Cravath’s have largely acted as the barometer for the profitability of the legal business and this year things are looking decidedly ‘average’ if the levelling-off of year-end bonuses are anything to go by.

The venerable New York law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP on Monday welcomed its lawyers back from the holiday break with what could be read as a sobering message on the financial state of the legal economy.

The firm said it would keep its year-end bonuses to associate attorneys mostly at 2010 levels. The bonuses are only slightly higher than they were in 2009—when they were at their post-financial-meltdown lows—but are still down significantly from 2007.

Much like year-end payouts at large investment banks, bonuses at the largest law firms have traditionally served as a barometer for the industry’s profitability for the year.

Associate attorneys—typically the youngest and least experienced of all the lawyers at a firm—spend months wringing their hands and speculating over what their take-home bonus will be.

In many years, as it was this year, Cravath was the first major law firm to announce its bonus structure. In past years, other large law firms have tended to match Cravath’s bonus figures.

The senior-most associate attorneys at Cravath—lawyers with about seven years experience—will take home a bonus of $37,500, an increase of $2,500 from 2010. The firm’s most junior associates, some of whom have only been with the firm for several months, will pocket an extra $7,500 for 2011, the same amount as last year. Payouts to the rest of the associate ranks will fall between the two figures, depending on each lawyer’s seniority.

The bonuses come on top of annual salaries that begin at $160,000 for first-year associates. The annual salary for the most-senior associates is about $265,000.

Law-firm consultant Peter Zeughauser said it was hard to divine too much about Cravath’s year from its bonus numbers. According to the American Lawyer magazine, profit numbers were up at the firm in both 2009 and 2010. “It could just be that the firm has decided it wants to do other things with its money, like prepay some expenses,” said Mr. Zeughauser.

But he also said that for many firms that rely heavily on mergers-and-acquisitions work, the year would fall well short of expectations.

“This year has steadily gone downhill for a lot of firms,” he said, as M&A work has largely dried up in the second half of the year. “Frankly, it’s gotten worseeach quarter.”

A spokesman for the firm declined to comment.

Last year, some associates grumbled over the size of the Cravath bonuses, given that they only went up marginally from those given in 2009, and were still down significantly from just a few years ago.

As recently as 2007, some firms’ top bonuses ran as high as $60,000. On top of that, many, including Cravath, paid an additional $50,000 bonus in 2007.

Generally speaking, law firms are made up of two tiers of lawyers: salaried associates and partners, each of whom own a stake in the firm.

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