And it doesn't take a seismic event to get the profession all hot and bothered. This year, it was spurred by Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy, which bumped its first year salary to $190,000 from $180,000. Immediately, there was breathless speculation: What would other firms do? Will Milbank end up as the lone wolf?
As if any of this was a mystery. Was there any doubt that most "major"—or those with the pretense of being so—firms would fall in line like docile sheep?
But once firms bumped salaries, the rite of indignation started. And it was the client who was supposedly miffed.
"The tone deafness is astounding," blared the headline on Law.com, in a post that got a ton of attention. (The quote was from a livid client who was worried about the effect of the salary increase on legal fees.) Another post on Law.com wonders whether the raises will result in a client backlash.
The subtext was unmistakable: What the hell are you arrogant law firms doing by paying know-nothing associates so much? Did you forget about consulting us—your clients—who pay the bills?
Some might see all this as a wake-up call of sorts for law firms—a rebuke to the foolish ways Big Law takes action without listening to their clients.
But I think the fuss is much-ado-about-nothing. It's a big nothing burger if you ask me. The reality is that clients could care less about what firms pay associates. And why should they?
"As a gadfly, I'd like to be consulted," says John Kuo, general counsel of Varian Medical Systems, about the pay bumps, noting that $50,000 was considered "an obscene amount" when he got out of law school. "But as a consumer, I'll let you decide."
Clients are agnostic about these matters because they have the leverage. "I can tell you for sure that no in-house attorney will agree to pay higher rates because the firms decided to pay their associates more salary," says Linda Lu, a senior vice president at Nationwide Insurance Co. "I’m not worried, because we will pay what we pay anyways—the firms’ profit margins just shrink."
Indeed, who pays retail for legal services these days—particularly for inexperienced help? "Nearly all firms are experiencing pricing pressure," says law firm consultant Peter Zeughauser. "To address it, nearly everyone discounts at least some work." William Henderson, law professor at University of Indiana Maurer School of Law, echoes that point: "About 40 percent of the work is done with a 30 percent discount."
And despite that catchy "tone-deaf" complaint, clients are hardly waiting for firms to structure the billing arrangements. They'll pick the occasions when they might deign to pay full price—and that's just for superstar partners on limited engagements. "I might call up a very expensive partner just to get their thinking on antitrust for two to three hours," says Kuo. But for long term project, "I'm not paying $1,000 an hour," adding, "There are ways to contain my cost, such as alternative billing arrangements."
That means it's the law firm—at least the ones with thinner profit margins—that's in a bind. "If everybody pays associates the same, profits are squeezed all the more," says Zeughauser, noting the "continuing segmentation of the market" in which the most profitable firms get to charge more. "The rich get richer, and it becomes harder and harder for everyone else to hold onto their top talent."
Which brings us back to the law firms as sheep analogy. Because firms lack originality or are terribly afraid of being left out of the big boy club, they will shell out the hefty bucks–whether they can afford it or need to do so to attract decent talent.
So why are we talking about client angst in the context of salary increases? Well, it gave firms the illusion that billable rates still mean something. It's nostalgia for simpler times. And it's fake news.