Associate Compensation

[T]here is nothing about the current market that suggests starting associate salaries will be moving up any time soon.

James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), crushing the hopes and dreams of future Biglaw associates across the nation. Salaries for entry-level attorneys have been “essentially flat” since 2007 (although median pay rose to $160,000 once again after slipping to $145,000 last year).

You mean this groundbreaking Newtonian equation might be wrong?

One of the things I’ve learned in my time here at Above the Law is that most people are desperate to justify the decisions they’ve made, even if you can logically show them that they made the wrong call. People who go to terrible law schools argue endlessly that either their law school isn’t so terrible, or that they personally made a good call to go to a terrible school. People who are willing to take a massive pay cut to get the hell out of a soul-destroying Biglaw firm will still tell you that they “really valued” their time there. Obama voters look the other way while the “progressive” president allows robots to indiscriminately rain down death from the sky. Republicans act like they’re just supporting the “conservative fiscal policies” of the nutjob racists and homophobes they vote for.

Everybody wants to feel like every decision they made was the “right” one in some way. People like me who are willing to publicly admit that they’ve made some freaking awful decisions that haunt them to this day (like defaulting on my debts) are rare.

I don’t think we needed a whole study to make that point. I certainly don’t think we learn a lot by asking lawyers — generally employed lawyers — if they are “happy” with their decision to go to law school. What are they going to say? “Dear God, no. I hate my life. Please help me.”

But some law professors did ask that question, and SURPRISE, it turns out that going to an “elite” law school doesn’t automatically make you happier with your career decisions than going to a slightly less elite law school. Wow. In other super shocking news, marrying the hottest stripper in the club doesn’t make your marriage significantly more stable than marrying the second hottest stripper in the club….

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To pass the time while commuting, I like to listen to podcasts. If ATL had a podcast I would add that to my listening rotation (especially if Lat is able to pull in sitting judges to guest host or as interview subjects). But this is not a column about podcasts. Though the idea for this contest came from a podcast I was listening to, the B.S. Report with Bill Simmons. The host was interviewing a former ESPN colleague, and they were discussing how certain statistics in baseball are misleading.

An example? Wins for pitchers. Apparently there is a movement to abolish that statistic. Why? Because a pitcher can pitch a terrible game, and still come away with the win, assuming his lineup bails him out. Conversely, a pitcher can pitch a beautiful game, and lose just because his hitters decide to approach their at-bats like the pudgy partner from bankruptcy at the annual intra-firm softball game. To prove the limited utility of using wins as a proxy for determining who is the best pitcher, consider the following. By nearly all accounts, Clayton Kershaw of the L.A. Dodgers is the single most dominant pitcher in baseball today. Unsurprisingly, he is reportedly in line for the richest (around $30 million a year or so) contract extension for a pitcher — ever. But he has fewer wins this season (so far) than Bartolo Colon, a 40-year-old journeyman pitcher (on his sixth team, and nearly a decade removed from his last All-Star game appearance), who is making non-equity service partner money ($3 million) by baseball standards. Wins simply do not tell the whole story.

Biglaw has its share of statistical shortcomings….

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There hasn’t been much major good news on the associate compensation front over the past few years — since, say, January 2007. But recent weeks have brought pockets of minor good news for limited constituencies. Green shoots, anyone?

In Miami, Greenberg Traurig raised starting salaries by 16 percent, from $125,000 to $145,000. In New York, Sullivan & Cromwell and Skadden Arps started offering $300,000 signing bonuses to Supreme Court clerks.

And now $300K bonuses for SCOTUS clerks have spread, to other law firms in other cities. Consider this the new going rate for top-shelf talent….

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‘I love being an associate!’

We’ve waited a long time to type these words. A major law firm just raised starting salaries for first-year associates.

Before you start chanting “NY to 190,” however, there are some things you should know. The raise relates to associates in what some might call a “secondary” legal market; we’re not talking about New York, or Washington, or Los Angeles. Associates at this firm, even post-raise, won’t be making the magic number of $160,000 a year.

That said, the legal market in question is rather large, and the law firm in question is a national and even international player. So the move could have ramifications beyond just the affected associates….

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Very few people work in Biglaw for the thrill of being surrounded by lawyers. Nor are Biglaw refugees heard lamenting, on the odd chance they are lamenting leaving Biglaw at all, the fact that they are no longer surrounded by fellow attorneys. What do they miss, if anything? The money.

Biglaw refugees are not the only ones stirred by the thought of Biglaw’s outsized profits. Those profits are the nectar that draws the droves of worker-bee law students into the welcoming embrace of law schools. And the gruel that sustains the overworked bodies and minds of Biglaw’s associates and junior partners as they slave in the mineshafts hoping for their day in the sun. Biglaw’s millions are also the elixir that lubricates the arthritic joints of senior partners who insist on staying in their positions of power well past the expiration dates that their forebears adhered to. More than ever, it is about the money….

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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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