Big Law finally gets it. The days of hiking Cog salaries, weeklong retreats to mountain spas and lunchtime golf outings are over. Firms can no longer leapfrog down the path of highest-paid first-years. It is time to get serious, trim the budget and show clients we aren't wasting their ever-decreasing fees on lavish perks.
So, instead of paying first-year associates record-setting salaries even before they know how to practice law, Big Law has decided to pay them not to work.
Paying someone $5,000 a month not to come into the office -- now that's what I call budget-savvy.
Obviously, Big Firm economics are far too complex for my simple Cog brain. I vaguely understood the idea behind the crazy raises that were being thrown around back in the good ole days of 2007 -- something about demand for talent being high and the pool of available Cogs being too small to meet the needs of our insatiable appetites for top-tier, top-notch law grads. We needed to keep the machine churning out the billable hours.
And now that half of our clients can't afford our rates any more and the other half aren't doing the deals they once were, we must adjust, downsize and slow the money flow in the Cog pipeline. Makes sense to me that we need fewer Cogs -- especially new ones who are costing the firm big bucks.
But has Big Law really figured out the best way to do this? In other words, when are cutbacks not really cutbacks?
PHASE 1: DO-GOODERNESS
So I thought paying Cogs a reduced salary to work for a nonprofit for a year was a pretty clever idea, and an unusually creative one for Big Law. Get some good press, get your Cogs more experience than they would get at Big Law, "give back" to the community and keep some loyal Cogs in the pipeline for when the money starts raining in again.
But this plan also has risks. Maybe the Cogs will discover that they love saving America's lakes from pollution and don't want to switch sides to work for Big Law's toxic torts defense team -- as counsel to United Alleged Polluters of America.
And who says the nonprofits want these kids? I seem to recall that none of the national nonprofits wanted anything to do with recent law grads. Those law school grads looking to enter into the do-gooder world needed to first get a Big Law job and get all trained up, then they were ripe for fighting the good fight. But maybe I am making that up.
Finally, a year is a long time. That would-be Cog working for the Sierra Club may meet a sexy surgical resident during a weekend of clearing trails on the A.T. and decide at the end of the 12 months to follow him to his new gig at Seattle's Mercy Hospital -- in the one city where Big Law, ahem, just closed down its office because of the recession. Dang -- lost another one!
PHASE 2: DO-BETTERNESS
Regardless, in typical Big Law fashion, that plan was soon one-upped.
"Forget the Sierra Club -- let's just pay them to stay away from our office's prime real estate -- where the terms of our long-term lease insure that we'll still be paying $300 a square foot for the empty office the Cog would have occupied in better times. Who cares where the little lawyers go or if they work at all? We're still getting a heckuva deal by paying them only a third of the salary we would have shelled out if they actually come to work for us!"
The theory behind this one completely escapes me. I guess this plan may keep Cogs loyal and keep the firm looking benevolent and profitable? But does anyone seriously think it is a good idea to pay a Cog $5,000 a month to do nothing and then bring them on board after a year to work in the machine? Ha! Hahahahaha!
That is like giving your teenager a $100 a week allowance for a year to sit on the sofa and play "Guitar Hero" with no strings attached -- no work, no chores, no school -- and then suddenly cutting him off and telling him he has to work double-shifts and weekends at Burger King if he wants to get paid. "Oh," you say, "but you will get paid twice as much!" Right -- kids love that. And the night-shift manager is going to get an eager worker who smiles when flipping those flame-broiled burgers instead of going out with his friends to the high school football game. No doubt.
Take the money and enjoy it while you can!
But whatever -- if you are one of these recent law grads with an offer from Big Law to get paid not to work, I better not see you whining on some blog.
"Bummer, dude. I was all set to work at Mega Law getting paid $165,000 a year for knowing nothing, and now instead of billing hours and fighting for work, I have to take a huge pay cut and spend a year doing whatever I please. Boo hoo."
Just be glad you didn't accept an offer from one of the firms who is delaying your start date on a monthly basis and not paying you a dime. Worse yet, you could be a former fourth-year associate with a car lease, mortgage, new baby and no job.
In fact, you may want to just lie to people and tell them your offer was revoked to avoid getting hate mail.
Seriously, you kids getting paid not to work can take one of two routes. If you're a gunner who is truly disappointed that you have to delay your Big Law debut by 12 months, I can suggest several options that will get you ahead of the competition when it's time to get billing. And if you weren't sure about Big Law anyway and just wanted to pay off some loans until you figured out what to do with yourself, I have a few thoughts on the top 5 ways to spend your year of paid vacation. Check back on both of these next week.
In the meantime, if Big Law wants to step this game up one more level and pay current Cogs to stop working for a year -- I am a team player and willing to make that sacrifice. Sign me up!
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