LOS ANGELES � The party may be over for big-law associates.

Earlier this year, rumors were swirling that some elite New York firms were planning to raise the bar for first-year salaries to $200,000 by year’s end, but economic slowing is dampening the prospect. As law firms face a slowdown in deal activity, associates at California’s largest firms may have to hold tight at the $160,000 scale.

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a lot of deals in the pipeline are on the backburner or dead,” said William Urquhart, a leader of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges � one of the first firms to adopt the higher scale in California this year. “We had an incredibly long run of a hot economy, which created a high demand for associates. I think there will be a cooling.”

Other firm leaders are also predicting a salary flattening, saying the market needs several years to absorb the impact of $35,000 in base-salary raises in less than two years.

“I’d be surprised if there was a significant deviation,” said Brian Brooks, O’Melveny & Myers’ recruiting partner. “I have heard some folks say the New York bonus market will be a little softer this year, and growth among most firms flat.”

The Recorder’s annual salary survey reveals most firms have adopted a similar lockstep scale for base compensation, but are showing some creativity when it comes to bonus structures. As base compensation appears to be stabilizing, associates say they’re turning their interest to firm’s bonus systems.

“That is what the big debate has been � what is the best bonus system,” said O’Melveny’s Luann Simmons, a senior associate who co-chairs the firm’s associate advisory committee. “The debates are going on about this, and there are completely different views from associates.”


Some firms like Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman capped first-year bonuses at $32,500 while other firms such as DLA Piper said first-year bonuses could go up to $50,000.

The range isn’t the only difference; firms often have varied methods for calculating each associate’s bonus, something that is being heavily debated right now at firms like O’Melveny.

Simmons, the co-leader of the firm’s associate advisory committee, said the crux of the debate is whether it’s better to have a lockstep model or a more subjective model. Currently, O’Melveny uses a hybrid that uses part objective criteria and part subjective assessments � such as citizenship � to calculate bonuses.

“Top performers love the West Coast model, which is more touchy feely,” she said. “But the lack of an objective element leads to a breeding ground for associates to say, ‘I bet I am getting screwed.’”

While O’Melveny’s leadership is open to adjusting the system, Simmons said the challenge is finding consensus among associates, mostly since it depends on how the associate views themselves.

“It’s so much easier if it’s a formula, but top performers say that’s crap,” she said. “Our partners spend hundreds of hours trying to equitably distribute the bonus pool based on touchy-feely stuff.”


The move to a $160,000 starting scale in their California offices elicited strong reactions from some general counsel, who spoke out loudly against raises they feared would translate into higher billing rates.

And while associates applauded their bigger paychecks, some also voiced concern that higher salaries would quickly translate into increased billable-hour pressures.

“We’re starting to see a trend afoot by several law schools where students are saying, “I don’t want to work 2,500 hours and make 160 � can we do something about it?’” recruiter Delia Swan said.

See our past coverage here on how some firms funded their associate salary raises out of the bonus pool.

Some associates who initially feared their base raises might result in more hour requirements say those fears seems to have been quelled for now, as firms have kept hour requirements stable.

But the increased compensation still raised interesting implications, said Geoff DeBoskey, the associate who leads Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton’s associate committee.

“I think they signal to associates that the law firm needs to obtain value for the high amount associates are now receiving. The economics have to work out and people realize that.”

Associates have also discussed the effects of having law salaries so much higher than other private-sector entry-level jobs. DeBoskey agreed there are young associates who view firm life as a short-term prospect, as a way to garner quick savings and get out.

For law school recruits overwhelmed by myriad firm choices, not matching the going rate is something top law firms don’t want to risk.

“If you’re a law firm and you’re 10K less, that makes meaningful difference to recruits,” DeBoskey said. “It’s essential for law firms to be at whatever market is.”

Still, DeBoskey said the salary increases reinvigorated discussion on what firms can do nonmonetarily to distinguish their firm.


And for the firms that choose not to follow this year’s trend, there are some advantages.

“Some firms are coming out boldly and saying we’re not going to do it, we’re going to stay at 145, we’re not going to kill associates and we’re going to keep GCs happy,” recruiter Swan said.

Associate Salary Wars

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

More From ALM

With this subscription you will receive unlimited access to high quality, online, on-demand premium content from well-respected faculty in the legal industry. This is perfect for attorneys licensed in multiple jurisdictions or for attorneys that have fulfilled their CLE requirement but need to access resourceful information for their practice areas.
View Now
Our Team Account subscription service is for legal teams of four or more attorneys. Each attorney is granted unlimited access to high quality, on-demand premium content from well-respected faculty in the legal industry along with administrative access to easily manage CLE for the entire team.
View Now
Gain access to some of the most knowledgeable and experienced attorneys with our 2 bundle options! Our Compliance bundles are curated by CLE Counselors and include current legal topics and challenges within the industry. Our second option allows you to build your bundle and strategically select the content that pertains to your needs. Both options are priced the same.
View Now
June 20, 2024
Atlanta, GA

The Daily Report is honoring those attorneys and judges who have made a remarkable difference in the legal profession.

Learn More
June 27, 2024
New York

Consulting Magazine identifies consultants that have the biggest impact on their clients, firms and the profession.

Learn More
July 11, 2024
New York, NY

The National Law Journal Elite Trial Lawyers recognizes U.S.-based law firms performing exemplary work on behalf of plaintiffs.

Learn More

Health Law Associate CT Shipman is seeking an associate to join our national longstanding health law practice. Candidates must have t...

Apply Now ›

Shipman & Goodwin LLP is seeking two associates to expand our national commercial real estate lending practice. Candidates should have ...

Apply Now ›

McCarter & English, LLP is actively seeking a litigation associate for its office located in Newark, NJ. Three to six years of experienc...

Apply Now ›
The National Law Journal

Professional Announcement

View Announcement ›
Connecticut Law Tribune


View Announcement ›