The majority of lawyers were mainly satisfied or neutral when it came to their salary. 35 of the firms in the RollOnFriday Firm of the Year 2020 survey were given a score 50% to 74%, a deafening overall rating of “meh”.
There were of course strong opinions behind the scores. At national firms, pay variations between offices caused consternation. At Mills & Reeve (74%) a partner said that salary was "fab for living in Norwich" while a colleague in Birmingham was equally pleased. But the firm was drubbed in Cambridge where pay was "the same as the other regional offices, where you can get much more for your money". One Cambridge lawyer complained that salary should rise "to reflect the cost of living". A London-based lawyer said his salary wasn't competitive in the capital as there was pressure by the firm not to raise them too much as "colleagues in regional offices repeatedly refer to London salaries when moaning about their salaries".
At Burges Salmon (72%), one lawyer said that they received "Bristol pay" despite doing "City work and City expectations". But a junior lawyer said that pay was decent for Bristol and colleagues who moaned about it "should maybe just move to London".
At TLT (66%) a content lawyer said that the firm "pays very well for Bristol, without having to do the crazy hours of other firms here i.e. Burges Salmon or Simmons & Simmons."
Regional pay was also mentioned at Charles Russell Speechlys (71%) where a junior lawyer in Guildford crowed "out here in the 'regions' I am paid significantly more than I could get at any other firm nearby."
"The pay isn't terrible, but it's a bit of a slap in the face to be 10 years qualified and know that a London NQ earns significantly more than you do" said a senior lawyer at a regional office in Addleshaw Goddard (70%). The pay divide was also a sore point for a lawyer at Pinsent Masons (59%) who said he received a "decent wedge for the regions" but it was "demoralising when you realise that a clueless NQ in London takes home more than a 5yr+ Senior Associate."
How the associate sees the flush NQ.
Other associates in the regions took a more sanguine outlook. At DLA Piper (65%) a junior lawyer said "I'm in a regional office - we have the usual complaint around the fact that we are paid circa £30k less than our big city colleagues" but "given the size of my car/house/garden compared to my London colleagues of the same PQE I'm fairly content with my pay".
A number of lawyers assessed their salary satisfaction based on their industry. A senior lawyer at DAC Beachcroft (73%) said that although pay was "not particularly high" it was "fair considering work/life balance and the rates we can charge insurer clients". At Ince Gordon Dadds (70%) a lawyer said that pay was "broadly in line with market for our sector, and not bad given far less hours than the Magic Circle etc. but I'd like more!" A junior lawyer compared salary with other shipping firms and concluded that pay was "better than Clydes and HFW" but "worse than Reed Smith or Stephenson Harwood".
For some firms, the fairness of pay varied between departments. "Lawyers in the corporate and finance teams are underpaid whereas insurance and real estate are likely overpaid against the market" said a CMS (59%) lawyer "as one size does not fit all."
A number of lawyers compared their salaries to the massive wedge received by their counterparts at US firms. While most Hogan Lovells (71%) lawyers were satisfied with pay, one lawyer said that for corporate work, salary was "middle of the road" and the firm was "haemorrhaging juniors (who don't work materially fewer hours) to US firms in the transactional teams."
A senior lawyer at Clifford Chance (69%) said that he worked the "same hours or at most 10% less than US peers" for "30% less". But another lawyer at CC felt the salary was "excellent given that I don't have to put up with the sociopath partners and insane billing targets regularly encountered at US firms". At Dentons (63%) one junior lawyer said that "in certain departments you have people doing US firm hours for Dentons pay, and then the partners are surprised when associates leave to do the same hours for twice the money."
An Allen & Overy (66%) trainee also noted the disparity in beastings between departments, as salary was "generally fair" but depended on the department as "it ends up being not quite enough in those teams where you sacrifice your life and health while the associates/seniors go home on double your salary and leave you to it."
Other lawyers felt that they were benchmarked against the wrong firms, and this was reflected in salary. A senior lawyer at Womble Bond Dickinson (58%) said "we like to pitch ourselves work wise against the likes of Burges salmon, OC and Simmons, but our pay lags well behind those firms and is more on a par with smaller regional outfits."
Other lawyers were more happy to compare their lot with other firms. At Ashurst (54%) a junior lawyer said salary "could be more, but actually stacks up relatively well against the market given our hours are nowhere near as savage as MC or (shudder) US."
The summer pay rises for NQs as City firms joined the gold rush didn't go down well with all associates higher up the ladder. At Herbert Smith Freehills (68%) while NQs were "delighted", a junior lawyer said it "resulted in some fairly extreme disparities" as "the pay gap between NQs and associates with 3PQE is now, in some instances, a mere £6k". And a junior lawyer at Eversheds Sutherland (63%) said the firm "scrambles to keep up with the NQ market rate, but fails to adjust the salaries of more senior associates accordingly. The result being that 4+ PQE solicitors are faced with relatively high expectations in terms of client relationships and billing but only marginally more remuneration than the NQs".
"My opinion will undoubtedly not be very popular at all among my peers, but I think we're paid too much" said a candid lawyer at Freshfields (64%). "Come on, which NQ is really worth £100,000? I know it's over-inflation due to US market pressure, but this is all just getting a bit silly now." A lawyer at Linklaters (57%) said he was "considering going back to being an NQ. The difference in pay between an NQ and a mid-associate is now only £50k and I'd probably find it less stressful."
At Norton Rose Fulbright (51%) a senior lawyer complained that the NQ rises in salary "resulted in some NQ salaries being only 1 to 2k less than a 3/4 PQE salary. There haven't been consequential pay rises across the board. This has not gone down well." It remains to be seen whether firms take the Slaughter and May's approach and increase salary for associates.
Other lawyers bemoaned measly pay rises. "Despite having been with the firm for over 12 years," a senior lawyer at Capsticks (59%) said, "this year's pay rise was less than inflation and in no way reflected my performance or appraisal grade."
Lawyers, of course, took into account bonuses, not just base pay when considering salary satisfaction. "We work less hours than other Magic Circle firms, and get paid a standard bonus regardless of whether you've had a busy or quiet year" said a senior lawyer at Slaughter and May (68%) "what's not to like about that?" At Kennedys (63%) one lawyer complained that "it feels like the partnership are always trying to avoid coming up with decent bonuses." At Baker McKenzie (59%) while the majority of lawyers were satisfied with pay, a junior lawyer grumbled that "our bonus system is a joke. You can hit your targets and get the best appraisal but only receive a 3-4% bonus".
At Watson Farley Williams (50%) a senior lawyer said "They recently decided to get rid of the xmas bonus and told us it was included in the pay review (which was effectively non-existent)." A junior lawyer said pay "would be fine if there were a less terrible bonus system".
Some firms offered other financial benefits aside from standard bonuses. At DWF (61%) a senior lawyer said "given DWF is now a big name player on the London Stock Exchange, the allocation of shares to employees was very well received."
Work/life balance was more important to some lawyers than an astronomical salary. "We could all work elsewhere for more" and "buy multiple sports cars" said an RPC (67%) partner, but he valued the firm's "people and focus on treating people well". At Shoosmiths (67%) a senior lawyer said although salary was "probably a bit lower than some competitors" it was "the trade off for better work/life balance." The salary at Clarke Willmott (61%) is "not world beating" said a junior lawyer "but the compromise on pay is more than compensated for in the near normal life you can lead outside of work commitments".
A junior lawyer at Irwin Mitchell (65%), who may wish to rethink his social-circle, reported that because of his lowly salary "when I go out with friends at other City outfits they do a mocking whip-round for me at the bar."
Lack of transparency around pay was brought up by a number of lawyers. A Bird & Bird (64%) lawyer said when he asked HR about salary bands "they couldn't think of any good reasons why they should share it."
Minuscule pay rises, or none, were a source of contention for other lawyers. "No pay rises at BLM (52%)" said a business services member of staff, who revealed "this year we received a letter saying how 'pleased' our managing partner was to give us a 0% pay rise. Obviously a template error, but pretty much sums up this employer."
At Burness Paull (52%) a senior lawyer said there were "very poor increases - God forbid that the partners should take home slightly less than the average of circa £350K, instead the employees suffer with no bonus and very poor pay rises.