Associate Bonus Watch

As we’ve been saying, it’s not that hard to give your associates a better bonus than what they’re doling out at Cravath. At the elite California firm of Irell & Manella, they do it every year.

Once again, Irell has issued bonuses that put Cravath’s to shame. No muss, no fuss — multiple sources tell us the the bonuses were much bigger than the Cravath bonuses.

So how much bigger are we talking about?

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As we get back to our regularly scheduled programming, it’s pretty obvious that bonus season has gotten a little bit ragged. This is what happens when the overdog, Cravath, fails to set bonuses at reasonable levels: firms get confused and try to do things to make it look like they’re clearing the ridiculously low bar Cravath has set. There are so many firms now with some kind of performance or hours mark that will allow at least one of their associates to say, “I made more this year than if I was working at Cravath.”

And that’s just the firms that have announced already. Other firms seem to be waiting to make their “year-end” bonus announcement because they don’t want to have to go back and dole out more money once somebody gets around to announcing spring bonuses. While it might be fun for Cravath and Sullivan & Cromwell to play chicken over who will announce spring bonuses first, there are a whole bunch of firms that are just sitting around waiting to find out how much they are going to have to pay.

And there are a bunch of associates who are starting to wonder if they’ll be getting any kind of bonus at all.

So who did we miss? Who still owes you a bonus announcement?

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In our recent post on the top 10 most generous large law firms — based on analysis by ATL’s new director of research, Brian Dalton — the firm of Hogan Lovells placed second. Under the rankings, this meant that Hogan partners are taking the second-biggest hit to their own bottom lines in order to keep their associates happy and well-compensated.

But is this still the case today? Based on what we’re hearing about the most recent Hogan bonuses, announced shortly before Christmas, one wonders whether the Ho-Love partners have turned from Santas into Scrooges….

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Matt Kluger

Here’s a Fried Frank bonus for you: Matthew Kluger, the former Fried Frank associate who sued the firm for alleged discrimination, is going to prison. As you may recall, Kluger — who also worked as an associate at other top law firms, including Cravath, Skadden, and Wilson Sonsini — was charged in a massive insider trading case this past spring. A week ago, he pleaded guilty to all four counts against him. He’ll be sentenced in April 2012.

Now, on to the matter at hand: associate bonuses in the New York office of Fried Frank. How were they this year?

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Earlier this week, Kirkland & Ellis associates started receiving phone calls about their bonuses. Many associates are reporting that their bonuses “shattered the market.” In the words of one K&E source, “It is mad money. Huge year for everyone here.”

It’s important to note that Kirkland has a “black box” bonus structure, in which the payouts are highly individualized and based on performance and hours. Every year, there are some winners and losers.

Right now we’re hearing a lot of chatter from K&E winners. Many are reporting bonuses that are significantly higher than Cravath — which really isn’t hard to do, given how terribly low the Cravath bonuses are this year (so low that partners at other firms are thanking their Cravath counterparts). More to the point, we’ve got K&E people saying they made more than they would have at Quinn Emanuel (which is impressive!).

But, there’s a catch. While some firms like Sullivan & Cromwell anticipate paying spring bonuses, some of our Kirkland friends are telling us that this bonus is inclusive of a spring payout. So K&E might not pay a spring bonus, even if other firms do…

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In the world of Biglaw, the subject of bonuses is a hot-button issue. People will disagree, often vehemently, on whether the bonuses paid by a particular firm are generous or cheap. To paraphrase an old joke, if you ask two people about bonuses, you’ll get three opinions.

Given these frequent differences of opinion, whenever we publish an Associate Bonus Watch post, we’re eager to get opinions and additional information from you, our readers. As you can see from looking back at our prior bonus coverage, we often update our bonus posts to add new information or another point of view. You can send us reactions to your firm’s bonuses — or news of bonuses we have not yet covered — by email or by text message (646-820-8477 / 646-820-TIPS).

Some of our recent bonus posts have generated salient updates and dissenting opinions. After the jump, we bring you postscripts regarding bonuses at several major law firms, including Cravath, Kaye Scholer, Quinn Emanuel, Sidley Austin, and Weil Gotshal….

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This actually happened last Wednesday — but, due to the less-than-exciting nature of the news, we doubt anyone has been prejudiced by our delay in reporting it. The law firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf announced associate and counsel bonuses, on the Sullivan & Cromwell scale (i.e., the Cravath scale, but topping out at $42,500 instead of $37,500).

Even if not surprising, it is nice that Dewey is matching market. As you may recall, Dewey made our list of the top ten most generous law firms — i.e., ten firms that generally match Cravath-level bonuses, despite having significantly lower profits per partner than Cravath. Partners at these firms take a financial hit to keep their associates happy.

Just like last year, there are a few footnotes to the Dewey bonus news that merit comment. And there’s some positive news for top performers, too….

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Schulte Roth & Zabel really came up with a creative way to make this terrible bonus season even worse for SRZ associates.

Schulte is matching the Cravath scale, but not all at once. Half of the bonus is being paid now, the other half in March. It’s Schulte’s way of issuing a retention bonus without actually spending any extra money.

It also sets Schulte up nicely to avoid paying spring bonuses next year. Not that Schulte management really cares what people think about them. The firm didn’t pay spring bonuses last year. Even though the firm is making people whole with a “spring bonus” payment to those who should have gotten one last spring, the money is still tied to hitting 2011 hours targets.

It’s really one of the most disingenuous bonus memos we’ve seen. While technically the firm is matching Cravath, it’s doing it in a nickle-and-dime way that makes it pretty clear the Schulte partnership begrudges every last cent they have to pay out in bonuses.

If the associates don’t like it, they know where the door is….

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It seems that founding partner John Quinn isn’t the only one at Quinn Emanuel with a surplus of Benjamins right about now. On Friday, the litigation powerhouse announced its 2011 year-end bonus scale — and, for the most part, it’s more generous than the benchmark Cravath bonus scale.

We say “for the most part” because, for associates billing under 2100 hours, the scale is below Cravath — but just slightly. And it’s our understanding that not many QE associates bill less than 2100 hours anyway.

Let’s take a look at the details….

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Full disclosure: I have a disproportionate amount of lawyer friends who work at Sidley Austin. Their bonuses have caused all sorts of fun to happen in my inbox. Without even seeing the actual bonus memo, I could tell what was happening based on Gchats and text messages. Friends said things like:

“Yawn.”

“This joke stopped being funny days ago.”

“Is ATL hiring?”

“Sidley proves you right every single day.”

I like it when friends making three times as much money as I make feel comfortable complaining to me.

And, you know, I am right….

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