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Who Cares About Law Firm Bonuses?

Vivia Chen

December 10, 2010

Yes, I know Cahill Gordon  & Reindel is throwing out some big bonuses and shaming Cravath, Swaine & Moore in the bonus wars.

But putting aside Cahill's sudden burst of generosity (I'll be parsing that in another post), the news about big-firm bonuses is pretty ho-hum--as law firm bonuses tend to be. For the most part, Wall Street law firms slavishly follow whatever Cravath does, which this year means bonuses in the $7,000-$35,000 range.  (See New York Law Journal and Am Law Daily.)

Investment bankers are probably chuckling right now about their pathetic legal counterparts. Don't those poor lawyers know that $35,000 won't even buy you a week in a shack in the Hamptons?

It's all relative, of course, because firm lawyers are raking in big bucks compared to their in-house colleagues. According to Corporate Counsel, "the 2010 average base salary across all levels of in-house lawyers was $174,000."

But before you big firm lawyers get all snotty, it's worth noting that in-house lawyers got an average cash bonus of $57,000. And the very top--meaning chief legal officers/general counsel--"took home average bonuses of $539,000," reports CC. (The average total cash compensation for CLO and GC exceeded $1 million. See Corporate Counsel's 2010 GC Compensation Survey.)

Law Shucks reports that law firm bonuses are insignificant in comparison to the tidy packages you can get in-house with a nice big company. "Bonuses in the range of 25-35 percent of base aren’t uncommon, and depending on how the employer does, they can run much higher."

Why the difference? Law Shucks says that firms and companies have different objectives for their lawyers:

Big Law wants you to leave.

The whole model requires lots of attrition (after the initial investment has been recouped) and a full pipeline behind that.

Since they want you to leave, bonuses aren’t meant to make you any happier than the minimum amount necessary to keep you around until that magical third or fourth year, when it’s more efficient to replace you with a new associate.

The reason behind firm bonuses has nothing to do with associate satisfaction, says Law Shucks; instead, it's all about firm marketing. "Firms all want to be viewed as equal to their peers. If bonuses were meant to improve associate satisfaction, you’d see a lot more firms actually paying for performance."

What do you think? Are those law firm bonuses meaningless sprinkles on top of the base salary--or do they give associates incentives to work harder or stay on longer? Do most people in your class get about the same amount?



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25% of the base salary being too low.

Firms all want to be viewed as equal to their peers. If bonuses were meant to improve associate satisfaction, you’d see a lot more firms actually paying for performance.

MY company gives out bonus of $100-$3000 at all levels per quarter. The average is $500. So I don't even want to hear about .25% of the base salary being too low.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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