I like talking about partner compensation so much, I wrote a three-partseries on the topic. It was nice to hear from Jeffrey Lowe, the Global Practice Leader of Major, Lindsey & Africa’s Law Firm Practice Group and the brains behind the MLA partner compensation survey, who graciously expressed both his enjoyment of my treatment regarding the survey results and an invitation to contact him directly with follow-up questions.
In response, I proposed a written email interview, which you can read below. Thanks again to Jeffrey for his yeoman’s work on the survey, and his willingness to offer some additional commentary on the always scintillating subject of partner pay….
The most shocking result of the recent survey on partner compensation conducted by Major, Lindsey & Africa was how much better the average partner does in firms with open compensation systems — almost $350,000 better on average, year in and year out. To me, that is the difference between retiring at 55 or 65. A big deal.
Have some fun. Tell your average law student that the average compensation for Biglaw partners at closed compensation shops (irrespective of equity status and seniority) was only $465,000, and see the reaction. Or pop an associate’s bubble. And realize that with demand for Biglaw services trending down, there is only so much time left before partner compensation generally starts to take a hit. I always knew about the disparity between open and closed firms, and I had heard about it anecdotally (I think Lat mentioned in an article a few years ago a personal friend who saw his comp climb dramatically after lateraling away from a closed comp firm). But I never really appreciated the scale until this survey came out.
I would think that anyone (especially younger partners with growing books) who could get out of such a firm would at least be trying to (ergo the need for a growing book). Even if your numbers are stellar, and your book is growing along with your traditional working collections, it is too easy for a closed comp chieftain to declare that you need to repeat the performance to make sure its sustainable. Whereas in a open system, you have leverage right away, and can convincingly argue to the compensation committee that failing to reward you would risk discouraging other potential achievers. And that you will leave — but one needs to be subtle on that front. Threaten to leave a closed comp place, and if they really like you, they’ll offer to match whatever new offer you get (thereby confirming they have been skimping on you all along)….
The recent survey on partner compensation conducted by Major, Lindsey & Africa, which I discussed last week, is full of interesting information. First off, I never really knew how many Biglaw partners there are. The answer? Around 75,000, which includes partners from all firms ranked on the Am Law 200, NLJ 350, or Global 100 in the last five years. Throw in another 1,000 or so partners who were Biglaw partners but left to form high-end boutiques — not included in the survey, but I consider them Biglaw partners since they typically work for similar clients — and you still have a pretty small number relative to the number of lawyers in the world. The figure of 75,000 amounts to less than two years’ worth of new U.S. law school graduates.
Very interesting, especially considering the forty-year-or-so age spread between active partners. Seriously, how realistic is it for any one law graduate (irrespective of pedigree) to think they will beat the odds and eventually make partner? So many things need to go right — it is amazing.
Lat had it right last week. There is a big, and growing, partner compensation spread at nearly all Biglaw shops. And as I mentioned in an earlier column, it is not uncommon to make partner and not see a bump in guaranteed pay at all. Factor in the additional expenses Lat references, such as tax and insurance outlays, and the first few years of partnership can be a net loss for some partners. Even if you finance your buy-in. And especially if you were the beneficiary of some big bonuses, for the suicidal hours you had just put in (big profits for your Biglaw firm!) as a counsel or senior associate in order to get elected.
So please don’t assume that every one of the people you see named as new Biglaw partners (usually in a breathless press release, and sometimes even with an ad in the American Lawyer) are signing contracts for their dream “lawyerly lairs” straightaway. If they are, it’s because they have family money or are a two-professional, no-kid type-family. Otherwise, they are headed for some tight times once they realize that they have to pay federal taxes (including Medicare and Social Security), state taxes (often in every state their firm operates), local taxes (for their beautiful new property), and a real accountant who can figure the whole mess out for them.
Most people don’t realize this, and Biglaw is in no rush to pop the fantasy bubble. Better to have associates motivated by dreams of what Lat referred to as “instant riches.” Better to maintain the prestige of the profession by pretending that making partner at a Biglaw firm is a tremendous achievement, regardless of what firm, practice group, or locale. It’s an achievement, sure. Just like getting elected to some political office. But there is a big difference between getting elected to the U.S. Senate and getting elected as deputy tax commissioner somewhere….
Is being a partner that different from being an associate? Contrary to popular belief, becoming a law firm partner is not a path to instant riches. In the early years, your compensation might not be that much higher than it was when you were an associate or counsel. Your taxes might go up, you might have to pay for your own health insurance and other benefits, and you might have to buy into the partnership. Sure, you might be able to borrow the capital contribution from a bank — but remember, you’re liable on that loan, and the bank might pursue you if it doesn’t get repaid.
Our partner readers sometimes complain about the stereotype that they’re all fat cats. As one of them recently wrote, “[Please don't write] about being admitted to partnership and instantly becoming rich…. At virtually every firm, you become a partner and then start to hope that, over the course of a career, your income will increase to ‘average partner income’ and your hours will decrease to ‘average partner hours.’ Rainmakers reach that goal quickly, but many partners — perhaps a majority in most firms — spend a lifetime waiting for, and never reaching, those goals.”
Of course, that’s the subjective experience of one reader. What does the big picture show? There’s a new report out about partner pay that contains lots of interesting information….
Every so often, people ask us about the “value” of getting an LL.M. degree. Our answer has remained pretty consistent. Is it a tax LL.M. from Georgetown or NYU? No? Then save your money and buy something valuable like gold or drugs. See this graphic (click to enlarge):
Photo credit: some dude on TLS.
But still, people ask: “Is it worth it to get an LL.M. degree?” And obviously, there are a bunch of people who put down good money chasing an extra credential that has little to no impact on their job prospects.
Why? Well, the simplest answer is that LL.M.s are extremely valuable to law school budgets. LL.M.s are so lucrative for law schools that law school deans are willing to lie or become willfully ignorant as to the employment opportunities generated by an expensive post-law school degree.
The National Law Journal made that EXTREMELY OBVIOUS point yesterday (again)….
Is making partner at a major law firm as desirable as it used to be? In an interesting article in the New York Times about the growing trend of lawyers leaving large firms to start their own boutiques, Margie Grossberg, a partner at the legal recruiting firm of Major, Lindsey & Africa, offered these observations: “In the past, associates found if they worked really hard and did the right things, they made partner. That’s not necessarily the case anymore. The odds are a lot slimmer, and it’s also not as coveted as it once was.”
At the same time, however, let’s face it: being a partner at a top law firm is still highly desirable. The pay, prestige, and perks are tremendous. In a recent survey of new partners by the American Lawyer, over 80 percent of respondents said their new jobs were either what they expected or better than they expected. As Aric Press of Am Law noted, “new partners are basking in the land of more: more money, more responsibility, and more information about their firms.”
I like it when the artifice drops and Biglaw is shown to be dominated by greed. I don’t necessarily use the word “greed” pejoratively. I like money, you like money, and if somebody offered you more money to do what you are doing already, you’d take it.
I just like it when people can admit that the only thing they care about is money. It just makes things more efficient. What do you want? More money! When do you want it? Now!
Associates get a lot of flack for being unabashedly greedy, but an excellent report in today’s Wall Street Journal illustrates that Biglaw partners are just as obsessed with money has anybody else.
And the only problem is that the partners losing out on the money grab are kind of pissed….
If you thought that obsessing about money and feeling underpaid and underappreciated when it comes to your compensation stops once you become a Biglaw partner, think again. Am Law Daily reports on a new study done by Major Lindsey & Africa. The study shows that 61% of partners think they should be paid more.
To which I say, yay (or “Huzzah” if you prefer). Welcome, Biglaw partners. For too long you have talked in the shadows, wondering how your pay stacked up to that of your peers, hoping to somehow find a way to maximize your earning potential. We know your struggles: mortgages, private schools, alimony or divorce settlements (for the unluckiest among you) — it all adds up. You’re working just as hard as you’ve ever worked, dealing with the pressure that can only come from having final responsibility over a project or an entire client strategy. And there’s always the expectation to bring in business, keep business, and generate new business, even during a down economy.
You put in all that time and effort for a take-home pay that shames you when you talk to your friends in finance and business. It’s not right, is it? So welcome, welcome, this is a safe place. Your financial desires commingled with your sense of entitlement will find friends here…
Call it RICO not so suave. One of the nation’s biggest legal headhunting firms, Major, Lindsey & Africa, is withdrawing its RICO action against a former employee — after a federal judge offered a somewhat snarky assessment of the merits of MLA’s case.
As reported by Leigh Jones over at the National Law Journal, on Thursday attorneys for MLA submitted a notice of dismissal to Judge Colleen McMahon (S.D.N.Y.). The notice declared Major Lindsey’s intent to withdraw its claims against former Sharon Mahn, a former managing director at MLA, without prejudice, in order to bring such claims in arbitration and/or state court.
Perhaps MLA read the writing on the courtroom wall. The move to dismiss came after Judge McMahon ladled out some judicial sauce….
Ed. note: The Asia Chronicles column is authored by Kinney Recruiting. Kinney has made more placements of U.S. associates, counsels and partners in Asia than any other recruiting firm in each of the past six years. You can reach them by email: email@example.com.
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