Associate Salaries

On January 22, 2007, Above the Law reported that Simpson Thacher & Bartlett raised starting associate salaries in New York to $160,000.

That was almost four years ago — 1,326 days ago, to be exact (2008 was a leap year). But here we are, in the fourth quarter of 2010, and a new NALP report is telling us top Biglaw salaries in New York have re-established themselves at $160K. Partner profits haven’t generally remained stagnant for four years, at least at certain firms. Law school tuition certainly hasn’t remained stagnant for four years. But the upper end of associate compensation has been stuck in the mud. Back in 2007, I could go to a movie for $10.50. Now it goes all the way up to $11! I’m outraged!

I’m not actually outraged (well, I am about movie prices, but that’s because at $11 you’d think something besides Inception wouldn’t blow). And you won’t find too many associates outraged that their compensation hasn’t kept pace with growing partner profits at some firms. That’s because most associates are recovering from the terror of layoffs and salary deflation. NALP explains it this way:

NALP’s 2010 Associate Salary Survey shows that, although the $160,000 salary for first-year associates still prevails at large firms in a number of markets, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC, in other markets, such as Boston and San Francisco, the median has dropped back to $145,000, reflecting salaries ranging from $110,000 to $160,000.

Sorry about your tiny pink paycheck, Boston and San Fran.

For the rest of us, let’s take a look at the full salary scale according to NALP’s research…

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While expressing a commitment to maintain its new, incredibly transparent, merit-based salary structure, Orrick is moving its base salary back to reaffirming its commitment to $160,000 for first-year associates working in major markets. That’s right, the time for $145K in big offices is almost at an end.

UPDATE: Initially spokespeople from Orrick termed the move as one back to $160K, but our previous reporting didn’t indicate that Orrick ever came off the $160K starting salary — even after its switch to merit-based compensation. Sources now confirm that Orrick was at $160K all along; today’s salary announcement will primarily affect veteran associates.

From the memo associates received from Orrick’s CEO, Ralph Baxter:

I am pleased to announce an increase to our 2011 base salary schedule for partner track associates in our US offices. This salary schedule will be effective January 1, 2011. We will continue to monitor the legal market and will make any further adjustments necessary to remain competitive.

This change in our salary scale reinforces our continued commitment to be competitive with the world’s leading law firms and to attract and retain the best legal talent. We will continue to ensure that your total compensation reflects the increasing value you contribute to our clients and the firm through the new talent model’s performance-based career progression and bonuses that are driven by merit rather than solely by billable hours.

And there’s more good news: Orrick bumped up each of its associate “tier” levels. This means that, assuming Orrick associates get promoted “on time” relative to their peers at lockstep firms, Orrick’s base salary will once again match the market…

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It must be a slow news week over in mainstream media land. Earlier this week, the New York Times did a survey piece about American salary cuts that tangentially touched on lawyer salaries — old news for people on top of the legal market, but probably new to a more general audience.

Today, the Boston Globe is getting in on the lawyer pay action. Its report focuses on the move towards merit-based associate compensation that’s been happening for at least a year:

Boston’s top law firms are dramatically changing how they pay young lawyers, adapting to a changing market by adopting Wall Street-style compensation systems that rely on performance bonuses for large shares of annual earnings.

Major law firms have traditionally hired junior lawyers at six-figure salaries and awarded annual increases based on the number of years at the firm, a system known as “lockstep.’’ But several of Boston’s largest and best-known firms are telling associates that they no longer can count on automatic raises. Instead, they will receive salaries and bonuses based on how partners assess their performance.

Wall Street-style compensation, is it? Well then, I guess we should expect bonuses in Boston this year to be all over the map, instead of in strict lockstep with what peer firms end up paying…

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The New York Times has a nice survey piece about all the salary cuts imposed upon American workers. It’s a story that anybody holding down a job through this recession is probably aware of:

Local and state governments, as well as some companies, are squeezing their employees to work the same amount for less money in cost-saving measures that are often described as a last-ditch effort to avoid layoffs.

Yeah, we know, things are crappy.

But in its zeal to show that things are difficult for almost all workers, the Times seems to lump Biglaw in with the group of companies that are trying to cut costs by slashing salaries. As regular readers of Above the Law know, that might have been true in 2009. But in 2010, most Biglaw firms are not cutting associate salaries….

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We’ve done a number of reports over the last few weeks on salary cuts of 2009 that are being reversed in 2010. Sure, some firms are still trying to be cute when it comes to associate pay. But many Biglaw firms are back on the $160K scale for associate salaries, at least in major markets.

Apparently Foley & Lardner hasn’t received the memo. While New York associates will start at $160K, associates in other big-market Foley offices (like D.C., California, and Chicago) remain stuck at $145K.

We’re not exactly sure why….

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As we’ve been trying to tell people, paying associates less than a $160K starting salary is just not something that Biglaw firms should be doing. Everybody got very excited in 2009 when they thought that there was an opportunity to keep profits high by squeezing entry level associates, but it turns out that pay cuts were a short-sighted move. The vast majority of the Am Law 100 firms never left the $160K scale. The few who did are slowly coming back to the light.

Such is the case with Sheppard Mullin. A couple of weeks ago, we reported that Sheppard was still mucking around in the non-competitive $145K range. Today we’ve received word that Sheppard is doing the right thing by its junior associates and restoring the $160,000 starting salary…

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Back in November, Baker Botts told us that they would be moving away from a lockstep associate compensation system and instituting a new merit-based system. Yesterday the firm released the base salary levels for its new four-tiered system. Here’s the statement from the firm regarding the basic changes:

The next phase of a talent management program — moving from a lockstep to levels format to track associate progress at the firm — was announced today by Baker Botts Managing Partner Walt Smith. This new format is the latest enhancement of a multi-year plan to better manage associate development at all experience levels.

“Implementing this program will allow us to remain competitive in our efforts to recruit and retain the best and brightest lawyers,” Smith said. “Importantly, it will help us foster an environment that emphasizes the attributes we believe are essential to our firm’s culture.”…

The compensation aspects of the program will be effective August 1, 2010. Base annual salary for entry-level lawyers will remain at $160,000.

The firm wouldn’t officially release the salary levels for more senior associates, but tipsters gave us the inside scoop…

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When I wrote the open thread on the Vault top ten, I wanted to say that none of the top firms froze salaries during the recession. But I couldn’t, because back in November Covington & Burling surprised many people by freezing associate salaries outside of New York.

But as we mentioned at the beginning of this month, salary shenanigans are so 2009. 2010 is the year of salary normalcy.

It appears that Covington received the memo…

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The prior reports of additional payments to some associates at Hogan Lovells, designed to reward these associates for making their billable-hours targets, were accurate — at least with respect to the New York office. And it turns out that these payments constitute what in ATL-speak we call “true-up payments” — i.e., payments designed to give associates the pay they would have received had a salary freeze never occurred and they had received the customary annual raise for seniority.

This may sound confusing, but it’s really not. Let’s take a look at the memo from Hogan Lovells….

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I’ve been critical of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) in the past, but you have to give them credit for at least one thing: they have been tirelessly trying to make people understand that most lawyers do not make $160,000 a year straight out of law school.

In fact, NALP has been at the forefront of educating prospective lawyers on the dangers of focusing on “average” starting salaries. The average is meaningless. The median is just slightly more helpful, and NALP has been begging people to pay attention to the bimodal salary distribution curve that tells the true story of how much lawyers are likely to get paid.

And the bimodal curve is only useful if you are actually lucky enough to secure full-time employment. If you have to work part-time, God help you…

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