For the past two weeks, the tiny-minded legal world has been obsessed with one issue: Cravath’s announcement that it would raise starting first year associate salaries to $180,000 (the first significant movement from the $160,000 baseline in 2007) and the mighty roar of the lock-step monsters – er, copy cat law firms – racing to play catch up.
Since the announcement, commentators have sliced and diced and analyzed this big legal news [note to readers: big legal news is kind of the equivalent of internet famous. Meaning, not very] every which way till Sunday in search of original spin (alas, not as exciting as original sin). Bruce McEwen hints that the Cravath announcement may be a kind of an F-you (my words, not his) to less prestigious firms – a dare to see if they’ll keep pace; big clients like Bank of America regard the raises as kind of an F-you to them, remarking that “we are aware of no market-driven basis for such an increase and do not expect to bear the costs of the firms’ decisions;” while some GCs wonder whether they may be F’d themselves since it may be tough to compete with those salaries when trying to attract talent in-house.
As for solos and smalls – particularly those who compete with biglaw – those $180,000 biglaw salaries are the best kind of PR: favorable and courtesy of someone else’s dime. Suddenly, the solo with 15-years of experience charging $350/hour seems awfully reasonable compared to the know-nothing first-year associate who’s billed out at the same rate. Suddenly, our assurances to clients about being sensitive to cost, and our efforts to provide value rather than just churn hours don’t sound like desperation but like a welcome embrace to clients whose concerns about cost weren’t just politely ignored but positively drowned out, like a little kid screaming “LALALALALALALA, I CAN DO WHAT I WANT!!!”
At the same time, I know there are also solos with long years of experience demoralized by the salary increases, feeling as if no matter what they do, they scarcely can match the earnings of a 26-year older,” while new solos, struggling to pay rent and loans think “why them not me?” For starters, $180k isn’t all that much. Divide it up, and a billing rate of $200/hr, it comes to 900 billable hours a year, or 75/month or 17 hours a week. Tacking on another $36k for overhead and expenses would require you to bill 20 hours/week at $200/hr. You may not be there – and maybe never will, but the point is, those numbers aren’t as enormous.
What is enormous though, is that we solos and smalls have the privilege of doing stuff that matters, even when all we do is show up . For that brief time when our clients lives intersect with ours – whether they’re in crisis or celebrating the joy of adoption or taking a business public, or planning for the future – we solos and smalls are much more than a fungible sidekick or a pricey exotic, $180k potted plant. We are our clients’ problem-solvers, their trusted advisors – and sometimes even, on our best days, their magicians, who pull a solution out of a hat or maybe, even the last person in the world who has their back.
Moreover, in this topsy-turvy, ever-disrupting profession, those $180k salaries aren’t a sure thing – not for the 26-year old kid out of school, and not for the 65-year old partners who devoted their lives to their firm only to learn that without a book of business, they’re nothing more than small time employees, at the will of the firm . Still, for us solos and smalls, it’s different. Everyone of us built something out of nothing – something that didn’t exist before and never would have come into being but through sheer grit and doggedness – and even if it were all to fall apart tomorrow, we know that we could pick ourselves up and start again if we had to. That’s a lesson far more valuable than a $180k starting salary: it’s the difference between life and death .