Friday, August 16, 2013

Law firm hiring bonuses for supreme court clerks

Above the Law has the story:
There hasn’t been much major good news on the associate compensation front over the past few years — since, say, January 2007. But recent weeks have brought pockets of minor good news for limited constituencies. Green shoots, anyone?
In Miami, Greenberg Traurig raised starting salariesby 16 percent, from $125,000 to $145,000. In New York, Sullivan & Cromwell and Skadden Arps started offering $300,000 signing bonuses to Supreme Court clerks.
And now $300K bonuses for SCOTUS clerks have spread, to other law firms in other cities. Consider this the new going rate for top-shelf talent….
Multiple clerks from the October Term 2012 class have received offers of $300,000 signing bonuses, from the following firms:
  • Gibson Dunn
  • Jones Day
  • Munger Tolles
  • Paul Weiss
  • Skadden Arps
  • Sullivan & Cromwell
And The Economist follows up: The curiously strong market for Supreme Court clerks

AMERICA’S chief justice earns $224,618 a year. The other eight Supreme Court judges pocket $214,969. Nice work if you can get it, but paltry compared with the sums law firms are offering to the judges’ clerks—lawyers in their mid-to-late twenties who take a year-long post—to secure their services.

Earlier this month two big firms, Skadden Arps and Sullivan & Cromwell, set a new record in the bidding war by offering signing bonuses of $300,000. Combined with the base salary for third-year “associates” (the rank at which they typically enter a firm) and a modest end-of-year bonus, clerks can now take home $500,000 in their first year of private employment.
Perhaps the main reason for the ongoing bidding war is the inflexibility of pay scales at the law firms. The industry has barely budged from an age-old practice in which those on the lower rungs of lawyerdom are paid strictly according to their years of experience. This rule does not apply to court clerks’ signing bonuses, so these are a means of buying in talent without breaking a professional taboo. It would of course be more sensible to scrap such “lockstep” pay scales entirely. Jones Day, a prominent Washington firm, has done so. But lawyers are creatures of habit, and few other firms have followed.


Misha said...

Interesting story. Thank you for sharing. I suspect there may be good reasons for law firms and other organizations to set the same pay for everybody within the cohort. Pay gets mixed up with ego. These who looked the most impressive at the entry point may not be the most impressive after the first year. Evaluating and comparing people is time consuming, painful and bruising for egos. Thus the benefits of lockstep pay are significant. A sign up bonus is a more palatable way-- if someone who gets an outsized sign up bonus turns out to be average it does not create an organizational problem (in contrast, if an average fourth year associate ends up being the highest paid that might be a problem because it would cause the top performer to feel resentful and rightfully demand renegotiation).

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Jackie O'Brien said...

Very interesting. Those are quote some hefty signing bonuses for supreme court clerks. I'm a Peabody MA Personal Injury Lawyer, and I can tell you that salaries around here are nothing like that!