Salary Freeze

The freeze is melting away.

A friend who is a federal clerk just texted me: “I’m gonna buy new bras!”

Oh yes, it’s time federal clerks got back to the good life. A memo just went out from Senior Judge Thomas Hogan who heads the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. Hogan informed the system that the freeze on promotions, step increases, and cash awards for federal clerks has been lifted for this year.

It’s cool to be a federal clerk again! Well, it’s cool to be a federal clerk on a two-year or long term clerkship, again.

But maybe only for this moment. Austerity could rear her ugly head right around the corner….

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It appears that Larry Sonsini, chairman and name partner of the high-powered Wilson Sonsini law firm, is a very good golfer. Earlier this year, while playing golf to celebrate his 70th birthday, the legendary lawyer scored a hole in one.

Sonsini isn’t the only one who’s scoring over at 650 Page Mill Road. His partners are doing deals left and right, and the fees are trickling down to the associates, who just scored some nice pay raises.

What is Wilson Sonsini up to? Let’s find out….

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There was a time in this country where the holiday season was a time to be rewarded for a good year of work. People received bonuses. People received pay raises, so their salaries could keep pace with their growing experience and maturity (or at least keep up with inflation).

The America where that kind of stuff happened now only exists in memory. In post-recession (or mid-double-dip-recession) America, the holidays are a time when the people at the top jealously guard their wealth, while everybody else tries to figure out how to make “sacrifices” for the greater good.

Usually, this type of thing can be seen most clearly in the private sector (click here for Above the Law’s coverage of bonus season). But today the Obama administration is getting into the holiday spirit by freezing salaries on federal employees for two years.

So, if you’re a J.D. holder who joined the Department of Justice or another federal agency to escape the Biglaw recession, the pay cut you thought you were signing up for just got bigger.

And it probably also means that a few federal attorneys will be trying to get back into the private sector — which will be great, because it’s not like the market for attorneys is oversaturated or anything….

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Back in February, we wrote about various compensation developments over at Pillsbury Winthrop. At the time, the firm said it was considering moving away from a lockstep model in favor of a more performance-based compensation system.

The firm has not yet killed killed lockstep — a move that has historically generated mixed to negative reviews from associates at other firms. Instead, it has done something that has proven much more popular.

Last month, the Pillsbury dough boy baked up some delicious-smelling pay raises. Nothin’ says lovin’ like money from the oven!

So, what are the details?

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Winston Strawn LLP logo Above the Law blog.jpgFriday brought good news and bad news for Winston & Strawn associates.

The good news is that the double salary freeze, which has apparently resulted in first- through third-year associates at Winston all earning $160,000, may be thawing. Managing partner Thomas Fitzgerald sent a memo — this time to its intended recipients — indicating that raises are on the way.

The bad news is that Winston associates don’t know how much of a raise they’ll be getting — and the most they can hope for is a salary that matches the market. The memorandum contains the standard $160K salary scale — 160-170-185-210-230-250-265-280 — but states that “[s]alary levels in each associate class will range up to the maximum base compensation levels set forth” in the memo (emphases added).

The Winston associates we’ve heard from are upset. They’re unhappy not just about the move away from lockstep, but over the firm’s failure to set forth in detail how salaries will be determined. Most of the other firms that have abandoned lockstep have set forth elaborate systems for evaluating associates to determine their compensation and advancement. The Winston memo simply states: “Individual associate salaries will be determined on a case by case basis based on seniority, performance and productivity factors and will be communicated separately to each associate.”

This is a “black box” approach to compensation. It’s used by other big firms — e.g., Jones Day — but it’s a significant departure from Winston’s historical practice. It’s not what Winston associates signed up for when they joined the firm.

But then again, thanks to the Great Recession, lots of Biglaw associates aren’t getting what they expected when they joined their firms. And if associates aren’t happy, with compensation or any other aspect of their employment, their firms will tell them: you’re free to leave. In the words of an unemployed woman quoted in this weekend’s New York Times, “There are no bad jobs now. Any job is a good job.”

There’s a little more bad news about Winston associate salaries. Find out what it is, and read the full Winston & Strawn memo, after the jump.

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Pillsbury logo.JPGIt looks like Pillsbury is back to communicating important information via firm-wide memo, instead of via cell phone conversation on the Acela. Yesterday, the firm indicated that it is thinking about moving away from lockstep associate compensation, but it is not killing lockstep just yet.

Instead, Pillsbury announced lockstep raises — they’ll be true up raises if you hit your hours in New York. In other offices, Pillsbury has decided to lowball the market. From the firm-wide memo:

Pillsbury salary bonus 2010 1.JPG

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So, it’s a true-up raise for some, a single class thaw out for those low on hours, and a salary cut for many outside of New York. But at least it’s clear.

Pillsbury’s New York bias when it comes to salaries extends to the firm’s decisions regarding bonuses. Details after the jump.

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wsgr logo.JPGMajor news coming out of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. The firm just announced that 45 attorneys and 68 staff were laid off:

[I]t is with regret that we announce that the firm will be downsizing our associate, legal support, and administrative ranks, with 45 attorneys and 68 staff directly affected. Members and staff managers will meet with their teams today and tomorrow to inform them of the details of this decision. Please know that the firm is extremely grateful to all of the affected employees for their contributions, and we will work with them and provide resources to ease their transitions.

In light of that news, the salary freeze and bonus news for those who are left doesn’t really sting that much:

[W]e will not be making associate step salary increases this year, but we will be paying out bonuses based on the criteria and structure developed by the Associate Bonus Program Steering Committee and announced last fall (additional details to follow shortly). Legal support and administrative staff will not receive merit bonuses in January, but the firm will be making profit-sharing contributions in the spring to all eligible plan participants equal to 9.5 percent of their eligible compensation, as we have in previous years.

Best of luck to the 113 people suddenly out of work. Keep your heads up.

Check out the full firm statement, after the jump.

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