Industry Resources

Are You Working for a Laggard Firm? How Biglaw’s Wealthiest Stack Up on Associate Pay Raises

From a pay perspective, the current Biglaw market offers associates some incredible opportunities. 2022 has brought not one, but three increases to the associate base salary scale. Milbank kicked things off, only to be outdone by Davis Polk, which was itself overtaken by Cravath. As exciting as the first-mover jockeying has been, the varied responses of other top firms have also been fascinating to watch. If you’re a Biglaw associate, obviously you want your firm to (at least) match the top of the market. But there’s a meaningful difference between a follower firm that dutifully announces a quick match and one that inexplicably drags its feet. Even if the latter firm ultimately ends up in the same place as its peers, nobody would prefer to work for a laggard.

With the dust on this round of increases finally settling, now seems like a good time to take stock of how the wealthiest firms performed. Was your firm a leader or a laggard? If you find yourself at a laggard firm, you might want to reflect on whether you feel appropriately valued. As we at Lateral Link can attest, the lateral market remains hot, so you very likely have other options.

Comparing top firms’ performance

To provide a snapshot of relative performance, we sorted firms into four buckets:

As the pool for our analysis, we took the top 50 firms by revenue per lawyer (RPL), based on the most recent Am Law RPL ranking. We used RPL because this metric best captures the economic health of a firm. To put it bluntly, a top 50 RPL firm can afford to match the Cravath scale.

Before relying on our results, please be advised that our source of data on salary increases is AboveTheLaw’s tracker, as of end of day March 16. The tracker is updated based on insider tips to AboveTheLaw and therefore may not be comprehensive. We excluded the top firm by RPL, Wachtell, because the Wachtell pay scale has long been distinct from the rest of the Biglaw market.

With those caveats out of the way, let’s see how the firms stack up. Note that within each category, the firms are listed from highest to lowest RPL.

GoldSilverBronzeWooden Spoon
Davis PolkKirklandGibson DunnSullivan & Cromwell
CravathSimpson ThacherWeilFish & Richardson
MilbankRopes & GrayFenwickWilson Sonsini
SkaddenCooleyFragomen
CahillWilmerHaleMorgan Lewis
DebevoiseFried FrankSteptoe
Quinn EmmanuelProskauerPillsbury
Paul WeissAkin GumpCrowell & Moring
LathamWillkieAlston & Bird
Paul HastingsSchulte Roth & Zabel
Sidley AustinKing & Spalding
O’MelvenyGoodwin
McDermottKramer Levin
Vinson & ElkinsWinston & Strawn
OrrickMorrison & Foerster
Covington & BurlingCadwalader
ClearyDechert
White & CaseSheppard Mullin
Arnold & Porter

In our laggard watch, we have to give a special shoutout to Sullivan & Cromwell, the second-highest ranked firm by RPL, after Wachtell. With RPL approaching $2 million in 2020, there is no doubt that SullCrom can afford to pay the new Cravath scale. And, realistically, there is no doubt that the firm will match — eventually. But there’s no good excuse for leaving associates in limbo when all of your peer firms matched relatively promptly.

Another notable laggard is Gibson Dunn, the wealthiest firm in the Bronze category (#14 by RPL). Gibson Dunn matched on March 14, a full two weeks after Cravath raised the bar. The firm’s associates surely noticed the delay, given that the large majority of Gibson Dunn’s peers near the top of the RPL ranking had confirmed their Cravath matches within a few days. Considering the firm also lagged in PPP growth over the past decade, ambitious Gibson Dunn associates may be asking some tough questions.

Implications: consider your options

Even though some, or perhaps all, of the “Wooden Spoon” firms will eventually announce full matches, being a laggard can have real consequences for a firm’s associates. Time value of money matters. When a laggard firm eventually matches and pays out the increase retroactively, any associate who left the firm in the interim will not receive the retroactive bump. And even for associates who don’t incur a material financial hit from the delay, the uncertainty imposes a psychological cost.

The good news for associates at laggard firms is that the healthy lateral market makes this a great time to switch firms. If the way your firm has handled the salary increases frustrates you, why not do something about it? It never hurts to explore your options. And who knows? Maybe you will end up joining a firm that treats its associates with more respect.