Associate Compensation

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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Could we be looking at that rara avis, a genuinely suspenseful and surprising Biglaw bonus season?

We haven’t had one for a while. In the past few years, things have followed the usual pattern: the market leader, Cravath, announces bonuses, and everyone else follows.

The last truly interesting bonus season took place in 2008. That year, instead of waiting for Cravath, Skadden moved first and offered generous bonuses (regular year-end bonuses at 2007 levels, just no “special” or supplemental bonuses). The following day, Cravath announced bonuses that were essentially half of Skadden’s. This led my colleague, Elie Mystal, to develop and deploy the term “Half-Skadden” to refer to the bonuses offered by Cravath and its (many grateful) followers.

But this year raises an interesting question: Could Cravath get… Cravathed? Could this be the year of “Half-Cravath” bonuses?

UPDATE (11:00 AM): Or maybe not. Note the update at the end of this post about one leading firm that just matched Cravath.

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Lat here. Earlier this month, I wondered: could the bumper crop of new partners at Cravath bode well for bonuses? Although firms like Cravath generally make partnership decisions with a focus on the longer term, as opposed to based on short-term financial performance, a class of five partners is one of the largest Cravath has had in years. It certainly seems to reflect a good degree of confidence about the firm’s future.

Now we have our answer as to the size of Cravath bonuses. The firm just announced its year-end bonuses for 2012, and they’re not simply a cut-and-paste of last year’s numbers. This year’s bonuses are more generous than last year’s, which is great news (at least for associates trying to pay off their law school loans; partners might be less enthused).

Sit up and take notes, since the Cravath bonus scale sets the bar for most other major law firms….

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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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Hello associates. It is almost bonus season. For most of you, your main hopes this time of year are (1) to get a bonus and (2) no surprises. What kind of surprises are you looking to avoid? Unwelcome ones. Like your firm going from lockstep associate compensation to a “merit-based” system. Or the firm implementing a different bonus hours target at the last minute. That two-week-long summer trip to Barcelona and Ibiza? The one that cost you about a hundred billable hours? Congratulations. That one hundred hours is now costing you twenty grand in bonus money. Thanks for playing the Biglaw associate game.

So Lat asked me to give some insight into what partners think about associate bonuses. From what I can tell, the overwhelmingly majority of partners don’t think at all about associate bonuses. The reality is that nearly all Biglaw decisions are made by a very small group of partners (increasingly with the help of professional non-lawyer administrators). The ones on the Executive Committee. With an assist (on this issue) by the Associate or Compensation Committees.

Here is how it happens….

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‘Why are we all still at these firms?’

For the past seven years, the National Association of Women Lawyers has tracked women’s progress at the 200 largest firms in the nation by comparing their careers and compensation with similarly situated men. And for the past seven years, reading NAWL’s report has been like drinking a fifth of gin, and then watching Requiem For A Dream: it’s really freaking depressing.

For every two steps forward the legal industry takes, female attorneys seem to move two steps back. Despite Biglaw firms’ purported support for gender equity, women just aren’t achieving the same success as their male peers, either economically or in terms of attaining leadership roles. From associates to partners, women are always left holding the bag.

With that backdrop, let’s check out the excruciatingly discouraging news for women in Biglaw….

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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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The last time we covered the lavish signing bonuses for Supreme Court clerks who head to law firms after their time at the Court, the bonuses were flirting with $280,000. We say “flirting with” because, at the time, only certain firms were offering $280K. That princely sum was not yet the market rate for talent emerging from One First Street.

A little over a year later, we can report some change on this front. Even though regular associate bonuses and partner profits might be flat this year, the price for Supreme Court clerks is going up, up, up….

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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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It’s getting hot in herre [sic] — and not just due to the scorching temperatures we’re experiencing here in New York City. Today we’re experiencing a flare up of Biglaw bonus news. And maybe some partners are starting to sweat, thinking about whether they might have to cough up some extra cash to keep their associates happy.

Okay, that might be a bit of a stretch. The notion of widespread midyear bonuses, comparable to the spring bonuses we saw in 2011, remains laughable an outside possibility. But it’s a little less crazy than it might have seemed a few weeks ago, now that multiple firms have plunged into the summer bonus pool.

This morning we wrote about June bonuses at Quinn Emanuel. Around the same time, we started receiving preliminary reports of July bonuses at Cahill Gordon.

The reports are accurate. Let’s learn about the amounts, as well as Cahill compensation more generally….

UPDATE (11:55 PM): Please note the correction below regarding amounts paid to junior associates.

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