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by Vault Law Editors | January 04, 2011


By now, 2010 BigLaw Bonus news should be at the bottom of New York City’s trash piles. But if you know anything about law firm associates, you understand that they are grumblers and fantastic grudge-holders (I say this with love – I was once one of them). And you can bet that when it comes to skimpy compensation, the grudges are infinite (unless associates' wallets grow fat again).

So where’s the angst? Above the Law (“ATL”) reported that Irell & Manella has doubled the Cravath bonus structure. But ATL notes that even though they’re getting twice as much dough as most of their associate-peers, Irell associates aren’t thrilled because this bonus structure is basically the same as 2009.

Irell associates aren’t alone. As the Wall Street Journal (“WSJ”) and the Wall Street Journal Law Blog recently reported, the general feeling among law firm associates is dissatisfaction. The WSJ Blog notes that perhaps the recycled bonuses aren’t fair given that billable hours have risen 7% this year. But these higher hours are more likely the result of a reduced workforce (who could forget about the massive layoffs) than improved economics for the legal field. And, as the WSJ indicates, partners probably won’t have “banner year[s].”

I am not a law firm partner, nor have I ever been privy to the financial discussions of a law firm, but from an associate’s point of view, I get the grumbling. This year has been a tough one for BigLaw associates. They’ve watched their friends get thrown out the door, they’ve been forced to question their own job security and future careers, and they’ve taken on more hours and responsibility to compensate for the reduced work force. Associates are stressed, they’re exhausted, they’re overworked, and they’re scared.

Working at a law firm can be a phenomenal professional experience, but it is no secret that the work is demanding. As an associate, you are expected to be on call 24 hours a day, to eat at your desk at night, to cancel vacations if a matter heats up, and to put your family and social life on hold at a moment’s notice (because the client becomes your main priority). When associates are doing the work of three associates, are running on caffeine drips, have canceled their weekend plans for three months, and haven’t seen their friends or family in two weeks, Benjamin Franklin is the only person who makes it seem worthwhile.

As the WSJ mentioned, partners don’t get bonuses. That’s true. But from an associate perspective, partners and associates cannot be compared. Partners buy into the law firm, and as owners, they’re in for the ride, whether it’s uphill or downhill. If profits per partner aren’t doing as well in certain years, partners may have to take losses (that is part of being in a partnership). And given the current economic climate, the profits per partner from 2007 certainly shouldn’t be the measuring standard (and maybe it isn’t – like I said, I haven’t been invited to a partner meeting yet. Feel free to send an invite). Associates, however, don’t own anything – they’re employees, and they should be paid based on expectation, work product and effort, and past practice. If billable hours are up, shouldn’t associates reap some benefit from their increased workflow?

I understand that it was easy and attractive to firms’ bottom lines this year to follow the leader and give basically the same bonuses as last year. But there is something to be said for rewarding and keeping your talent. Associates are upset because they dedicate most of their time and efforts to their jobs, and recently their burdens have grown with smaller workforces. The grumbling is here to stay until firms decide to address the issue and at least show associates they understand.

Above the Law Source
WSJ Source
WSJ Blog Source
NYC Trash Source


Filed Under: Law