Associate Salaries

Hop in the DeLorean and travel back in time with us.

Last month, we took a look at associate compensation in the 1990s. Our post focused on the cities of Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles. We said that in the future we’d look at remaining major markets: New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco/Palo Alto, and Washington, D.C.

Today we’ll tackle Biglaw in the Big Apple. What were NYC salaries like in the last millennium?

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Hop in the DeLorean and travel back in time with us.

Some of our readers are old enough to remember the 1990s. It was, in my opinion, a glorious decade for popular music. (I have a collection of beloved cassette singles from that era.)

But we’re here to talk about the legal profession, not pop music. What were the nineties like for Biglaw?

Also glorious. There was a recession in the early 1990s, but for the most part, times were good. This was especially true near the tail end of the decade, when the booming dot-com economy filled the coffers of many large law firms (before the arrival of the early 2000s recession).

How much of that wealth trickled down to the associates? Let’s find out….

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“No, I’m cool that you might be making twice as much even though you skipped out to go to the Katy Perry concert.”

Propaganda is only partially about justifying horrible things to the masses. It’s also about salving the doubts of the oppressors. How can they be wrong when there’s a 70-foot statue dedicated to their divinity right there?

The slow march to opacity is one of the single worst developments in the Biglaw model over the last several years. Whether in the name of some half-baked strain of libertarian idealism or just to keep from being publicly judged by ATL readers, a few firms have increasingly moved compensation packages into a black box, starting with complex bonus award structures, then hiding even those frameworks, and now some even hide base compensation.

It’s an awful practice, and while some have the reputation to get away with it, it’s certainly frowned upon by lawyers and prospective lawyers steeped in the notion that this is a collegial profession.

So one firm put their public relations flaks on drafting a spirited defense of their black box so they can sleep better at night….

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Despite making six figures, some Biglaw associates are still unhappy with the amount of money they take home. Starting salaries at some firms are larger than at others, and for all of the intense labor that comes with being an associate, it’s just not fair.

How should Biglaw firms respond to these complaints? Some of the more enlightened members of law firm leadership would increase their associates’ salaries to match the rest of the market, but most would happily continue to work their associates to the bone and ignore their wage woes.

One firm apparently thought it had found a way around associates’ salary grievances, but it may have just backfired. Straight from the firm that produced the sexist women’s style memo seen ’round the world, we bring you what seems to be one of the craziest incentive programs we’ve ever heard of…

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Entry-level Biglaw salaries soon?

* The times are a-changin’ for Biglaw in many ways, and lawyers may soon see their starting pay take a dive because clients think they “continue to be too expensive.” [WSJ Law Blog]

* Foley & Lardner plans to shutter its San Diego shop, following in the footsteps of other Biglaw behemoths. Not to worry, no one’s been laid off — that we know of, that is. [Am Law Daily]

* Say hello to Alabama Law’s new dean, Mark Brandon. Maybe he’ll be the man to propel the school to a #5 ranking in a publication other than National Jurist. ROLL TIDE! [National Law Journal]

* Earlier this week, an Idaho judge struck down the state’s ban on gay marriage, and now she’s refusing to issue a stay. Good on you, judge, but the Ninth Circuit may put those marriages in limbo for a while. [NPR]

* Speaking of judges who’re refusing to stay same-sex marriage rulings, last night, the Arkansas Supreme Court turned down the state attorney general’s request to put a stop to marriage equality. [USA Today]

* A lawyer working as Board of Education president in Mahopac, New York, resigned from his position after calling a PTA volunteer a “chubby wubby” at a school board meeting. That’s not very nice. [Journal News]

* The $160K-Plus Club welcomes its newest member: Duval & Stachenfeld, a real estate firm in NY, is more than doubling its starting salary for associates to $175K. Look for them recruiting at your “tier one” school soon. [New York Law Journal]

* In this economy, bankruptcy firms are being hit hard: Stutman Treister & Glatt, a top L.A. firm that once assisted in cases against Lehman Brothers and Enron Corp. in their Chapter 11 proceedings, is closing up shop. [WSJ Law Blog (sub. req.)]

* It ain’t easy being dean at the law school with the best Biglaw prospects — oh wait, yes it is. Congrats to Gillian Lester, who will serve as Columbia Law’s fifteenth dean come January 2015. [Columbia News]

* “Do I think he thought he was gonna beat it? Yeah.” The district attorney who brought charges against Stephen McDaniel thinks the law school killer was too big for his chainmail britches. [Macon Telegraph]

* From catcalling to “jiggle tests,” NFL cheerleaders have to put up with a lot of really ridiculous stuff. Not being paid the minimum wage is one thing, but having to put up with being groped is quite another. [TIME]

Earlier this month, we asked: What’s Going On At Kirkland & Ellis? Some observers wondered whether K&E, arguably the nation’s best overall law firm, was experiencing an unusually high number of prominent partner departures.

We received some interesting responses from Kirkland sources, some defending the firm and some more critical. Let’s hear what these readers had to share with us….

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Congratulations to the 10 new partners at Bingham McCutchen. They’re a diverse group, coming from a wide range of practice areas and six different offices. The gender balance could be better — only two of the new partners are women — but on the bright side, the group includes two former Supreme Court clerks.

And congratulations to Bingham McCutchen associates on their bonuses, which the firm announced yesterday. How are they looking?

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Some large law firms, when announcing year-end associate bonuses, also announce base salaries for the new year. In Biglaw, the salary scale hasn’t budged since January 2007, when Simpson Thacher announced the $160K scale (providing for base salaries ranging from $160,000 for first-year associates to $280,000 for eighth-year associates).

You could view this as a compensation cut, since we have had some inflation (even if not high inflation) since 2007. According to the inflation calculator of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $160,000 in 2013, the latest year available, had the same buying power as $142,407 in 2007. Of course, law school tuition has climbed quite a bit since 2007 — so even for the lucky souls who land Biglaw jobs, the value proposition of a law degree isn’t as appealing today as it was back in 2007. You’re paying more for a degree that gets you less.

What’s the solution? Work for a firm that will pay you more than $160,000 as a starting salary, of course! Let’s say hello to the newest member of the $160K-Plus Club….

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When we recently ranked top law firms based on responses to the ATL Insider Survey, readers raved about Wilson Sonsini, which took the #5 spot on our list of the top 12 firms. According to one respondent, the firm boasts “entrepreneurial meritocracy, the best client base, endless opportunities, and smart helpful people. It is a unique place, perfect for the self-motivated overachiever.”

In terms of the five specific survey metrics, Wilson fared best in the compensation department. On a 10-point scale, WSGR scored an impressive 8.73 (out of 10) in terms of satisfaction with pay. (The firm’s other scores: 8.63 for culture, 8.33 for training, 7.80 for morale, and 7.33 for hours.)

But will Wilson Sonsini be able to maintain its high score on the comp front? Not everyone is happy with the firm’s latest bonuses….

(Please note the multiple UPDATES added to the end of this post.)

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