Tuesday, January 23, 2007

We're feeling pressure to match the salary increases announced over the past few days at some New York-based law firms. So far, as far as I'm aware, Simpson Thacher started the ball rolling (probably after the managing partner lost a bet) and was quickly matched by Cadwalader, Cleary, Milbank, Paul Weiss, and Sullivan & Cromwell. First years are up to $160K, with more senior associates getting bumps to 170 / 185 / 210 / 230 / 250 / 265 / 280 (I think Simpson and Sullivan are even higher at the top end). It's a lot of money. That doesn't even include the bonuses, which ranged from 30K-70K in 2006 at most of these places.

The argument for matching: we want the best associates we can get, and since every firm is pretty much the same, the work is the same, and the hours are the same, if our salaries are lower, we won't get the top people.

The argument against matching: associates are all interchangeable and if we can save some money and still get decent ones, what's the difference? We're going to burn them all out in a couple of years anyway.

I don't know anyone who's happy at their firms, at least not any of these firms where first year associates are getting paid $160K. What's the price for a lifetime of unhappiness? What's the price for a year of unhappiness? Frankly, if your price is higher than $160K, first year out of law school, you're crazy. That's too much money to turn down. Even if we never let you out of here. That's why I don't like these salary increases. They take all the fun out of the torture. At $100K, you can still make the argument that it's not worth it, and I get to watch the associates wrestle with their inner voices and struggle to decide whether they should stay. At $160K no one wrestles with anything except the danish guy in the lobby. It's a no-brainer. No one in their right mind could say no to $160K plus a bonus to spend a year doing mindless work. They'd have to be crazy. And we don't want crazy associates, so it all works out. I don't know what to make of it. For that kind of money, who cares if your life has meaning or not? Who cares if you ever get to go home? You can afford to not worry about things. It's financial safety and security for a long time if you can tough it out for 5 or 6 years at the firm. And it's easy to dismiss that, but, really, how easy is it to find financial security like that?

I imagine if there's anyone out there who could have gotten a job at one of these places but passed it up to do something more "fulfilling," they're kicking themselves right now, because even principles have limits. If $160K the first year out of law school can't satisfy you, nothing's ever going to satisfy you and your problem isn't the law firm, it's that crazy voice inside of you telling you that you deserve more, that you're destined for greatness beyond that which a law firm can provide. But no one is destined for greatness. Greatness happens by accident, and the road to greatness is littered with the broken dreams of an awful lot of people who never became great. Why not just take the $160K, put it in the bank, forget the greatness and be satisfied with security? There are worse things than security. Even when greatness happens, there's a lot of heartache along the way. Who needs heartache when you can have the magic of compound interest?

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