A regional NQ rushes to greet the visiting City NQs
2022 - It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The City pay war rumbled on. US firms based in London gifted huge rises at the top end of the market. But trickle down economics wasn't evident everywhere, as meagre pay-rises in some quarters failed to keep other legal staff satisfied.
In the Magic Circle, Freshfields boosted NQ base pay to £125k, swiftly matched by Clifford Chance. But Allen & Overy told its lawyers that the firm was freezing associate salaries. And Linklaters also sent an internal email to say that it wouldn't "rush into matching salaries at NQ level."
A&O and Links' NQ salary of £107,500 is hardly chicken feed, although it is less than their Magic Circle competitors Freshfields (£125k), Clifford Chance (£125k), and Slaughter and May (£115k).
Meanwhile, Silver Circle firm Herbert Smith Freehills announced that it would raise NQ pay to £120k, leapfrogging A&O, Links and Slaughters, in the process.
Playing chicken in a different field, the biggest salary hikes across the City this year have been prompted by US firms seeking to match or outdo each other across the pond, with the so-called Cravath salary scale adopted by some BigLaw firms, then being converted to sterling salaries in London.
Akin Gump's NQs in London are paid a whopping £179k, thanks to the FX rate moving in their favour, as the pound weakened against the dollar. Although the firm had to introduce a cap on the exchange rate, "that hadn't been seen in years", following Kwasi Kwarteng's disastrous mini-budget which caused the pound to nose-dive to a 37-year-low.
The exchange rate adopted by Kirkland also worked out well for its NQs in London who, on the capped rate of 1.25, were paid a base salary of £172,000 this year.
Other US firms calculated London salary using different methods, but still raised NQ base pay in London to astronomical levels, with the likes of Goodwin Procter, Gibson Dunn and Weil joining the £160k+ club.
Some spoke out against the rises. Charles Russell Speechlys warned against firms making "knee jerk reaction changes" with huge pay rises.
And Sir Nigel Knowles, DWF's CEO, warned that "offering more and more money to young people is only a sticking plaster", and that massive hikes are "not a sincere, sustainable or healthy solution for anyone".
With the cost of living crisis biting, some firms tried to help out: Irwin Mitchell handed out £900 to its staff; Clifford Chance gave all its trainee solicitors and all business services staff a payment of £1,500; Shoosmiths dished out a £1,000 payment to all its staff; Bird & Bird made a one-off payment of £1,000 to all staff in London on a salary of £50k or less; and Simmons & Simmons awarded £1,500 to earning less less than £50,000 a year, including contractors.
BCLP offered a cost of living payment of £1500 to business services individuals earning £60K or less, but the firm was also slammed by staff for ditching business services pay rises just before Christmas.
In other hand-outs, Capsticks decided to forgive its trainees' debts and hand out bonuses.
However, there were grumbles at other firms from staff who felt aggrieved with their pay. An Allen & Overy lawyer was distressed at a £10 'Percy Pig bonus' offered by the firm. Stephenson Harwood cut pay by 20% for homeworkers, which resulted in fierce reactions. And separately, the firm also had to apologise after it announced bonuses for lawyers working in its Singapore office, then gave them far smaller ones.
Dozens of employment lawyers working for the Government Legal Department accused it of pay discrimination. Meanwhile, Linklaters trainees were told to stop moaning about salaries to business services staff who earn far less.
Finally, some firms were found to have had a rather good pandemic. Vardags claimed furlough cash while its directors' companies billed the firm millions. Wright Hassall kept £300k in Covid grants as partners enjoyed massive payrises. And Coffin Mew took £1million in Covid grants as bosses enjoyed record pay.
Check out the rest of the 2022 review: