Maybe I've been around the block too many times, but I'm having a hard time emoting about those newly announced salary increases that are sweeping big law firms. In case you've been in remote Mongolia, the going-rate salary for a first year associate just shot up to $180,000 (from $160,000). And, yes, Cravath Swaine & Moore started this whole damn thing.
Associates are cheering, as if they've won some kind of moral lottery. From some of the breathless news coverage I've seen, you'd think firms came to some divine revelation, like, "OMG, it's been almost 10 years since those poor babies have been stuck in that $160,000 ghetto, and we must do the right thing and lift them out." (Cravath associates reportedly raised the issue of salary increases in a town hall meeting with firm head Allen Park; soon after, the powers-that-be were presumably so moved by the argument that associates were having a hard time making ends meet that they voted to bump up salaries pronto.)
Since the arrival of the Cravath's salary messiah, firms have been tripping over themselves to announce that they're also joining that Big Salary Club. But while firms are spotlighting their generosity to their junior and midlevel associates, firms aren't giving many details about how their more senior folks are benefiting. (Most firms seem to cap their salary increase with the class of 2008, which is generally paid $315,000.)
In fact, its arguable that senior associates and counsel are ignored or getting the short end of the salary stick. My buddy Joe Patrice at Above the Law laments that senior associates at Brown Rudnick were capped at $300,000—meaning that the firm saw no need to treat a 10th or 11th year associate any better than one with only seven years of experience. Patrice writes:
But that “7+” suggests they have some senior folks kicking around and they just ain’t gettin’ raises. Income partners are also left in the vague “we also continue to monitor” world. Sorry folks. Make it rain or get used to not having an umbrella!
That’s a real kick in the shins for those senior folks. Perhaps it’s time to make full, equity partner, or find a firm that treats its elders a little better.
Kick in the shins? Maybe. Find "a firm that treats its elders a little better"? Good luck. While some firms seem more respectful towards their aged non-partners (Patrice notes that Debevoise & Plimpton treats its senior citizens well, giving them an additional $35k based on class year), most firms kind of sweep them under the salary rug—because they can.
Here's the reality: Senior associates, counsel and contract partners have no bargaining power. They can't lateral anywhere because they've aged out of the market, unless they have a skill that's in demand. What's more, few will dare complain, because they're either too busy kissing up, hoping to make partner, or feel lucky that they're still being allowed to stay.
Look, I know everyone is excited that these increases are helping to close the wealth gap between partners and their employees (query: is this a Bernie Sanders' thing?), but there's no moral imperative operating here. Firms do what they have to do to get the talent they need at the moment. Need I remind everyone that about five or six years ago, in the aftermath of the recession, firms were dumping associates by the wayside like yesterday's electronics.
My advice: Don't get too excited about those nice salary bumps. Enjoy it while you can.