs. With companies like that on the list, we still wonder if the people at Fortune have any idea what they’re talking about, because there’s just no way a law firm could be on a similar level.

We try to cover this list every year (click here for our posts in 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, and 2007). In 2013, only five law firms made the list: Alston & Bird (#23), Perkins Coie (#33), Baker Donelson (#45), Arnold & Porter (#62), and Bingham McCutchen (#82).

This year, six law firms made the list. Which six firms had pay that was high enough, perks that were good enough, and environments that were nurturing enough to make the cut? Let’s take a look…

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Kate Moss

* For the first time, a federal appeals court extended First Amendment protections reserved for trained journalists at traditional news entities to bloggers. Yippee, thanks Ninth Circuit! [L.A. Now / Los Angeles Times]

* If you want a Biglaw firm with a really generous 401(k) plan, look no further than Sullivan & Cromwell. It’s the most generous law firm plan in the country, with O’Melveny & Myers in second place. [BenefitsPro]

* A brain-dead patient in Texas is being used as an incubator because a state law requires hospitals to continue life support for pregnant women. Calling this the “cruelest pregnancy” is much too kind. [New York Times]

* Here are some depressing facts: not only are lawyers 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than non-lawyers, but they also rank in fourth place in terms of suicides per profession. Call someone if you need help. [CNN]

* Florida A&M must be absolutely thrilled that the ABA canceled the school’s show-cause hearing. It appears that the law school will be able to keep its accreditation, for now. [Tallahassee Democrat]

* If you’re a parent considering going to law school with a young child at home, congrats, because you must be rich to be toying with an idea like that. [Law Admissions Lowdown / U.S. News & World Report]

* Playboy is suing Harper’s Bazaar for using its pictures of Kate Moss without permission. The men’s mag wants $150K per picture posted on the luxury mag’s website — that’s one lavish lapin. [Independent]

Since 2008, Crain’s New York Business has produced a list of the Best Places to Work in New York City. Each year, a few law firms sneak onto the list, much like the situation with Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list.

This year, seven law firms made Crain’s list, while only four made Fortune’s list, as of January 2012. Just two firms overlap between Crain’s and Fortune’s lists.

Which ones are considered tops in the city that never sleeps? Let’s find out…

Please note the UPDATE to this post below.

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…To Take A Survey

We here at ATL want to know what world’s largest legal audience — ours, of course — thinks. Hence, we ask our audience a lot of questions. Our Insider Survey, which is soon coming up on its 15,000th respondent, provided the raw materials for the creation of our Law Firm and Law School Directories, as well as features on various specific organizations, locations, and practice areas. To supplement our Insider Survey data, we also take a closer look at specific aspects of institutions, such as compensation and social media policies. Additionally, we check in with our readers for their take on topical events, including presidential politics and Obamacare. Today, we have a look at a handful of our ongoing survey projects: Social Media, Stipend/Advance, and Health Insurance. But first, we are looking for help with a new research initiative.

There is probably no other industry as obsessed with the concept of “culture” as the legal profession, particularly in the world of law firms. Many firms view their culture as a key element of their distinct place in the competitive marketplace. But what does that even mean? Is there consensus on what constitutes culture? Do clients notice or care? We would like to dig deeper into these questions. As a first step in this project, we are looking for a small group of currently practicing law firm attorneys who are willing — in complete confidence — to give us about twenty minutes of their time to answer some of our questions concerning the realities of what defines firm culture. Preference will be given to attorneys who have lateraled between firms. We will be conducting this project in partnership with our friends at Adam Smith Esq. and JD Match. If interested, please email us here.

Apart from the never-ending Insider Survey, ATL has three ongoing surveys which we hope will bring greater transparency to subjects of interest to our readers. Here’s a quick glimpse at where they stand today…

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* The four female Supremes gathered last night (and kept RBG up past her bedtime) to celebrate the unveiling of a lifelike painting of themselves that’ll be on display for years. You go girls! [Reliable Source / Washington Post]

* Now that cloture’s been filed on a would-be D.C. Circuit judge, these judicial nominations are getting exciting. You should probably get ready for a battle royal on Patricia Millett’s qualifications later this week. [Blog of Legal Times]

* The women over at Holland & Knight must be pregnant with glee now that the firm is offering incredibly attractive paid maternity and adoption leave packages in the hope of retaining its lady lawyers. [Daily Business Review]

* People want to know if they should take the LSAT in December or February. Are they serious? Take it in December so you can retake it if you screw up. [Law Admissions Lowdown / U.S. News & World Report]

* Aww, Barry Bonds wants the Ninth Circuit to rehear his obstruction of justice conviction with 11 judges instead of three. Perhaps he thinks that more judges will equal more sympathy. [San Jose Mercury News]

A couple of weeks ago, as Obamacare was just stumbling out of the gate, we asked our readers to tell us about the state of their own health insurance plans through their firms. Since the Recession, we have heard anecdotal evidence that some firms have been using health care cost clawbacks as a stealth expense-cutting tactic and de facto pay cut. We wondered how widespread a phenomenon this practice had become. Well, perhaps that’s a bit disingenuous. We had a strong feeling that, in this time of layoffs and all the rest of the Biglaw belt-tightening measures, that no category of expenses would be immune. And our survey results resoundingly confirm those suspicions: 89% of you tell us that your health insurance premiums have gone up since you started work at your firm.

A relevant tip showed up in the ATL inbox this week. An attorney at a prominent (V25) law firm sent us a memo outlining new changes to the firm’s health plan. Here’s an excerpt: “The deductible for the CIGNA PPO plan will change from $250 single/$750 family to $500 single/$1,000 family. Also, the PPO prescription copays [will all increase]. These changes bring our PPO plan design in line with market
practice for large law firms
(emphasis added)”…

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With the continuing partial government shutdown and the shaky rollout of Obamacare, the issue of health insurance has never been such a central and divisive topic in the national conversation. Surely there are thousands of unemployed or temping JDs who are entering the brave new world of insurance exchanges and its attendant “hiccups.” In a development that perhaps should alarm the lowest-paid support staffers at law firms, some corporations appear poised to drop “bare bones” health-care benefits altogether for low-wage employees in favor of directing such employees to the new state exchanges.

Of course, for the lawyers at firms, such developments concerning the exchanges are essentially an abstract issue. That is not to say that attorney benefits packages are not subject to “new normal” economic pressures, or that the ultimate effect of the Affordable Care Act on private health insurance packages is unknowable. As noted here way back in 2009, some firms have added health care cost clawbacks to their expense-cutting repertoire of layoffs and pay cuts. Many associates have found themselves, post-Recession, with higher premiums and deductibles and thus, a de facto salary cut. Comparing salaries and bonuses across law firms overlooks the element of health insurance costs, about which there is no equivalent transparency. Undoubtedly there are significant variations across firms in this area, and some firms that appear to pay “market” aren’t quite doing so in light of their requiring a larger fraction of health care premiums. These variations inevitably distort direct comparisons.

We’d like to bring some transparency to this topic — but we need your help….

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Look, it’s a tough economy, you take your good news where you can get it.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report called “The Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.” What a great euphemism for the “Workplace Death Files.”

It turns out the most dangerous jobs really are logging and fishing. Transportation accidents also account for the highest rate of fatal at-work accidents. That means that reality shows like Ax Men, Deadliest Catch, and Ice Road Truckers are actually about pussies who don’t do their jobs in a very hard-core way, otherwise there would be at least one on-screen death per season.

Lawyers have the safest jobs, according to this report. So I guess we’re not counting “suicide” as a workplace accident….

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