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Big Law Partners Are Richer Than Ever. But Happier?

Vivia Chen

October 5, 2020

Yachting-1547581_1920One of life’s mysteries: What keeps lawyers going? When I ask young associates that question, I often get a quizzical, “beats me” look. Sometimes, they’ll confess they can’t stand their jobs and plan to bail.

But for lawyers who’ve attained the lofty status of partner, the answer is almost always about the unalloyed joys of lawyering. Partners will go on and on about how awesome their work is and how they were put on earth to serve clients any way they can. And if they hold leadership positions at their firms, the answer is grander—something along the lines of being part of an institution tasked with serving the greater good.

Never has anyone said it’s about money. And I’m too polite to press, though money is always in the back of my mind. So let’s put it out there: Does money buy lawyers satisfaction?

Quick answer: Hell yeah. Probably more than anyone will admit. At the same time, though, lots of partners will insist they’d trade their worldly riches (or some of it) for freedom, time, poetry, whatever. The interesting question is how much they’re actually willing to give up.

What’s clear from Major Lindsey & Africa’s 10-year retrospective on partner compensation is that partners aren’t hurting. Unlike large swaths of the economy, they’re getting richer and richer.

Average partner compensation in the last decade shot up 38%, reports MLA—”1.5 times faster growth than the national wage index, which has increased only 25% over the same timeframe.” In 2008, average partner compensation was $640,000, while in 2018, it jumped to $885,000. Put another way: In 2008, only 16% of partners earned $1 million or more; in 2018, it was 26%.

And what level of compensation sparked the most joy? Those who made the most, silly! “The more someone made, the happier they were,” says MLA managing partner Jeffrey Lowe, the report’s author.

In the highest compensation group (more than $1.5 million) for 2018, 87% said they were “satisfied.” In contrast, those in the lowest category (less than $300,000) registered the highest “dissatisfied” rate—45%. (Also unhappy with their compensation are women—32% said they are “dissatisfied”—which is not surprising, considering that the gender pay gap seems to be worsening. Don’t get me started.)

Lawyers are making more money than ever but are truly satisfied? Despite that astounding 38% rise in compensation over the past decade, an increasing percentage of partners complain they’re not making enough. MLA finds that “both male and female partners recorded their highest levels of dissatisfaction” since 2010. (In 2018, 27% of partners say they’re “dissatisfied” with their compensation, compared with 23% in 2010 and only 20% in 2014.)

Are lawyers greedier? Or is this dissatisfaction with compensation indicative of some other restlessness?

“I wonder if there’s a bit of taking things for granted during the great economy,” says Lowe about the grumbling. “By 2018, the recession seemed far away.” He hints that the not-yet-released 2020 data, which takes COVID-19 into account, will look different.

“I really don’t think the Big Law partner making $6 million a year is twice as happy as one making $3 million,” says Dan Bowling, a senior fellow at Duke Law School who specializes in lawyer well-being. “Life satisfaction after a certain level of security—college for kids, retirement, good health care, no debt—doesn’t increase for every extra dollar.”

Another indication that partners are not totally blissful is that over 50% of them said they’d trade compensation for free time, fewer billable hours and other perks. Considering how often we hear about lawyers craving work/life balance and meaning in their lives, that’s not surprising.

But how much of a trade? Ah, that’s where we go back to the seductive powers of money: “On average, partners were willing to trade up to 14% of their compensation for these other perks,” reports MLA.

Only “up to 14%”? That’s like a drop in the bucket when you’re making $2 million or more. I’m sorry, but I don’t think they’re really serious about any real change if that’s all they’re willing to forfeit.

Which means partners aren’t ready to give up anything—their money or the Big Law work grind. “They had opportunities to opt out before, but chose not to,” says MLA managing partner Karen Andersen.”They’re excited about working on big deals, and know they can’t take time off to do that.”

“A large number of partners are perfectly happy with the status quo,” says Lowe. “People think of Big Law partners as overworked and burdened, but they seem fine with it. In a way, they’ve picked the perfect profession.”

Is it the money that keeps them going? I don’t think so. But would they keep the same crazy pace if they didn’t make the big bucks? I doubt it. Lucky for Big Law partners, work and money have a symbiotic relationship. In any case, they’re not going anywhere.

vchen@alm.com

Twitter: @lawcareerist

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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: VChen@alm.com

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