Lawyers who suspect they're grossly underpaid can now have their very worst fears confirmed in real time, in cyberspace, in living color. Last Wednesday morning, a Web site called Infirmation.com flickered to life and posted associate salaries for hundreds of firms across the country.
The site, operated from a nondescript office building in Bethesda, is bound to generate a few dozen mini-insurrections. Although glimpses of the legal salary picture have appeared elsewhere -- Greedy DC, a discussion group on Yahoo! that is obsessed with local legal income, was featured in a recent Hearsay column -- Infirmation.com is the first to compile salary data from across the country and organize it into easy-to-read charts. The numbers are hideous to gaze upon. Even among local firms, it turns out, there are huge differences in pay, particularly at the senior associate level. The highest paying firm in town, Kirkland & Ellis, pays $233,000 to its seventh-year associates, according to the site. So how is that going to make plebes feel at Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas, apparently one of the stingiest firms in the city? According to the site, the seventh-years at Preston Gates earn a relatively paltry $118,000. Over the course of the race for partnership the difference in pay between these two firms amounts to nearly $600,000.
Anyone have a spare copy of "Das Kapital"?
Kirkland Managing Partner Thomas Yannucci didn't return a call. A Preston Gates spokesman said the figures are out of date. Top associate salaries are now $123,000, plus a maximum possible bonus of $30,000, plus generous pension benefits. Even with those rejiggered numbers, however, the firm lags most others. Does that bother Preston Gates's associates?
"I think our associates are happy to work here," said Jonathan Blank, managing partner.
(Cash for raises couldn't be that hard to find. The firm was co-founded by Bill Gates's father.)
Infirmation.com intends to generate more than just revolutionary fervor. The site, operated by six ex-associates and a support staff of two, is pitched as an all-purpose resource for young lawyers, particularly those who might be changing careers. Co-founder Tom Antisdel, who once worked in the D.C. office of White & Case, says Infirmation will act as a sort of online headhunting shop, posting job listings and pocketing a fee whenever it makes a match between a lawyer and an open job. Not surprisingly, the service is geared toward the disgruntled attorney, offering jobs in non-firm settings like investment banks and start-ups.
"We're in agreement that there's a void right now for attorneys who don't want to be in firms," Antisdel said.
Infirmation.com got underway courtesy of a wad of cash from Potomac Ventures, a local venture capital firm. (Antisdel won't reveal how much Potomac handed over, but says his company is now looking for another $1 million to $2 million in seed money.) The company also publishes the Insider's Guide to Law Firms, a candid and even-handed look at life in big firms nationwide, which is for sale on the site.
But it's the salary charts that will turn Infirmation.com into a bookmarked fixture on associate computers across the country. The numbers, says Antisdel, come from "official and unofficial" publications, as well as a network of friends and sources. It will be updated daily.
As for the potential impact on the industry, Antisdel has a bold prediction: "It could start major bidding wars, it could influence employment trends in terms of which firms are getting the best attorneys, and it could influence attrition rates."
A Bankable Feast
Maybe a few dozen lobbyists will need to find new paychecks now that Congress has passed landmark banking legislation, but this is a sterling moment to be a Washington banking lawyer. Last month, when Congress overhauled the Glass-Steagall Act -- the 66-year-old law that established walls between the banking and insurance industries -- it also added heaps of confusion and complexity to the lives of bankers. The revised rules allow banks to buy insurers, but only after navigating a thicket of regulations. Guess who's got the road map?
"You have almost a 400-page statute, and like any statute, there are ambiguities and lots of questions. Like, `how do you become a financial holding company?'" said Stuart Stock, a partner at Covington & Burling. "There's a feast of new issues here."
Billions and Billions
To many, $1.1 billion would seem like a lot of money. But to lawyers at Dickstein, Shapiro, Morin & Oshinsky it sounds like chump change.
Dickstein lawyers are attacking as paltry the sum that vitamin makers agreed to pay some 1,000 corporate customers who sued after alleging a vast price-fixing conspiracy. The settlement came a few months after the Justice Department accused the vitamin makers, which include BASF, Swiss drug maker Roche Holding Ltd. and Rhone-Poulenc of France, of orchestrating a nine-year conspiracy to fix the prices of such popular vitamins as C, A and E. The cartel allegedly jacked up prices for hundreds of supermarket and animal feed products.
In September, a group of plaintiffs' lawyers led by Washington's Boies & Schiller extracted just over $1 billion from the vitamin makers, which at the time seemed like a big number. It was certainly the largest antitrust settlement that anyone could remember. But Dickstein lawyers aren't impressed. They represent a rump group of about 100 plaintiffs, including Tyson Foods, and they think their clients can do far better if they opt out of the settlement and sue on their own.
Just one problem: Boies & Schiller won a "most favored nation" clause as part of the settlement, which effectively forces vitamin makers to match any deal they offer to a company that opts out of settlement and sues on its own. (If, say, Tyson won an agreement to get back 30 cents on every dollar it spent on vitamins, the defendants would have to pay every member of the class 30 cents on the dollar too.) It's a terrific concept for the class lawyers, because it dissuades companies from leaving the group. But Barry Levine says the MFN is unfair, particularly to his clients.
Boies & Schiller won 18 cents for every dollar spent on vitamins; Levine thinks he can wangle several times more. Recently, he and his partner, Kenneth Adams, filed with Judge Thomas F. Hogan of U.S. District Court to attack the MFN.
"We think we'll do far better," Levine said. "No aspersions on David Boies, who is an excellent lawyer, but we think the damages are greater than that. If the defendants won't agree to give us more, we're going to beat them in trial."
Cyberspat of the Week
From Greedy DC, an online chat group for Washington associates:
ToiletFloat: "Have any of you thought to get down on your knees and thank whatever deity you think exists that you are all able to pay rent for decent housing AND make your student loan payments? It was this type of baldface whining and utter disregard for how lucky you all have it that made me despise law school in general. As a Government attorney, its extremely difficult to pay rent, eat, and pay Ms. Sallie Mae. As I am certain you will point out, at least as a Government attorney, my time is my own. However, what good is that time without money to do anything?
"It is patently obvious to me why older generations look down on us, and why the legal profession is looked on upon with such a degree of disdain in the public. Keep whining about your 6 figure salaries, I'm sure you'll find as much sympathy out there as JonBenet Ramsey's parents do."
"Your type of whining is just as annoying as the type of whining that generally comes out of this group (see my previous post regarding unions). The difference is, you're whining out of jealousy, instead of greed, and that is pathetic. Now go away."
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