BONUS TIME — AND ANOTHER UNFORTUNATE COMMENT AWARD

Above the Law’s David Lat wins my Unfortunate Comment Award with this assessment of Cravath, Swaine & Moore’s recent 2011 bonus announcement:

“My own take: these amounts — which are the same as the 2010 and 2009 bonus scales at CSM, except for the most-senior associates — are fair. The past three years — 2009, 2010, and 2011 — have been fine for Biglaw, but not amazing. To the extent that firms are treading water a bit, it’s reasonable for them to keep associate compensation at the same levels.”

“Treading water a bit”?

Let’s start with the suggestion that “the past three years have been fine for Biglaw, but not amazing.” According to The American Lawyer, Cravath’s 2008 average equity partner profits were $2.5 million — admittedly a sharp decline from 2007. But it’s still pretty good and, since then, equity partner profit trees have resumed their growth to the sky.

As the economy struggled, Cravath’s average partner profits increased to $2.7 million in 2009 and to $3.17 million in 2010, according to the Am Law 100 surveys. That’s not “treading water.” It’s returning to 2007 profit levels — the height of “amazing” boom years that most observers had declared gone forever. Watch for 2011 profits to be even higher.

It’s fair [and] reasonable to keep associate compensation at the same levels as 2009 and 2010″

If Lat’s comparative baseline is the American labor force generally, his view of fairness has superficial appeal. To most people, Cravath’s bonuses atop base salaries starting at $160,000 are impressive — ranging from $7,500 (first-year associates) to $37,500 (seventh-year associates). Couple those numbers with big firm partner complaints that law schools fail to train lawyers for tasks in the big law world and perhaps associates should consider themselves fortunate that they’re not being asked to rebate a portion of their pay for the privilege billing long hours.

(There are problems with current legal education in America, but the critique that graduates aren’t prepared for big law practice misses several key points, including: Eighty-five percent of lawyers will never have big firm jobs, the vast majority of those who do won’t keep them for more than a few years, and most of the remaining survivors will find their careers surprisingly unsatisfying. For more, take a look at “A New Law School Mission.”)

But I digress. For now, the question is fairness. In law firms, it’s a relative concept — a point that causes Lat’s analysis to miss the mark badly.

As Cravath’s 2010 average equity partner profits have been returning to their 2007 high-water mark, compare them to associate bonuses, which haven’t:

Associate bonus after first full year

2007: $35,000, special $10,000

2011: $7,500

Second-year

2007: $40,000, special $15,000

2011: $10,000

Third-year

2007: $45,000, special $20,000

2011: $15,000

Fourth-year

2007: $50,000, special $30,000

2011: $20,000

Fifth-year

2007: $55,000, special $40,000

2011: $25,000

Sixth-year

2007: $60,000, special $50,000

2011: $30,000

Seventh-year

2007: $60,000, special $50,000

2011: $37,500

Earlier this year, Sullivan & Cromwell offered spring associate bonuses for 2010 ranging from $2,500 (first-year) to $20,000 (seventh-year). Cravath and others then followed suit. Even if that happens again this year, recent classes will still be far worse off than their 2007-era predecessors.

Meanwhile, law school tuition has continued to rise, so the newest associates have the biggest educational loans to repay. In the current buyer’s market for young attorneys, that’s more good news for big firms. Their associates — whose average billables are back over 2,000 hours again — won’t be going anywhere. Unless, of course, the staggering attrition rates needed to sustain the leveraged big law pyramid push them out the door. Viewed as an integrated system, the prevailing model functions effectively to produce and exploit an oversupply of lawyers.

Most big firms will follow Cravath’s lead. But they can afford to do better — a lot better — and they should. As associate bonuses have stagnated, the overall average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 have returned to pre-recession levels — reaching almost $1.4 million in 2010.

How much is enough? More, apparently. According to the latest survey of Am Law 200 firm leaders currently appearing in the The American Lawyer, managing partners expect the upward profits trend to continue. Keeping the lid on associate compensation is a key to that strategy. It hasn’t been a great ride for the non-lawyer support staff, either.

Now you know why my next post will be titled, “Occupy Big Law.” I’m not kidding.

7 thoughts on “BONUS TIME — AND ANOTHER UNFORTUNATE COMMENT AWARD

  1. Interesting post. Although I think your 2007 Cravath bonuses are off. If I remember correctly, $35k was for stub years, $45k was for first years, and so forth…

    • You’re right. $35k (prorated) was for associates who had just begun their first year. Those who had completed their first year got $35k plus a $10k special bonus. In other words, the numbers are even worse for Cravath than I thought. I made the correction. Thanks.

  2. I realize this is not entirely the intent of your post, but what are associates to do? Jump to another firm? Refuse to work the god-awful hours they’ve been heaping on us for the past year? I also think it is worth noting that there is disparity among practice groups even at my firm — some groups bring in a new associate when hours average 2000 for existing associates, while other groups delay the hire for as long as possible and squeeze the existing associates to the breaking point. Under a lockstep system, the overworked get paid the same as the rest. It wasn’t like this 5 years ago, and many of us are questioning our practice group choices because of it.

    • Associates possess more power over their lives than they realize. When sufficient numbers of the next generation’s best and the brightest stand up and say “Enough,” things will change. Until then, each individual has to draw his or her own lines and be prepared to let the chips fall where they may. Top young lawyers will always have options. In the final analysis, it comes down to individual decisions about life’s priorities.

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