Major U.S. law firms hold year-end bonuses steady in leaner year

The logo of the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell is seen in their legal offices in New York City, New York, U.S., June 2, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • Davis Polk, Paul Weiss, Debevoise, Milbank and others rolled out matching bonuses on Friday
  • Firms have been slower than usual to match the first-mover, which this year was Baker McKenzie

(Reuters) - Major U.S. law firms including Davis Polk & Wardwell, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and Debevoise & Plimpton on Friday rolled out year-end bonus plans for associates, matching last year's bonus scale in a departure from the leap-frogging increases of past years.

Bonuses for associates at the firms range from $15,000 pro-rated to $115,000 based on seniority, according to internal memos viewed by Reuters. That range closely mirrors what Wall Street law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore and others announced earlier this week.

Baker McKenzie kicked off the bonus season last week, and other firms had been slower than usual to follow. The matching picked up speed on Friday after the announcement by Davis Polk, which has helped set associate compensation trends in past years.

Other firms that largely matched on Friday include Milbank, Paul Hastings, Baker Botts, Ropes & Gray, Willkie Farr & Gallagher and Hogan Lovells.

Some firms start their scale at the $15,000 pro-rated amount for the class of 2022 while others begin at $20,000 for the class of 2021. Cravath's bonuses rise to $105,000 for the class of 2016 while most others reach $115,000 for the class of 2015 and above.

Law firms that earlier announced similar bonus scales include Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, McDermott, Will & Emery, Boies Schiller Flexner and New York litigation firm Holwell Shuster & Goldberg.

The annual bonuses so far mirror the prevailing range set by Cravath last year; however, Davis Polk in 2021 also offered a "special" one-time bonus ranging from $4,000 to $23,000 by class year, which some competitors chose to match.

Such special payouts, offered multiple times by some firms last year to attract and retain associates in a busy work environment, have not been a feature in 2022 as firms face economic headwinds.

Dropping demand, particularly in M&A work, has created a leaner environment for U.S. law firms after last year's booming global deal market. Silicon Valley-founded firm Cooley on Wednesday said it laid off 150 U.S. employees, including 78 lawyers, amid a demand decline.

Several firms, such as Boies Schiller, are offering extra money to associates for top billers or high performers this year.

(NOTE: Updated with additional details on Friday bonus announcements)

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Sara Merken reports on privacy and data security, as well as the business of law, including legal innovation and key players in the legal services industry. Reach her at sara.merken@thomsonreuters.com