Partner Compensation

The year-end Biglaw management machine is starting to grind into motion. The compensation committee is starting to look at the numbers for individual partners — to decide who will be rewarded and who will be de-equitized. And the firm’s A/R collections crew is starting to pressure the partnership to get bills out the door and talk to clients about what will be paid by year’s end. The associate bonus committee? If one still exists, is must be having a hard time reserving conference room space to meet.

The end of the year is a serious time for law firms. For many individual lawyers in Biglaw, it is the time of year when their die may be cast, in terms of compensation, lateral movement options, or even their continued employment. As anyone who follows Biglaw knows, we are living in interesting times, with many firms navigating choppy seas in terms of client demand, financial performance, and expense management. And at many firms, there has never been a wider gulf between the rank-and-file partner and firm management when it comes to the ability to make or influence decisions about the firm. Partners at many firms are often clueless about what the firm is doing and why, to the extent that partners are asked to vote on lateral candidates or even mergers based solely on the “reassurances” and “enthusiastic outlook” of management.

The net effect of this divide between management and the partnership? An increasing sense among partners that they are simply assets of legal “brands” rather than owners or even stewards of a professional enterprise. For many, it is a bit of a hopeless feeling, especially when they consider the Biglaw options down the street, which usually present the same level of management opacity to the putative “owners” as their current firm. But just because management likes to tell the partnership to “leave the managing to us, you just focus on building your practice” does not mean partners aren’t entitled to information — even if it’s just the personal views of the managing partner on certain issues.

Here are five questions for your managing partner. The topics are varied, but the answers given should give partners a good sense of both their relative standing within their firms and the values that drive the business decisions of their leadership….

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“Being a partner at an elite law firm isn’t what it once was,” as I recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal book review, but “while the brass ring might be tarnished, it still gleams brightly for many.” And with good reason: even if it’s harder than ever to become (and remain) a partner, for those who do manage to make it, the pay, perks, and prestige are plentiful.

The American Lawyer just released its latest New Partner Survey. The magazine heard from almost 500 lawyers who began working as partners between 2010 and 2013. About 60 percent of the survey respondents are non-equity or income partners — which makes sense, given the proliferation of two-tier partnerships, as well as how junior these partners are — and the rest are equity partners.

What are the most notable findings from the survey? Here are five:

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Put your new firm under the magnifying glass.

Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on lateral partner moves from Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Today’s post is written by Elizabeth Katkin, a Senior Director at Lateral Link, where she focuses on partner and practice group transitions and developing strategic relationships with top international firms and companies in the Middle East and Europe.

Do you have one or more of the following frustrations with your current law firm? Inadequate overall or relative compensation. No platform to support or develop your practice. Feeling shut out of management decisions — or even having a voice.

Perhaps you are just beginning the search for a new firm, or perhaps you know where you are headed next — a place with a great footprint, support in the practice areas you need, and a group of lawyers that feels like a good fit. In the world of law firm management today, you already know that what you see is not always what you get. It is essential to gauge the financial and management health of a firm before you move, both to ensure your happiness and viability at the firm and to ease your exit in the event that there is trouble in paradise.

Here are five things you should understand before giving your withdrawal notice to your current firm:

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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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Summer is supposed to be relaxing. Biglaw partners are familiar with the concept of summer relaxation, primarily from hearing about other people relaxing. Sample July client exchange: “No rush on that project, we are heading up to the Cape for the weekend, and when we get back we are taking the kids for a week to Basque country for a wine and ham festival. Actually we might hit Marbella on the way back for the weekend. Tell the other side I’ll be available after Labor Day for a deposition. Let my secretary know if there are any emergencies. Thanks. I’ll buy a bottle of Priorat for us to share when we win this case.”

In Biglaw circles, this summer has been anything but relaxing. By now, everyone has an opinion on the New Republic article that announced to the literate masses the upcoming end of Biglaw. Hard-thinking Biglaw lawyers have already forming opinions on the various opinions circulating around the Biglaw water cooler. (We need an industry conference to hash all this out, maybe with some clients to give their input. The electronics companies have CES; we needs a massive industry event of our own.)

Back to the end of Biglaw. The media, consistent with our human tendency to draw generalizations based on examples that are outliers, is very skilled at highlighting human interest stories at the margins of an issue. So in the New Republic article, we were treated to a description of the impact of a Biglaw firm’s glories and travails on rainmakers (who, if London-based, apparently have the pull to get an audience with the royal baby’s nanny at minimum) and displaced associates — people on opposite poles of the Biglaw power spectrum. Interesting stories, and easy to write about.

Ultimately, however, we need to explore the purpose of the grand Biglaw experiment before we can proclaim whether it has succeeded or failed. And for that we have to look at how Biglaw has treated perhaps its most important, if much-maligned, constituency: the service partner….

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* Want to know another thing that’s causing Biglaw to implode? All of these huge partner compensation spreads we’ve told you about are creating a “star culture,” and even law firm partners are capable of jealousy. [Am Law Daily]

* It looks like Charleston School of Law is the latest institution of legal education to be enticed and swallowed up into the for-profit InfiLaw System. Will a sale be next? We’ll have more info on these developments later today. [Post and Courier]

* Sorry, but in Pennsylvania, you cannot represent clients on a quid pro blow basis. You could get suspended for a year, like this guy. Wonder what his retainer agreement looked like. [Legal Intelligencer]

* The sole minority juror from the George Zimmerman trial — the one who was liable to allow the jury to be hung — is now telling the world she thought the acquitted “got away with murder.” [ABC News]

* Lawyers for accused kidnapper Ariel Castro are considering a deal offered by prosecutors that takes the death penalty off the table. He might be able to enjoy some ribs in prison if he’s there for life. [CNN]

* Neiman Marcus settled a case with a divorcée whose ex-husband was allegedly cheating on her with a saleswoman. You really can return anything, up to $1.4 million in value! [FDLuxe / Dallas Morning News]

Ed. note: The Aspiring Lateral, a new series from Levenfeld Pearlstein, will analyze a variety of issues surrounding lateral moves, drawing on the firm’s experience in the lateral market as well as the individual experiences of LP attorneys. Today’s post is written by Peter Donati, the chair of Levenfeld Pearlstein’s Labor & Employment Group and the head of its Compensation Committee.

We’ve been conditioned to believe that lateral moves are all about money. Popular thinking — which may not be far from the truth — holds that law firms, held in collective thrall by the American Lawyer’s profit-per-partner numbers, focus on lateral hiring as the first step in a virtuous cycle that will increase their PPP metric, in turn attract more profitable laterals, and so on and so on. Laterals themselves, meanwhile, are viewed as economic actors lured away from their firms primarily through the prospect of increased, or guaranteed, compensation.

(Given the prominent role that guaranteed compensation is said to have played in the downfall of Dewey, and the pains Weil Gotshal took to point out its relative lack of compensation guarantees when announcing its recent layoffs, this particular carrot may be falling out of fashion. Even Weil conceded, however, that it has compensation guarantees in place for first-year laterals.)

In light of the focus on dollars in connection with lateral moves, it may surprise the reader to hear the head of a compensation committee say that in many cases, lateral candidates do not talk enough about money. To be more specific, lateral candidates often don’t scratch beneath surface questioning about their prospective new firm’s compensation system. If they did, their answers would inform them more deeply not only about their future paychecks, but the character of the firm they are considering….

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One of the more amusing law firm nicknames belongs to Weil Gotshal & Manges. As we noted a few years ago, some refer to the firm as “We’ll Getcha & Mangle Ya.”

Alas, the nickname is less funny in the wake of yesterday’s big layoff news. The firm announced it will be cutting 60 associates and 110 staffers from the payroll. Despite the generous six-month severance for associates, some probably feel like their legal careers have been mangled. The firm also plans to reduce the compensation of about 10 percent of its partners (roughly 30 out of 300, some income and some equity partners).

Let’s take a closer look at the layoffs and try to make sense of them….

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Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Fisher, the major affirmative action case, turned out to be something of a dud, the big legal story of the day is the news out of Weil Gotshal. The firm is conducting large layoffs of both attorneys and staff, as well as reducing partner pay.

Thus far, many of our recent layoff stories have involved staff layoffs, especially secretarial layoffs; relatively small numbers of affected individuals; and firms not in the tippy-top tier of Biglaw. So that’s what makes the Weil news so notable — and so frightening.

Weil is an elite firm, in both profits and prestige. The cuts it just announced affect lawyers, not just staff, and reach into the triple digits….

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We have partner profits on the brain here at Above the Law. Earlier today, we wrote about a law firm that instituted a 20 percent holdback on partner pay — a move that was met with anger by some.

In that story, we noted the “continued expansion in the gap in power and pay between what we’d call ‘super-partners’ — partners in firm management and major rainmakers, who are often one and the same — and rank-and-file partners.” You can see this yawning chasm in the disparities in partner pay that exist within the same firm. As partner turned pundit Steven Harper has argued, partners aren’t true “partners” when they are paid and treated so differently.

New information from the American Lawyer shows how extreme some of these gaps between partners have gotten….

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