New study shows major gains in compensation for law firm partners

Despite overall increases, pervasive pay gaps between male and female partners persist

Major, Lindsey & Africa, the world's largest legal search firm, recently released the results of its fourth biennial Partner Compensation Survey, revealing that both equity and non-equity partners posted significant gains in compensation compared to 2014. The survey was fielded in conjunction with ALM Legal Intelligence (ALI). Based on the responses of more than 2,100 law firm partners in the U.S., the average compensation for law firm partners hit $877,000, up 22 percent from the 2014 survey, with median compensation climbing to $575,000, a 21 percent increase.

Although there were large increases in compensation overall, the data continued to show stark differences in compensation between male and female partners. Male partners earn, on average, 44 percent more than their female counterparts. Average compensation for male partners is $949,000 (up 22 percent from 2014), while female partners earn $659,000 on average (up 24 percent from 2014). This 44 percent gap is slightly lower than the 47 percent differential reported in 2014.

"After seeing much more modest increases in compensation following the Great Recession, the results from 2016 demonstrate that BigLaw is resilient," said Jeffrey Lowe, Global Practice Leader of Major, Lindsey & Africa's Law Firm Practice and the study's author. "However, notwithstanding these strong results, the effects of the Great Recession will continue to be felt for a long time. It was a watershed event that has forever changed the course of BigLaw."

For the first time, the 2016 survey also measured respondents' satisfaction with their professional lives and their work as attorneys. Not surprisingly, factoring compensation into the equation resulted in higher levels of overall satisfaction, but the differences were much lower than expected. 82 percent of respondents classified themselves as very satisfied, moderately satisfied or slightly satisfied when factoring in compensation, versus 72 percent when compensation was not taken into consideration. Only 14 percent of partners said that they were slightly dissatisfied, moderately dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their career when factoring in compensation and only 21 percent expressed dissatisfaction when not taking it into account.

"The legal industry has a reputation for being grueling and stressful, and many have always assumed that lawyers are just in it for the money" said Jeffrey Lowe. "Instead, this survey shows that most law firm partners practice because they are passionate about their work, regardless of the financial incentives."

The survey also revealed that compensation varied greatly depending upon the partner's geographic location. Average compensation ranged from a low of $564,000 in Seattle to a high of $1,433,000 in Silicon Valley, a difference of more than 150 percent. The 2016 survey showed increases in all cities but Philadelphia, where average compensation fell 11 percent. Partners in San Francisco (+51 percent), Los Angeles (+38 percent), and Houston (+36 percent) had the largest percentage gains, while New York City had the smallest percentage increase (+6 percent) of those cities showing gains.

The survey examined a wide range of variables affecting partner compensation, such as differences between equity and non-equity partners, practice areas, compensation transparency and lateral status. For the first time, the Survey also explores partners' capital contributions, draws, bonus pools, and retirement options. Additional key findings of the study include:

- Equity partners earned an average of three times as much as non-equity partners, with equity partners making an average of $1.10 million, up 13 percent from 2014, and non-equity partners averaging $367,000, an increase of 9 percent compared to 2014.

- Equity partners continue to originate substantially more revenue ($3.1 million) than their non-equity partner counterparts ($720,000), a key factor for determining compensation.

- Average originations for all respondents increased dramatically in the past two years, averaging $2,456,000. This 25 percent increase from 2014 was substantially higher than the 3 percent increases recorded biennially from 2010 to 2014.

- Partner earnings were highly variable across practice areas. Among the seven practice areas grouped in the Survey, Labor & Employment partners reported the lowest average compensation, $597,000, compared to a high of $1,055,000 for corporate partners.

- The average compensation of White partners was $876,000, up 14 percent from 2014. Hispanic ($956,000; +100 percent), Black ($797,000; +39 percent), and Asian Pacific ($875,000; +36 percent) partners all reported significantly higher average compensation.

- Cronyism continues to be a key reason for partners' lack of satisfaction with their compensation, as approximately 24 percent cited it as the main factor for dissatisfaction.

- Half (50 percent) of the respondents indicated that their firm did not have a mandatory retirement age and 12 percent indicated that they were unsure. Of those at firms with a retirement age, more than 50 percent of those respondents indicated that the mandatory retirement age was 65 and 23 percent indicated that it was 70.

Major, Lindsey & Africa regularly conducts Lateral Partner Satisfaction Surveys and Partner Compensation Surveys in the U.S. and London, giving voice to law firm partners around the world about their earnings, compensation potential, and career satisfaction. More than 75,000 partners across the U.S. were invited to take an online survey. The partners were drawn from firms with Am Law 200-, NLJ 350- or Global 100-rankings in the past five years.

Published: Thu, Oct 20, 2016