Biglaw bonuses are dropping and seem to confirm that most of the Biglaw world will get last year’s bonus check plus a little something extra to match the autumn COVID bonuses that a few heavy hitters previously announced. But where does that leave the industry going forward? Are we really going to see them backslide on compensation when there isn’t (hopefully) a year-long pandemic? Meanwhile, after initial fears of mass deferrals, law school applications are way up — which isn’t necessarily a good sign.
Finally, we talk about the Justice Department’s latest effort to bring back firing squads and why everyone needs to get over their visceral revulsion and ask, “why does this bother me so much?”
Above the Law -Thinking Like a Lawyer
Ready… Aim… Bonuses!
Joe Patrice: Hello, welcome to another edition of Thinking Like a Lawyer. I’m Joe Patrice, which you may not have known already from the voiceover because maybe there isn’t a voiceover. We figured that 11 months in might be enough time for us to stop having the voiceover that says that me and Ellie host the show.
Kathryn Rubino: So, I’m formal. My 11-month trial period’s over.
Joe Patrice: Oh no, what I’m saying is there’s probably not a voiceover saying anything just that it’s not Ellie. You still are obviously on probation at all times. Joe Patrice from Above the Law. We’re hosting here and welcome to Thinking Like a Lawyer. The other voice you heard is our provisional host. Her name is –
Kathryn Rubino: Provisional. In term –
Joe Patrice: Hold on. Hold on. Kathryn Rubino from Above the Law is here.
Kathryn Rubino: You got jokes today. How was your holiday?
Joe Patrice: It was fine. It was fine. You know, some good stuff.
Kathryn Rubino: Low-key, lots of turkey.
Joe Patrice: Yeah, yeah. Turkey are plenty. I’m going to have to rejigger my weight loss plans a little bit but yeah.
Kathryn Rubino: You know what, I think that through the holiday season and after the year we have had, I think that just being healthy and happy is probably its own victory.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. That seems like too much.
Kathryn Rubino: (00:01:31) when I say that.
Joe Patrice: Oh, that’s so much self-helpy talk.
Kathryn Rubino: You know, it’s self-helpy talk because it actually helps yourself.
Joe Patrice: I’m a lawyer.
Kathryn Rubino: Don’t grumble at me.
Joe Patrice: Yeah.
Kathryn Rubino: First of all, you’re no longer a lawyer.
Joe Patrice: I am absolutely still a lawyer. The fact that I don’t take active cases doesn’t mean that I don’t pay my bar dues. Go to my CLEs.
Kathryn Rubino: You are significantly happier than when you were a lawyer. So, one might think that this self-help regime would be useful to you.
Joe Patrice: Whatever.
Kathryn Rubino: You know what I miss about being a lawyer though?
Joe Patrice: What do you mean miss about being a lawyer?
Kathryn Rubino: I am happier for sure writing.
Joe Patrice: I mean, the answer is money but go on.
Kathryn Rubino: And that’s exactly what I was going to say.
Joe Patrice: Yeah.
Kathryn Rubino: I mean, it’s officially bonus season.
Joe Patrice: Big low bonus season.
Kathryn Rubino: Yeah. I mean, this is the time of year when I question all of my choices in life because I spend an awful lot of time writing about bonuses that are very large.
Joe Patrice: I just was looking to see if I have in my handy-dandy sound effect machine a cheer and this one doesn’t. I’m kind of — at least it’s not as a default. I’m going to have to make some changes. Make sure that we get a sound effect machine that covers all the range of emotion that we need to have on this show.
Kathryn Rubino: Happy and sad. It just has to cover happy, sad and maybe angry. Happy, sad, angry.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. I have a laser though.
Kathryn Rubino: Do you? Whatever.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. It’s just.
Kathryn Rubino: What scenario do you think we’re going to use the laser sound effect?
Joe Patrice: I don’t know. I didn’t come up with this. These are the defaults.
Kathryn Rubino: There’s no happy one. I find that hard to believe.
Joe Patrice: You know, not really.
Kathryn Rubino: There’s no cheers like horn like –
Joe Patrice: I mean — there’s that horn.
Kathryn Rubino: That is the saddest horn.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. And then there’s like ambient noise.
Kathryn Rubino: So, you have a crappy sound effect board?
Joe Patrice: No. It’s a good board but they expect you to populate it with your own stuff that you want and they just give you a few defaults.
Kathryn Rubino: So, user.
Joe Patrice: So, it’s a new one. I used to have a different board and the different board had a lot more like defaults that seemed like useful. So, I didn’t think that I needed a new happy or a new horn or whatever but I do it.
Kathryn Rubino: Happy, sad, angry, maybe funny like a funny like –
Joe Patrice: Duck(ph) and sleepy. Anyway –
Kathryn Rubino: That’s what the dopey sounds like right there.
Joe Patrice: Oh, you’ve got jokes today.
Kathryn Rubino: I try. I try. No, but bonuses are a thing.
Joe Patrice: Oh, right. Something about law, yeah that’s what we were talking about. Go on. Yes, back to the actual law.
Kathryn Rubino: I am rolling my eyes so hard and put that on your list of necessary sound effects something that signifies that I’m rolling my eyes. Some sort of like –
Joe Patrice: Right. No, I can do that.
Kathryn Rubino: So, anyway. Yes, bonuses are here and you know obviously it’s good news and it’s COVID-19. So, any news is good news but they’re not particularly exciting.
Joe Patrice: Well, there’s a lot of money here. I mean, people are making double their salary at a certain point in their career basically. So –
Kathryn Rubino: I don’t think that’s quite where it is because the largest salaries are for those who are making quite a bit of money, but yes, it does range from 15 to 100 thousand dollars depending on class year which is a lot of money but the extra — the special sauces obviously which was something we’ve talked about previously are the COVID-19 appreciation bonuses, special bonuses that range between 7,500 and 40 thousand dollars depending on class here.
And here’s the thing that really gets me about those. So, the year-end bonus numbers the 15, 200,000 numbers, those are the same that were — the same bonus ranges that we saw last year and the year before and it’s been that range for quite a while and it’s not that the firms don’t have the ability to give more money indeed, most of them are giving more money in the form of these special bonuses but kind of carving them out in this special vehicle allows them to say “we’re matching last year’s year-end bonuses” as opposed to saying the whole bonus pool when the reality is unless there’s additional special bonuses next year, most associates will not make the same amount of money as they did in 2020, as they will in 2021. So, it’s kind of carving out these special things that allow firms to say “we’re doing the same thing, nothing’s changed when in fact the actual dollar amounts have changed.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. It’s going to be interesting to see how all of this plays out because obviously we’ve talked over the years and in particular if you read Above the Law as I know everybody does. If you’ve read Above the Law over the years you’ve noted — we’ve talked a lot about a trend which is an increasing gap between the haves and have-nots when it comes to big law. There was a day when the top 100 firms were all firms with lots of money to throw around and increasingly there’s a gap where the top 20 to 25 are doing much better than that next tier as far as revenue stuff.
Kathryn Rubino: And I think that COVID-19 is only exacerbated.
Joe Patrice: That’s what I was going to say is it seems as though while we’ve seen law perform better than many other sectors in the economic slowdown that we’ve had, it does seem to be like a plinko thing dropping through all the whatever that money seems to be ending up once more in the hands of the firms we consider the haves. That means that we’re going to increasingly run into and that’s also we saw this with layoffs and furloughs and stuff like that, the firms that have all the money didn’t need to do those things and the next tier kind of did. Given that that’s going to happen, how that plays out over the next year’s bonus and salary decisions is going to be interesting because I think you’re right, this carve out means that people are going to be have an excuse to give people less money as bonuses next year, but it’s also going to be an issue where are they going to be able to keep keeping up with the bigger firms because the bigger firms are going to have to start eventually noting that they have revenue flying in from all over the place and maybe it’s time that they up their bonuses and will these other firms be able to keep up.
Obviously, bonuses is only one factor of this and you know bonuses while nice what’s nicer is salary increases which we we’ve had. We’ve been blessed with a couple of them right in a row over the very recent –
Kathryn Rubino: 2018 I guess is the most recent.
Joe Patrice: They over very recent history but before that, it was a very long time. So, are we going to start seeing a different salary scale which we generally don’t have, we kind of have the firms hewing mostly to the old rule of 100 firms are exactly the same. All in one tranche and then a big dip and then people getting paid at lower tranches at smaller places, are we going to start seeing the creation of what would be kind of a trino wall(ph) curve.
Kathryn Rubino: Yeah. I mean, I think that we very well may and it should also be noted when we’re saying — we’re talking about even the largest most successful firms the ones that are doing just fine during this current economic slowdown that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have avoided layoffs or just in general because I think that a lot of firms even successful once have taken the opportunity — I use that word in quotation marks of COVID 19 to rejigger their business model. We’ve seen a lot of staff layoffs even at very successful firms, buyouts, layoffs, various ways of just reducing their administrative staff that because of working from home policies at several places I think that these plans have been in the works for a very long time and have used sort of the excuse of working from home to actually implement these plans and and these changes in their staffing but I think a lot of places are seeing that you know they don’t have — and this has been true for a while they’ve been slowly reducing their overall administrative staff because you don’t need every partner does not need their own secretary whatever and it’s only getting more pronounced.
Joe Patrice: Well. And we actually discussed this on a previous iteration of this. I think that the worst part is that these decisions had needed to be made for a while but they put them off in good times thinking “well, we can afford it, we’ll keep people on” and then when bad times happen that’s when they pull the trigger and unfortunately, that means that the people getting laid off are being laid off at a time when they can’t find another job as opposed to back when there was ample opportunity.
So, it kind of works at cross purposes but it’s unfortunate but you’re right and these are all changes that we’re going to see play out over the next year or more. Have you ever wondered about previous economic crises though?
Kathryn Rubino: Every day.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. How have law firms weathered previous economic downturns and come out stronger on the other side. LexisNexis interaction has released an in-depth global research report confronting the 2020 downturn lessons learned during previous economic crises. Download your free copy at interaction.com/likealawyer to see tips, strategies, plans and statistics from leaders who have been through this before and how they’ve reached success again.
Kathryn Rubino: Speaking of economic downturns.
Joe Patrice: Okay.
Kathryn Rubino: Well, no. It strikes me that we are in a global kind of downturn and what that tends to means historically is an increase in law school applications as folks are looking for safe harbor to spend three years to kind of wait out the economic turmoil.
Joe Patrice: Yeah.
Kathryn Rubino: Do you think that’s going to happen?
Joe Patrice: Well, you know, it’s interesting. We originally thought this wasn’t going to happen and you’re right there is this trend where people throw themselves in law school because hey it’s three years. Three years to put off having to deal with the job market. On the back end, you’ll have a professional degree that seems like a good idea to a lot of people. We thought that that wasn’t going to be a big issue this time around and we did on — one of our other special edition shows, we did some interviews with some folks that said that from what they were seeing at the time there were more applicants opting to just take the year off, defer, don’t do anything like we don’t know where –
Kathryn Rubino: Well, sure and that makes sense too why there were so many people interested in deferring law school because of working from home and remote schooling options, right? That spending the amount of money that a law school degree costs and having to do it in your bedroom does not sound great.
Joe Patrice: Right. So, there were people putting it off because they thought of that and we thought that was going to happen and the advice we were getting in those interviews were that you probably shouldn’t be doing that because if you choose you really want to go to law school, you should go for it because the entire profession being pushed off a year is only going to hurt somebody and there’s going to be fewer opportunities the year after so you should — if you really want to do it, you should keep going for it. Anyway, it seems as though people took that to heart because since that earlier in the summer interview, law school applications are surging.
Kathryn Rubino: Yeah.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. So, people are applying to more schools than they usually do. I think the average is about five schools, people are applying to north of six now. I don’t think we have precise numbers yet but everyone who’s processing these from ELSAC is saying that the –
Kathryn Rubino: Like four times –
Joe Patrice: I don’t know I fit’s that bad but there’s a lot. People are going to try to go to law school now. So, where do we– I mean, I feel somewhat responsible because I feel like we — in the summer, we’re telling people “hey, don’t be putting things off, you should do this to avoid getting yourself in a bind” but that wasn’t to suggest that you should go to law school that was to say if you are going to go to law school, do it now. We’re not particularly happy about the idea that anyone might have taken that advice to be go to law school.
Kathryn Rubino: I don’t know. I don’t think people have or I don’t think they listen to anything we said but would think that that was our position but I do think — it’s interesting. Now these are the application numbers we might still see as a result of even though there are increased applications, we still might see even more deferrals depending on what the remote learning opportunities are and so on and so forth even though there are more applicants if you get in, you can still — people still might be interested in deferring. So, that still might be an issue which kind of pushes the problem of admission a year into the future because if there’s a significant percentage of folks who are delaying for a year that decreases the number of opportunities or slots like literal places, classroom seats in next year’s cycle. So, that still could happen as far as I can tell. I do think it’s a terrible idea to go to law school because you don’t know what else to do and I think that seeing these kinds of surges very much makes me think that there are more than a few folks who are confused about what they want to do with the rest of their life it’s a confusing time and a law degree seems super stable, as you said, it’s a professional degree. I can spend three years; I will always be — you’ll always be a lawyer even if you’re not practicing anymore that’s still who you are.
Joe Patrice: I feel as though you’re turning this back around on me. Go ahead.
Kathryn Rubino: You should get used to that feeling but I would hesitate to tell people to go to law school because they don’t know what else to do. It’s a terrible reason to go to law school. It’s still an incredibly expensive degree. Ignore what we said in the beginning of the show about the large amounts of money that lawyers get because the majority of people who graduate from law school will not have access to the kind of bonus numbers that we’re talking about.
Joe Patrice: Right. Yes.
Kathryn Rubino: The majority of folks are not making over a hundred thousand dollars.
Joe Patrice: Certainly not as a bonus. Yeah. And that is key. If you’re going to go down this law school path, you don’t want to sound snobby but take real stock of whether or not you’re going to a school that’s going to provide you with access to a job on the back end. There’s a wealth of information over at law school transparency about different school’s ability to do that and you can see that there are –
Kathryn Rubino: And the Above the Law school rankings takes these kind of outputs into –
Joe Patrice: Yes. But we only do the top 50 but if you are going to some schools that may not be there, you can get a real sense from LST what’s going on but just be aware that not all law degrees are created equal and there are fewer law jobs that are at least paying than you’d think. We have a shortage of lawyers in certain sectors in this country but those sectors are not providing the money that will pay off your student debt. So, that’s an equation you have to be in a position to consider.
Kathryn Rubino: Yeah. And listen, there’s nothing wrong — you lose an application fee if you’re like I don’t know what I’d do, let me throw in a law school application and see what happens and you lose your fee but that’s it but before you actually decide to go to law school and take out hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of loans, you really need to ask yourself what you legitimately can get out of it and also whether or not that will make you happy. You and I both went to law schools and we both went to big law firms after. We had the sorts of jobs that are supposed to help you service your loans and do all that kind of stuff but it’s a lot of hours, it’s the work that you are doing may not always be the kind of work you think you’re going to do when you go to law school. I know on my other podcast the jabot(ph) that’s a question I always ask my guests like is this what you imagined you would do when you went to law school and listen like most people I’m interviewing are people who are doing great work for diversity efforts because that’s what that whole podcast is about. So, whatever. But the majority of the time it’s not what they they applied to law school when they dreamt about being a lawyer and your day-to-day life is very different and big law is a grind and it’s not for everyone and that doesn’t make you bad in some way. The happiest people I know are former big law lawyers.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. But that said like I very much entered the big law world with an eye on getting out of it. I entered with the idea that I would do that for a while develop skills and make connections and then move to something that was lower key but it would also afford me the money I needed to make a significant enough dent in my loans that I would be able to make that sort of decision. So, I feel like I did what I intended but that’s just it. I knew I was going to be in a situation where I could get said big law job and pay it down. The real problem are the folks who takeout 300 grand worth of loans and then go to a law school that means that they are very unlikely to get a job that gives them hundred thousand dollar bonuses at which point they’re now behind the eight ball as far as their loans go and kind of stuck that’s what you need to be kind of cognizant of when you go into it is, have a plan for how you’re going to get that money because even if you don’t want to be a big law lawyer forever, you might need to depending on how much money you’re spending. So, there’s that.
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So, there was a little story that just came up over the weekend kind of under the radar holiday weekend news dump situation. The justice department is trying to bring back firing squads.
Kathryn Rubino: So, that doesn’t sound great.
Joe Patrice: So, it certainly that that’s the opinion that most of the media seems to have. A lot of very breathless headlines talking about how there’s a firing squad push going on within the justice department. They also are trying to bring back the electric chair which for some reason didn’t get nearly the — and this is what I find interesting –
Kathryn Rubino: (00:20:33), right?
Joe Patrice: I mean, I think that’s what it is like there’s something optical about firing squads that really seems to get people riled up. It’s also true that this proposed rule is curtailing and like cutting in half the usual comment period. It’s really a rush job to try and get this on the books before January 20th which is weird because I heard that they aren’t actually going to lose apparently. They feel like they need to get this done. So, firing squads are back are going to be back and I don’t necessarily think this is the worst idea.
Kathryn Rubino: I mean, the death penalty is pretty bad generally.
Joe Patrice: Right. So, I’m going to cabin that off.
Kathryn Rubino: Okay.
Joe Patrice: Obviously, I’m not really a huge fan of –
Kathryn Rubino: Don’t say obviously. Plenty of people aren’t, that’s why I still have it.
Joe Patrice: I guess fair enough but it strikes me as though the idea like as weirdly visceral as you put it as the firing squad is as an event. Justice Sotomayor wrote an opinion a few years ago talking about firing squads versus lethal injections and noted in it that frankly firing squads by all the data we have are a more humane and less likely to be botched form of execution and what Justice Sotomayor was kind of getting at in this obviously this was a case where she’s not a legislator, she can’t get rid of death penalty but was arguing about to the extent that we play this game of cruel and unusual punishment why is it really that we have this reaction to firing squads being so bad as opposed to lethal injections which we now have tons of evidence to suggest are really horrifying and it is an interesting question obviously the jumping off point of this story for me was seeing as so many people especially in social media started reacting and going kind of frantic about how problematic it was that the administration was looking at firing squads and all I could think was well is this a sign of a the kind of erosion of trust that people have in this particular justice department that there’s ill motives suggested for anything they do or is it that people just really viscerally to have a problem with firing squads or whatever but it kind of led me to think maybe this is time where everybody should take a moment to have a serious talk with themselves about why is it that this thing that evidence suggests is if the death penalty in any way fits the definition of avoiding cruel and unusual punishment, this would be the way to do it. And yet, that’s the one that nobody feels comfortable with and that people are instead really pushing the one that we have ample evidence to suggest is really bad.
Kathryn Rubino: Well, I mean, I think there’s definitely an over medicalization of kind of our society in general and I think that — I’m not a doctor, I don’t pretend that I know a ton of stuff about this but it seems that even though we do have the evidence that lethal injections can be botched and are actually awful for the person experiencing it they are often quiet because of other drugs they’re given first so there’s a silence to it like a there’s a silence to it there’s also — this is a medical procedure versus a murder which you know guns are typically seen as you know a violent instrument whereas –
Joe Patrice: I mean, I see them as freedom.
Kathryn Rubino: Okay. It’s an instrument of violence versus an instrument of medicine which I think is actually probably psychologically much more damaging to use medicine to kill people.
Joe Patrice: Look, I’ll also say that I don’t think that there’s anything particularly redeeming about this effort because I don’t think that this is an effort to actually bring more –
Kathryn Rubino: This is not an effort to be humane.
Joe Patrice: This is not about humane. The fact that they’re also trying to bring back the electric chair is evidence of that. This was really more that as lethal injection drugs become more and more scarce as manufacturers don’t want to make them anymore because –
Kathryn Rubino: Because they’re in the business of making medicine.
Joe Patrice: Well, and bad PR that comes with the increasing evidence that these are not working.
Kathryn Rubino: Whereas the gun manufacturers already have that bad PR.
Joe Patrice: Right, but this was more an effort to just add more options to the bag of tricks that the federal government has. So, I don’t really think it’s getting at that point that Justice Sotomayor was making however I think that it’s a good opportunity for us to revisit kind of her words and not even her words but her marshaling of the evidence and to look into that and kind of consider why is it we society-wise that have this concern about that and I think your points about medicalization play into it. I think there’s an optical level to which the blindfold and cigarette with a bunch of bayonetted guns pointed at, you seems like that’s it just feels like a tin pot dictatorship in a way that you want America not to be.
Kathryn Rubino: I think that has a lot more to do with the observers of the execution than it does with the actual person being executed because of those visceral images of guns pointed at someone versus lying on a cot and getting an injection.
Joe Patrice: Well, and then the question is what is really the death penalty is it for dealing with the condemned or is it for the observer and at the point, that it becomes about the observer that probably should force you to grapple with some different questions which –
Kathryn Rubino: Which we won’t as a society.
Joe Patrice: Right. Society won’t but again, my point was it was one of those instances where a story came out over the weekend and the reaction to it just made me start thinking about how we often jump in ways that are not probably the most advisable way of responding to a story.
Kathryn Rubino: Fair.
Joe Patrice: I mean, obviously not Above the Law where we always jump in the right directions but what other media outlets, the inferior media outlets that you may run across in your day-to-day life. So, with that said –
Kathryn Rubino: That’s a super happy story to end.
Joe Patrice: Yeah, yeah. I thought so. It’s not like we had particularly great stories all around it’s like bonuses they’re kind of boring and you’re probably not going to get a job out of law school so firing squads was frankly –
Kathryn Rubino: It was a down way like we’re going downhill though. It went from not as exciting as it could be to literal murder so.
Joe Patrice: Okay. So, I made everybody feel better about their bonus, how about that?
Kathryn Rubino: Good job.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. Look, I’m trying here. So, with that said, thank you for all coming in and listening. This is a show that you should be subscribed to rather than just listening to it every week when it pops up on the website though we do appreciate that if you subscribe that helps our numbers a bit. It also allows you to an opportunity to review it not just give it stars but write something that all helps the algorithm, recognize that we’re out there. You should be reading Above the Law, you should be following us on social media. I’m @josephpatrice, she’s @kathrynI and you should listen to the jabot which she already referenced it because she cleverly made a plug mid shell for her other show.
Kathryn Rubino: It wasn’t a plug. It was an organic statement effect.
Joe Patrice: Okay, okay. Anyway. So, yes, you should listen to the jabot which her show talking about diversity and law and so on and I also do the legal tech week, legal tech roundup kind of — say that’s legal tech week’s the show name but it’s a roundup from legal tech journalists about what’s going on in legal tech. You should listen to the other legal talk network shows of which there are almost too many to count anymore and you should be checking out paper software’s contract tools and with all of that said, I think we’re done.
Kathryn Rubino: Peace.
Joe Patrice: Okay. That’s what it is. You were just holding up two and I thought what’s the two I’m supposed to say because you were doing it. Yeah, okay. Fair enough.