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What an Awesome Time to Be in Big Law. Not!

The Careerist

June 6, 2018



I hate to be a constant killjoy, but it always makes me nervous when there seems be so much happy news out there—particularly for you young legal pups. Here's what I mean:

Milbank sets starting salary at $190K. Yippee! In case you've been under a rock, the big news is that Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy recently set the starting salary for first-year associates at $190,000 (with bonus, they'll be pocketing $200,000).

So exciting! And now, everyone is waiting with bated breath to see which firms will follow Milbank's fantastic example. Can you stand the suspense?

Despite speculation that not every firm will follow Milbank (because not every firm is Milbank), let me offer you my guess: Firms that fancy themselves as "major" players will fall into line—which means a lot of firms that can't really afford the hike will follow suit.

And why would they do such a silly thing? Because law partners have delicate egos, want to be considered part of the "club" and lack originality. At the end of the day, firms just blind follow each other.

Kent Zimmermann, a law firm management consultant at the Zeughauser Group, is already sounding the alarm of salary wars gone wild. He tells the New York Law Journal's Christine Simmons that some firms will follow Milbank's lead even if "they are not competing for the same profile of associate." Sooner or later, Zimmerman predicts, the industry will reach a point "when the economy cools and demand drops." And then what? Layoffs! (Remember the recession?)

Recruiter Dan Binstock offers a sobering picture for associates. Already, the current $180,000 salary is making firms more bottom-line oriented, he tells NYLJ: "I’ve literally heard managing partners say since we raised salaries to $180,000, we don’t have the luxury of giving associates six to nine months to catch up on their hours," adding that firms give associates three to six to prove themselves before they're shown the door.

So there you have it: More pressure, more billables and more opportunities to get fired. All before you hit 30. Quick, enjoy that salary hike while you can!

Weil shortens partnership track. Quick, cue the real estate agent!

Speaking of the fast track, Weil Gotshal & Manges just announced that it is shaving two whole years from its partner track. So instead of waiting around for almost a decade, ambitious associates can get the brass ring in seven-and-a-half years. Yes, you can start shopping for that East Hampton weekend home now!

The reason Weil is being so generous is that the firm wants its mid-level associates to stay on rather than jump ship. "The current generation of lawyers doesn’t want to wait nine or nine-and-a-half years,” executive partner Barry Wolf tells the NYLJ, sounding as if the firm has figured out the fickle heart of impatient millennials.

What will it take to be anointed a Weil partner under this fast and furious system? There are no strings attached, Wolf assures the NYLJ. The criteria for elevation is the same, and, like before, new partners will first be income partners before getting equity. And, Wolf insists, this new system is "not designed to weed people out." So chill.

In fact, Wolf says, "We expect substantially all of our associates who are here at seven-and-a-half years will be promoted to one or the other"—meaning partner or counsel.

I'm sorry but all this just sounds too peachy to be true. While Wolf might sincerely believe that "substantially all" seven-and-a-half year associates at the firm will be promoted, you have to wonder what happens if the economy goes south or the firm just decides it is no longer smitten with the crop. My bet is that the firm will cut a lot of them loose or make them income partners in perpetuity.

I think this quickie partnership program is just a temporary bout of generosity, reflecting the hot market we are in at the moment. Ironically, though, Wolf insists that “this is in the long-term best interests of our law firm.”


How dare I suggest quotas! Recently, I floated the idea that maybe firms should consider quotas in allocating client credit if they're serious about promoting gender equality. I expected some blowback. Interestingly, all the negative comments came from women.

I heard from a handful of women who took umbrage at the idea, telling me that they are doing just dandy at client development—thank you very much. The key to success, some said, is to get out of Big Law. One woman wrote to me: "There are a lot of great and successful women lawyers if you look beyond BigLaw." (Uh, not to be a party pooper, but doesn't that suggest that women won't have much luck at getting business in major firms?)

Another female lawyer accused me of fake news on Wwitter account for reporting that male in-house counsel tend not to give women business: "On behalf of my male clients, powerful women in house and women lawyers who yes make rain and get hired I call this ." (Hey, I was just reporting on findings from Acritas about male clients giving more biz to male partners.)

Guess if you don't like someone's opinion/reporting, it's now #fakenews. How Trumpian.

Finally, once more with feeling: "GC Diversity Mandates Had a Soft Launch—Now They're Serious." That was the title of an article in Corporate Counsel about how companies are getting tough (at last!) about diversity.

Yeah, yeah. Haven't we heard this about a thousand times? I'm sure companies really mean business this time; they're going to fire, punish and tar and feather all you firms with bad stats on women and diversity.

And I bet law firms are quaking in their boots.

Email me: [email protected]

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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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