Associate Compensation

A $500,000 associate? (Click to enlarge.)

Base salaries for Biglaw associates haven’t budged since January 2007, when Simpson Thacher led the charge to $160k. Year-end bonuses have remained fairly static since 2007 as well, the year of Cravath’s special bonuses. The 2012 bonuses represented an improvement over the 2011 bonuses, but only if you ignored the 2011 phenomenon of spring bonuses. On the whole, associate compensation is treading water.

But for Supreme Court clerks, aka “The Elect,” compensation continues to climb. In 2011, the signing bonus for outgoing SCOTUS clerks started to move from $250K to $280K. In 2012, the increase solidified, with $280K becoming the new going rate (and $285K becoming the above-market rate).

Now, just a year later, some firms are offering SCOTUS clerkship bonuses in excess of $280K or $285K. How much are they paying, and which offices of which firms are leading the market higher? The answer might surprise you….

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Isn’t it a bit early to be pocketing bonus money?

As law students gear up for fall recruiting season — yes, the Biglaw gravy train still accepts new passengers, even if not as many as before — some rising 2Ls might start to think, after researching firm after firm, “All of these places sound alike! They all have cutting-edge practices in bet-the-company litigation or cross-border M&A. They all have collegial cultures and ‘no screamers.’ They’re all committed to diversity and pro bono.”

But there are real differences between law firms. If you doubt this, just check out Above the Law’s Law Firm Directory. You can see the different letter grades we’ve assigned to firms, based on reports from lawyers who work at each firm and on overall industry reputation.

Further proof that law firms aren’t all the same: while some firms are giving out pink slips, others are issuing bonus checks. And we’re in the middle of July, not exactly peak bonus season. What gives?

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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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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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It’s the last day of December, so it’s a good time to look back on the year that was. We’ll do what we’ve done for the past three years (wrap-up posts from 2009, 2010, and 2011 can be found here, here, and here) and identify the ten biggest stories of the past year as decided by you, our readers. With the help of Google Analytics, we’ve compiled a list of our top ten posts for 2012, based on traffic (as represented by pageviews).

By the way, for the third year in a row, the most popular category page on Above the Law was Law Schools. People have now been intensely focused on the declining value proposition of going to law school for as long as it takes to earn a Juris Doctor degree. Isn’t it time that we graduate from the current educational model?

The second and third most-popular categories on ATL in 2012 were Biglaw and Bonuses. Although this year brought us the largest law firm failure ever, nearly all other firms indiscriminately doled out offers to summer associates, and bonus season looked better for the first time in years. While the legal profession is still in transition, things are certainly looking up, and through the highs and the lows, we’ve been there to cover it all.

So what were the ten most popular individual posts at Above the Law in 2012? Let’s find out….

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Merry Christmas, Quinn Emanuel billers.

Yesterday, we talked about the Quinn Emanuel bonuses. Many associates were angry, especially those who had billed a lot of hours in 2012. For some of those top billers, their bonuses were smaller than the same amount of work was worth last year.

Well, advocate and thou shalt receive. Quinn Emanuel just sent around a memo announcing that it will be increasing the top-end payments, to bring them in line with last year…

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Partners: Alright you associates, ready to get happy about bonuses?
Quinn Associate: I’d say we are.
Cravath Associate: Yeah, let’s sing it now!
Partners: Okay, Kirkland?
Kirkland Associate: Okay!
Partners: Okay, Cravath?
Cravath Associate: Okay!
Partners: Okay Quinn? … Quinn? … QUINN EMANUEL!!!
Quinn Associate: OKAY!!

Yes, the Chipmunk Christmas Song is the perfect holiday analogy for Biglaw bonus season this year. And not just because Biglaw associates do work that talking chipmunks could accomplish [zing]. I’m looking at associate reactions from all these firms, and it just seems like expectations are playing a much larger role than the actual dollar amounts.

You’ve got Cravath associates in the role of Theodore. Maybe they’re not as sharp as some of the others, but they’re just kind of happy to be here. Kirkland associates are playing Simon — nerdy and a bit grumpy, but they’re not going to make a big scene about it.

And then you have Quinn associates, playing Alvin, the diva. Their bonuses came out just before Christmas, and they seem really angry about this situation. Even though most of them are making more than Cravath.

I guess they were expecting a hula-hoop….

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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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