Salaries

We haven’t had a good New York to 190 post in a while, and maybe there’s a reason for that. While many associates (and partners) feel that they’re long overdue for a raise, starting salaries have grown stagnant in New York — and across the country, for that matter. Remember back in 2007 when we first reported that Simpson Thacher raised incoming associates’ base salaries to $160,000? That was five years ago, and these days, you’ll be lucky if you’re making what you would’ve been taking home before that $15K salary bump.

While that $160K sweet spot for first-years is still the norm in many large markets, it’s no longer as widespread as it once was. In fact, that figure represents only 46 percent of first-year salaries in firms with more than 700 lawyers — and that percentage has been on a steady decline since 2009, when layoffs and terror ran rampant in Biglaw.

Sorry about that tiny pink paycheck of yours….

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Today at 5 p.m. is the deadline for former partners of the bankrupt Dewey & LeBoeuf law firm to sign up for the “Partner Contribution Plan.” Under the terms of the Plan, which in its latest iteration seeks $90.4 million in “clawbacks” from ex-partners, participating partners would contribute specified amounts to the Dewey bankruptcy estate in exchange for releases from future liability (to the Dewey estate, to other participating partners, and to Dewey lenders, thanks to recent revisions to the PCP).

When talk of the Plan first surfaced, I opined that “[s]uch a deal sounds reasonable in principle.” I later observed that even if the PCP might not be perfect, “[i]f you’re a productive partner, happily ensconced at a new and stable firm, and just want to forget the D&L debacle and return to serving your clients, this deal may Dewey the trick.”

But now, after numerous revisions to the Plan, seemingly endless extensions of the deadline to join, and a still-insufficient amount of participation, I’m beginning to think that maybe it just won’t fly — and Dewey should just be allowed to die, i.e., slip into a straight-up liquidation. Perhaps Dewey’s bankruptcy advisers should stop trying to flog a product that nobody seems interested in buying.

UPDATE (4:35 PM): It looks like the Dewey estate’s perseverance has paid off. The $50 million participation threshold has been reached.

Here’s one good thing about the Partner Contribution Plan: thanks to the PCP, we now have detailed information about how much each of Dewey’s partners received from the firm in 2011 and 2012. And yes, we’re willing to share the data for the top earners with you, in spreadsheet form.

Some people are big believers in the virtues of black-box compensation. But here at Above the Law, we’re all about transparency….

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Law firm consultants have endless advice about how best to compensate partners at firms. The consultants analyze the extremes: Lockstep compensation avoids quibbles about pay, but it may reward less productive older partners at the expense of the young turks. Eat-what-you-kill compensation rewards people who bring in business, but may cause bitter fights over client origination credit or cause partners to hoard their clients.

Various permutations on those extremes have their own advantages and disadvantages. But riddle me this: Why don’t we see consultants debating the pros and cons of pure black-box compensation? Under this system, the managing partner (or a small committee) sets compensation for each partner in the firm. There is no specific formula for allocating the spoils, and partners are forbidden from discussing their compensation with each other. Each partner is told what he’ll make in the coming year (either as an absolute number or as a projected draw assuming the firm hits 100 percent of budget), and the process is over.

At least a few large firms use black-box compensation systems, so this subject surely deserves a moment’s thought. What do you think of a black-box compensation system — good, bad, or indifferent?

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* I thought Def Leppard got a cut every time a stripper takes off her clothes. [Legal Blog Watch]

* Catherine Rampell tackles the sputtering lawyer salaries numbers. Yes, to the New York Times, you listen. [Economix / New York Times]

* Oh nepotism, the thing that proves that it’s better to be lucky than good. [Wise Law NY]

* It’s kind of funny if your entire document production can be flummoxed by a squirrel. [Wired]

* The New York City Bar association is putting together a task force of people to look at the terrible legal job market. You know who isn’t trying to come up with the a response to the terrible market? It rhymes with American Bulls**ttar Association. [WSJ Law Blog]

Last month, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) released information about the overall employment rate for the class of 2011 — information that seemed dismal, at best. The American Bar Association then followed up with its own employment data, and it was “just as dire” as everyone expected, if not worse.

We know that the overall employment rate for the class of 2011 is lower than it’s been in 17 years. But even members of the class of 2011 who managed to secure employment have been screwed. Median starting salaries for new law school graduates have dropped by 35% over the past two years.

Since prospective law students are not great with facts and numbers, NALP was kind enough to put together some pretty pictures to help people understand….

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Big Bay Boom

* What kind of a Dewey pun will be used later today when we discuss this global “clawback” deal for former D&L partners? I dunno, but “Dewey know how f**ked we are?” seems rather appropriate at this point. [Wall Street Journal (sub. req.)]

* Judge Lucy Koh recused herself from a Facebook privacy lawsuit without providing a reason for doing so. Given that a petition to impeach her popped up online, she probably doesn’t want to piss off any other tech companies right now. [Reuters]

* Mississippi: a state where legislators want to protect women from unscrupulous abortion practitioners their own choices about their bodies. A judge has extended a temporary order to allow the state’s only abortion clinic to remain open. [CNN]

* Good news, everyone! Median starting salaries for recent law school graduates are no longer in the six-figure range due to an “erosion in Biglaw jobs.” Still think you’re going to make big bucks? [ABA Journal]

* A San Diego, California fireworks fiasco that lasted all of 15 seconds yielded not only a bunch of fabulously entertaining YouTube videos, but also great lawsuit fodder for environmental groups. [National Law Journal]

* Note to unemployed law school graduates in New Jersey: selling black-market kidneys isn’t a half-bad career choice, because if you get caught, you’ll likely only be sentenced to 30 months in prison. [Bloomberg]

Do you know why your parents always encouraged you to be a doctor or a lawyer when you were younger? Because you can still make bank in either field.

Although it seems that we’re constantly painting doom-and-gloom pictures of the imploding legal profession here at Above the Law, we’ve got to admit that for some, law is still a financially-booming career path. In fact, according to data pulled from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, being a lawyer still has significant monetary perks. CNBC compiled a list of the 15 highest paying jobs in the country, and despite meager Biglaw bonuses and the Dewey effect, lawyers continue to reign near the top.

Where do lawyers fall on the list? Let’s find out….

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I worked for twenty years at the darkest of the black-box compensation law firms: No one knew what anyone else was being paid, and the firm forbade talking about compensation. Here’s the curious part: We obeyed.

I saw the raised eyebrows of partners considering moving laterally to my firm: “Right — no one talks about compensation. You guys must talk about it all the time, just like we do at my firm. It can’t be a secret.”

Wrong. We really, honest-to-God did not talk about compensation. The subject just didn’t come up.

I’ve heard second-hand that this is true for other black-box firms, too. The managing partner of a different large, black-box comp firm recently told one of my colleagues: “Once you take compensation out of the limelight and forbid people from talking about it, then people stop talking about it. The subject drops off the table.”

That sets the stage: At firms where lawyers are permitted to talk about each other’s compensation, they do. And at firms where lawyers are prohibited from talking about compensation, they don’t.

Riddle me this: In corporate law departments, we are not prohibited from discussing each other’s compensation, but we don’t do it anyway. Why is that?

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Earlier this week, we brought you some news about an “excellent position” that a tipster found on Boston College Law School’s Symplicity site. As a quick refresher, BC Law touts a median starting salary of $160,000 for graduates in the class of 2010 who entered into private practice. This job… doesn’t come anywhere close to that number.

The position in question promised benefits such as malpractice insurance, health insurance, a clothing allowance, and an MBTA pass, but the starting salary was only $10,000. The MBTA pass must’ve been thrown in as a housing benefit, because the firm had to have known that on a salary that’s below minimum wage, their new associate would be forced to live in the Boston subway system.

As we noted in Morning Docket, one of the firm’s hiring partners has now spoken out about the job, and a spokesman from Boston College Law has come to the school’s defense, too. Let’s take a look at some of their bullsh*t explanations rationales for posting this “excellent position”….

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So, we often bring you stories about terrible job offers for recent law school graduates. And we often bring you stories about how law school statistics about the success of their graduates can sometimes be misleading.

Today, let’s put those stories together. Let’s take a look at a job that will pay you way below minimum wage that’s being offered to law grads from the same school that proudly boasts a “median” private practice salary of $160,000 within nine months of graduation.

Juxtaposition for the win….

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