A good pandemic = bumper pay (or not, at some firms)
"It’s embarrassing that it’s published," said one junior lawyer. "For example my medical friends see or hear from others what we earn. How can you justify earning £200k with limited experience when a medic who’s got double the experience and is trusted to save lives earns half that, after you take into account reasonable private sector work."
"Top of the market," said a junior lawyer, "and there are massive opportunities to exceed the Cravath scale bonuses".
The Top 10
Kirkland & Ellis (88%), a perennial podium finisher for top pay in ROF surveys, came second. "Frankly overpaid for being in my mid 20s," said a junior lawyer.
Debevoise & Plimpton (87%) placed third. "Full match to New York salary without the US law school fees really hits hard when you are debt free and have enough for a down payment for a decent Hampstead property in your mid-20s," said a junior lawyer. "If you work here for a few years and are sensible with your spending then it can be life changing", said a senior Debs solicitor.
Latham & Watkins (86%) came fourth with many citing its "excellent" pay, although not everyone was happy. "We're stuck on a ridiculous false exchange rate of 1.45 rather than the actual exchange rate, which results in me being on about £15k less than my US peers," said one lawyer. "Anyone who complains about the pay is an idiot", said a colleague. A senior lawyer who moved to Lathams from the Magic Circle said, "This year, I could have privately employed two MC 4PQEs to handle all my work, and still have had enough left over to pay myself more than I earned in my final 12 months at an MC firm before jumping ships".
In 5th, Ropes & Gray (81%) was "a meritocracy rather than an outdated lock step model", said one partner, adding "It's also black box so partners don't stress about other partner compensation".
At White & Case (80%), 6th, revised scales for associates "have bridged the gap with associates at other NY firms," said a senior lawyer, while at Shearman & Sterling (78%) in 7th, "The move to paying us NY rates was a very welcome one!". A junior solicitor at Shearman said, "We're not paid at the tip-top of the market, but then again the partners do not own my organs, so it feels like a fair trade".
The first UK firm in the top 10, Burges Salmon (77%) placed 8th. Voted as the RollOnFriday Best Law Firm to Work At 2022, the satisfaction with pay was linked with having a life. "I am very happy with the salary here, especially considering the great work life balance," said a junior lawyer. "We recently had pay increases - the pay is very good for the South West," agreed another.
Filling out the top 10, Corporate powerhouses Macfarlanes (73%) and Travers Smith came joint 9th. "Will take home £200k in total this year as a 4PQE including special bonuses," said a Macs lawyer (although one solicitor heard a colleague "remark that everyone had a 'personal income' (i.e. a trust fund) anyway, so it was unnecessary"). The pay at Travers "isn't as ridiculously high as US/MC firms, but it's still a huge amount of money by any normal standard and reflects the lack of chargeable hours targets to chase," said a lawyer. Another agreed: "We've had a couple of pay rises this year which doesn't hurt. Also, they brought in free food at the excellent staff canteen which is a real plus".
In the middle of the pack, a common grumble was the gulf between London and regional pay, particularly in the age of the pandemic. The wedge at DLA Piper (51%) was "Good for the regions", conceded a lawyer, "but the disparity between regional and London pay is slightly galling in the era of ‘flexible working’ and ‘work from anywhere’". A lawyer at TLT (69%) agreed: "with the introduction of WFH I think the lines between where you work have changed significantly."
Remuneration at Trowers & Hamlins (71%) was "the market standard here in the South West, however we are consistently carrying out work where the other side are major London firms, carrying out the same work for significantly less pay", said one lawyer.
The industry practice of publicising trainee and NQ salaries invited a pay battle at those levels, but some respondents at higher levels said it wasn't reflected in higher bands. "Senior Associates squeezed whilst big pay jumps are seen at the junior level," said a lawyer at Dentons (49%).
Non-lawyers in many firms highlighted the "us and them" culture when it came to pay. "A big review to bring salaries in line with other law firms...only applies to fee earning staff," said a Business Services member of staff at Shoosmiths (57%). "Support staff have been given a basic 3% rise so, yet again, the gap between the elite and support grows ever wider."
The bottom firms
Clyde & Co came joint-55th with a score of 43% thanks to a perception that big profits were followed by insufficient rises. "Over the last 2 years, pay rises have been below inflation, and when this was highlighted we were simply told 'There are good years and bad years', which would be fine if it didn't come the same week the firm announced a 7.5% increaser in PEP," said one lawyer. "The usual spiel of "you don't get City pay, but you don't work City hours" is starting to ring hollow considering that I (and many others at the same level I am at) have been working very late hours", said a colleague.
The ex-Golden Turd, Slater and Gordon (43%), came joint 55th because "They will try and get away with giving staff the bare minimum," said a paralegal. A senior lawyer said: "We are also at risk of becoming an Old People’s Home for ex-DLA Piper partners. There’s a lot of resentment that our pay is apparently suppressed, so they can buy finest silk slippers."
DWF (42%) came 57th. One lawyer said, "The problem is that DWF’s pay is nowhere near as good as the law firms who we like to look down upon. Pay should be increased so we can look down on them with greater credibility".
"International law firm with silver service clients, silver circle hours and silver circle work but regional law firm pay," said a lawyer. "In classic DWF fashion, it’s only once we see Associates leaving for £20k pay increases that we up pay by £10k," said another.
Staff at 58th-placed HFW (41%) complained that "Ashurst's NQs earn more than I do at 8 PQE".
In a surprise appearance, Slaughter and May (37%) placed joint last for pay. The firm's scores suffered due to pay freezes and being late to the game in raising salaries. "No wonder partner payouts are the highest in the city - associates' hours are akin to US firms (and relative to other Magic Circle firms) but their pay is considerably less". Another lawyer agreed: "Partners are the best paid in the City because associates are not."
The Magic Circle firm shared the last spot with BLM (37%), which was accused of "Not keeping up with cost of living increases, never mind actually rewarding good work, or exceeding targets". Another lawyer claimed "rises have been non existent for years now". Not for everyone, it appears: "I forced a pay rise out of BLM (which is still below market) and I am sworn to secrecy" said a colleague. "I will probably be waiting 5 years for another." A BLM partner advised focusing on the positives: "It's BLM, so it'll never set the world alight, but their pay needs to be seen in the context of what they ask of you. Most NQs at US firms make more than me, but then I'm usually playing Mario Kart in my pyjamas at just gone 6.00pm, so swings and roundabouts".