Lost in the hum of daily routine deep in the Eighth Avenue beehive of white-shoe law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore Feb. 13 was the insertion of pale-blue interoffice envelopes into the mailboxes of the firm’s 350-odd associates.
The spare memorandum inside contained news that might have set your average drone abuzz: They were getting $20,000 raises.
But the delivery—quaintly marked “personal and confidential”—was in fact the anticlimax of an increasingly public frenzy that has swept Manhattan’s elite law firms over the last two weeks.
It’s a bit of a ritual: One top-shelf firm announces a raise, and its competitors rush to match the new salaries. In the wider context of the recent upheaval, Cravath took a relatively leisurely 11 days to make its announcement, and so the news wasn’t really news.
The parity in salaries (bonuses, while mostly standardized as well, allow for a little more discretion) means that the salaries themselves become public knowledge, and associates begin to seem like lavishly compensated civil servants.
After this salary sprint, first-year lawyers will be earning $145,000 a year. (The last base salary raise, which was announced around this time in 2000, was led by Silicon Valley firms worried about losing associates to Internet start-ups, and bumped first-years from $105,000 to $125,000.)
California firms spurred the raise again this year. In the fall, the Los Angeles–based boutique firms Irell & Manella and Quinn, Emanuel, Urquhart, Oliver & Hedges raised salaries to $135,000. Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a national law firm also based in L.A., was the first large firm to follow their lead, and others, including Latham & Watkins, matched as well, though it excluded the firm’s New York associates, perhaps waiting for someone else to pull the trigger. (The firm later matched the higher New York salaries.)