BONUS TIME – 2012

It’s always interesting when two respected legal writers approach the same story in different ways. That happened in the coverage of recently announced associate bonuses.

Ashby Jones at the Wall Street Journal penned an article in the November 27 print edition of the paper that ran under this headline:

“Cravath Sends Cheer — Law Firm Lifts Bonuses for Some Associates as Much as 60%”

As always, Jones accurately reports what is true, namely, that Cravath, Swaine & Moore led this year’s associate bonus announcements with an increase over last year’s base bonus levels. Five paragraphs in, he acknowledges that this significant bump still leaves associates well below the 2007 pay scale. The highest associate bonuses this year are $60,000, compared to $110,000 for combined regular and special bonuses in 2007.

Meanwhile, at the New York Times…

On the same day that Ashby Jones’s article ran in the WSJ, Peter Lattman at the New York Times was a bit more circumspect. In that paper’s print edition, the bold line that ran in the middle of the story reads:

“[Cravath’s] year-end awards set the bar for others, and the payouts are up a bit in 2012.”

Like Jones, Lattman observes that base bonus amounts are substantially higher than previously. But he correctly notes that “when spring bonuses are added to the equation, there has been little increase for Cravath’s associates over the last two years. The law firm did not award spring bonuses in 2012, but last year paid its associates a small stipend in addition to a year-end award. When 2011’s spring bonuses and year-end bonuses are added together, total bonus compensation actually exceeds this year’s level.”

Both Jones and Lattman report that Cravath had $3.1 million in average partner profits for 2011. For perspective, that’s slightly above the $3.05 average for 2006, and not all that far from the $3.3 million all-time high in 2007. Needless to say, associate bonuses haven’t enjoyed a similar recovery. But depending on what happens in the spring, they still could, which leads to a final point.

Who’s right?

The answer is Elie Mystal over at Above the Law. Mystal observes that spring bonuses more properly belong in the analysis of total compensation for the immediately preceding calendar year. That is, a bonus paid in early 2011 is really compensation for 2010.

The analysis is straightforward. Big law firms waiting for more complete information on how the fiscal year will end preserve flexibility by lowballing the November bonus numbers. Evidently, Cravath concluded that its $3.1 million average partner profits for 2011 were inadequate to justify any significant spring bonus for associates in early 2012.

The fate of the “special” bonus

The question now is whether spring bonuses are gone forever. After all, they first appeared as “special bonuses” — meaning that they came with this implied caveat: don’t build those dollars into next year’s expectations. Of course, that message has landed on deaf ears. But it gives firm leaders a way to convince themselves that it’s fair to leave associate compensation far below 2007 levels, even though average partner profits have recovered almost completely to those lofty heights. Indeed, some firms have even bested their pre-recession records.

In all of this, two things are working against associates who dream of a return to the good old days (of 2007). First, the glut of attorneys grows as the demand for new associates shrinks. Second, most law firm leaders are dealing with a revolution of rising expectations among senior equity partners. The potential loss of a rainmaker strikes fear in the hearts of many firm leaders.

But here’s a reason to hope. True visionaries seeking long-term institutional stability let such troublemakers walk. They promote cultural values that transcend the impact on the current year’s income statement. They let resulting gains in client service and attorney morale produce ample financial and non-financial rewards for all.

And all of this reveals itself in how partners at the top of a firm treat associates at the bottom — a place where too many seem to have forgotten that they themselves once stood.

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.

NUMBERS TELL A STORY

When challenged to tell a story in as few words as possible, Ernest Hemingway replied with six: “For sale: Baby shoes — never worn.”

I’m not Hemingway, but in his spirit of brevity, I offer five phrases — totaling eight words — distilling a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Law Firms Hold Line In Setting Bonuses,” by Vanessa O’Connell and Nathan Koppel. It appeared on the Monday after Christmas, so you might have missed it.

***
HOURS UP: “Average hours billed by associates at the nation’s top 50 law firms by revenue rose by 7% in 2010.”
***
BONUSES FLAT: “At New York-based Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCoy LLP, where bonuses were only slightly above last year’s payouts, hours billed by associates were up about 6%.” [According to Above the Law, the firm’s 2010 bonuses ranged from $7,500 for first-year associates to $35,000 for those in the class of 2003. That’s a big drop from 2006, when first-year associates received “special year-end bonuses” of $30,000. Student-loan repayment requirements have not experienced a similar decline.]
***
MANAGERS RATIONALIZE: “‘The actual number of [billed] hours is still low compared to what it has historically been,’ [says Milbank’s Chairman Mel M. Immergut].”
***
PARTNERS WIN: “Revenue at Milbank Tweed will be up by about 3% on flat expenses, Mr. Immergut says, adding that profit per partner will be up by 8% to 10%, depending on year-end collections.” According to The American Lawyer, Milbank Tweed’s average profits per partner in 2009 were $2.230 million. How much is enough? The answer appears to be “More.”

BONUS TIME!

Firms that abandoned lock-step in favor of merit-based compensation a year ago are now reversing course. Why?

The prevailing theory is backlash. Associate dissatisfaction pervades big law; some saw “competency models” as thinly disguised efforts to reduce associate wages.  (http://www.lawjobs.com/newsandviews/LawArticle.jsp?id=1202443769098&rss=newswire&slreturn=1&hbxlogin=1) Restoring lock-step, the argument goes, should enhance morale.

But when firm leaders really care about morale, they’ll ask associates to evaluate partners on mentoring, training, and overall humanity — and, at least to some extent, partner compensation will reflect the results. Instead of looking into those unpleasant mirrors, managers are likely to form a new committee investigating the “associate problem,” as if it were a mystery.

One way to improve morale would be to tell associates the truth earlier. But quality merit review is tough work. Performing it properly is not in most large firms’ short-term economic interests. For starters, they can’t bill the time to clients.

When I chaired my firm’s associate review committee in the 1990s, the process focused on a single goal: Identifying the best among a distinguished group. That meant evaluating specific skills, developmental needs, and future prospects. To squeeze out personality conflicts and internal politics, partners from outside their assigned associates’ practice areas gathered performance information. Then the committee actually deliberated for an entire day.

In an era when lateral partner movement among firms was rare, promotion decisions were akin to choosing a new family member. Admittedly, subjective judgments produced the distinctions, but partners generally played fair with the next generations. The integrity of the process produced widespread respect for outcomes.

In those days, compensation didn’t turn on billable hours. High outliers (those billing over 2,400) were singled out for counseling that doesn’t happen anymore: “If you burn out, you’re no good to us or anyone else.” Low outliers (below 1,600) attracted a different concern: “Partners aren’t giving that person work. Why? Is there a performance problem?” Between those extremes, hours had little impact on reviews or compensation. As incredible as that now sounds, it was true throughout big law. Just ask the senior partner who is pressing you to “get your hours up.”

Transparency worked. Knowing relative position allowed associates to handicap prospects while they were most marketable. Performance ratings translated into monetary distinctions that spoke for themselves. Anyone displeased with the message could explore other options.

New York firms pioneered lock-step. Exploding client demand caused many more to follow. Uniform compensation to a class allowed partners to postpone the day of reckoning for those with limited futures. Unpleasant news went undelivered.

Some partners rationalized the failure to provide more candid feedback: “We need the bodies to run our business. We’re paying them decent money. So they’re doing ok.”

The first two points were true: A myopic MBA-mentality emerged and departing associates often found that their new positions paid substantially less than they had been making. But doing ok? Some lost their jobs, their lifestyle, and chunks of their self-image in a single belated conversation.

Lock-step was also supposed to improve morale by reducing internal competition. But as compensation packages ballooned, associate satisfaction plummeted and voluntary attrition skyrocketed. Bonuses tied to hours but unrelated to quality erode meritocracies and morale — as does boring work that doesn’t enhance attorney skills.

Modern mega-firms now face the toughest task. To perform truly merit-based reviews, they must develop meaningful individual assessments for legions of associates — sometimes hundreds in a single office. Without proof that the exercise contributes to the bottom line, what incentivizes firms to devote the non-billable time required to perform reviews diligently? Management’s concern for the future, you say? At most big firms, that means projecting next year’s equity partner profits. They’re counting on laterals to fill quality gaps.

Associates should be skeptical about how firms now promising merit review will deliver quality feedback. But lock-step that camouflages meaningful information is no panacea. Student loan repayment demands notwithstanding, sooner is better than later when it comes to acquiring the knowledge that frames life’s most important decisions.