Christopher Wray, King & Spalding. (Photo: Alison Church/ALM)
With an annual salary of roughly $6.3 million per year, Christopher Wray is a rarity among Big Law equity partners, particularly for partners at Atlanta-based firms. Wray, the Trump administration’s nominee to replace fired FBI director James Comey, chairs King & Spalding’s special matters and government investigations practice, a key area for his firm. This week, ahead of his Wednesday confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Wray, 50, disclosed that the firm had paid him $9.2 million from the beginning of 2016 through mid-June.
That works out to an average of $528,000 per month, or $6.3 million annually.
Jeffrey Lowe, who heads Major, Lindsey & Africa’s global legal recruiting practice, said the figure sounds extraordinarily high because it is. Lowe authors a survey of partner compensation at the nation’s largest firms in conjunction with ALM Legal Intelligence. Despite rising partner profits at many top firms, he said very few partners make more than $5 million, especially outside the Wall Street elite.
“That’s why they’re the unicorns,” Lowe said. And when it comes to Wray, Lowe said, “He’s got a pretty big horn.”
“I would estimate that he’s in the top 10 percent of the top one percent,” he added. “He’s as rare as you would think he is.”
Of the 2,137 U.S. partners (equity and non-equity) from Am Law 200, NLJ 350 and Global 100 firms who responded to Major Lindsey’s 2016 partner compensation survey, only five reported compensation of more than $8 million. The survey reports compensation anonymously.
King & Spalding’s chairman, Robert Hays, declined to comment on Wray’s salary.
Lowe said practice areas for partners in this elite $5 million-plus circle would be “top M&A people, top white-collar people, various IP litigators. Definitely what he’s doing is where you’d see people at this compensation level, who are at the very top of their game.”
Washington, where Wray has an office, is a city full of high-powered white-collar defense practitioners, but “even in D.C. that’s a big, big number,” said Lowe, who heads Major Lindsey’s Washington office.
Wray has been a partner at King & Spalding for nearly 12 years, following eight years at the Department of Justice, where he led the criminal division from 2003 to 2005, overseeing more than 400 prosecutors. His private practice clients have included SunTrust Bank, Wells Fargo, Wachovia, Credit Suisse Group, Chevron Corp, Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Medtronic, Georgia-Pacific Corp. and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Wray’s paycheck is even more notable, given that he works partly out of Atlanta, a less pricey legal market than Washington and a far cry from New York.
With average profit per partner of $2.47 million last year, King & Spalding is already near the pinnacle of partner pay among the country’s highest-grossing firms. The firm ranks No. 21, measured by PPP, of Am Law 100 firms. Of Atlanta-based firms, Alston & Bird has the next-highest PPP after King & Spalding, at $1.81 million.
A $6.3 million salary likely places Wray at the top of King & Spalding’s partner compensation scale, outpacing the average equity partner by a factor of about 2.6. (King & Spalding has about 200 equity partners.)
Lowe said a lot of firms set caps on what their partners can make. “Not that they are any less successful or profitable—but they’ve made the decision to have less of a partnership [compensation] spread,” he said.
“There are only a handful of firms where the number can be unlimited,” he added, “but even [at firms] with caps, there are some outliers.”
“Even a firm well down the Am Law 100 may have a guy making this much money, if he has a massive practice,” Lowe said. “It’s a very competitive market, so to keep that person a firm might have to break its compensation scale.”
Even beyond Atlanta, only a handful of attorneys with Wray’s level of government experience are known to have made it into the $5 million-plus salary club. For comparison, when Jeh Johnson became Homeland Security secretary in 2013, he reported income from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison of $2.45 million. Johnson had previously been Defense Department general counsel before he returned to the firm for a year.
Eric Holder Jr. disclosed that Covington & Burling paid him $2.15 million in 2008 and $2.5 million in 2009. He worked at the firm between his tenure as deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration and as President Barack Obama’s first attorney general.
Former U.S. solicitor general Paul Clement was rumored to earn $5 million at King & Spalding before he left the firm in 2011. (Clement moved his boutique appellate firm to Kirkland & Ellis last year in a deal that likely drew more.) Similarly, former Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement director Robert Khuzami earned headlines in 2013 when he joined Kirkland & Ellis for $5 million a year.
The following year, Kirkland hired Chicago litigation partner James Hurst away from Winston & Strawn for $9 million annually.
In the Trump administration, top lawyers joining from private practice were fetching less. For instance, White House counsel Donald McGahn and deputy counsel Gregory Katsas made $2.4 million and $3.9 million, respectively, at Jones Day last year.
Assuming Wray is confirmed as FBI director, his salary will drop quite a bit. As a Level 3 position, according to the Office of Personnel Management, the FBI director job pays $172,100 per year—just under the $180,000 starting salary for a first-year associate in King & Spalding’s Washington office.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified James Hurst’s former firm.