It's the end of the year and you've put in some grueling hours. Normally, you'd expect there will be a little something extra for your efforts, but this year has been anything but normal for most people.
For a lot of firms, decisions about year-end bonuses will be made in the next few weeks. Some are ready to be as generous as possible while others have no plans to give anything extra. Being employed in this economy seems to be bonus enough in their minds.
From a big firm perspective, decisions often are made in one fell swoop. Bonuses historically have been linked to associate classes; each level of associate is guaranteed a baseline bonus that can increase based on productivity.
That's likely not going to be the case this year.
"Bonuses will be few and far between," said Peter Giuliani, a Weston, Conn.-based law firm economic advisor who works with 100-lawyer-plus law firms throughout the Northeast. "There will be some money for the associates who performed extraordinarily well, but nothing near what they've gotten in past years. It's going to be a lean year for some associates."
Smaller law firms have different dynamics to consider. With just a handful of employees, it's hard to keep individual bonus totals a secret. That can leave a subset of employees who might be miffed and thus, distracted, if they feel short-changed.
"Personally, my perspective on bonuses is if the firm does well, then the staff does well," said Andrew Crumbie, head of the Crumbie Law Group in Hartford, Conn., who'll be paying bonuses across the board to his nine-person office.
"At the end of the day, my staff's happiness and contentment are paramount. I don't ever want something like salary or a bonus to be a huge factor in the equation when people consider leaving here for other opportunities."
Connecticut's four largest firms are playing it close to the vest about their bonus plans in a year in which all have laid off lawyers and staff.
Day Pitney, with 380 attorneys, has been most out front about compensation. Staffers are receiving nothing extra this year, and attorney bonuses "will be limited," said co-managing partner James Sicilian, though final decisions had not been made last week.
Robert W. Benjamin, managing partner of 135-lawyer Wiggin and Dana, said bonuses are under review but didn't offer a ringing endorsement for gravy this holiday season. "We are reviewing our alternatives in light of all that has happened in this unprecedented year," Benjamin said in a prepared statement.
In Connecticut's largest firms, baseline associate bonuses have ranged from $5,000 to $25,000 in past years. Compare those numbers to mega-firms in New York, such as Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, that paid out base associate bonuses ranging from $35,000 to $60,000 last year. This year, that range will shrink to $7,500 and $30,000.
Connecticut attorneys have even more modest hopes.
For now, lawyers in most firms "think they're getting a bonus, they just don't know how much it's going to be," said Sina Amarell, president and director of legal placements for TR Grace in Simsbury, Conn. Amarell, who works with firms of various sizes in the state, added: "I haven't heard one person say [the bonus] has been pulled off the table."
D. Robert Morris, head of 80-lawyer, Bridgeport-based Pullman & Comley, said his firm takes care of support staff first with across-the-board bonuses in December before evaluating where associates stand. "We knew this year might represent more challenges to getting billable hours for productivity," Morris said. The firm met with associates in March and told them if they thought they would fall short of billable goals, they could arrange to count activities such as article-writing and law-related public speaking engagements toward the personal evaluation.
When it comes to bonuses, "all people can expect is to be treated fairly and consistently," Morris said. Pullman & Comley's partners will be evaluated for bonuses in the first quarter of 2010.
John A. Collins III of Suisman Shapiro, a 21-lawyer New London, Conn., firm, said his firm pays out bonuses to some employees, but not all. That approach requires an analysis of everyone's contributions, including employees whose performances are not tied to the billable hour. "If someone doesn't get a bonus or gets a smaller bonus than someone else, we hope it inspires them to do something differently the following year," Collins said.
Usually, bonuses are not a concern for a firm's highest-ranking partners, said Martha Glantz, a compensation analyst in Armonk, N.Y., who keeps an eye on firms in Connecticut and New York. "The folks I know who are partners don't seem to be hurting," she said.
That's the type of thing that has always rubbed Hartford attorney Tony Jorgensen the wrong way when he heard about partners pocketing all the profits, even in small firms.
"You'd hear about a boss rolling up in his Mercedes Benz talking about how times are tough," Jorgensen said. "I decided when I opened my shop that I wasn't going to do that.
"I always saw a holiday bonus as a matter of right. You've put in all of this time and showed up every day. Your employees have been with you through thick or thin."
Jorgensen said he doesn't always wait until the end of the year to pay out bonuses to his team. A good month can result in an extra $500 or $1,000.
But times have been tougher this year in a practice centered on real estate, business and commercial litigation. Jorgensen's firm has lost two attorneys since this summer and now it's a three-lawyer shop with three paralegals. Year-end bonuses may not be enormous, but there will be something, even if it comes out of Jorgensen's own pocket. "In a small firm, you're a tight-knit family," he noted. "Yeah, the economy has hurt us, but I want to take care of my employees."
MEASURE OF RESPECT
Smaller firms often have different considerations when it comes to the bonus, said Bill Jawitz, an Orange, Conn.-based consultant who works with firms of fewer than 40 lawyers.
He fields questions about whether to set a precedent by establishing a bonus, how to figure who receives a bonus and how to figure who deserves what amount.
Will high achievers be upset if everyone receives the same payout? Do you risk alienating lower achievers by offering them nothing at a time when there's not much bonus money to go around? "Some people are wrestling with this because of the economy," Jawitz said.
Crumbie, who operates his small firm in Hartford, didn't hesitate to implement a bonus when he started his practice two years ago. He had spent 20 years working in government where there was no bonus structure, and it didn't matter how hard he worked.
"I absolutely wanted to set a precedent by giving out bonuses," Crumbie said. "An attorney at a firm will always get a salary. A bonus is used as the measure of what the employer thinks of the job you're doing."
And as lawyers are wont to do, Crumbie noted, they will compare their compensation packages with peers at similar law firms. So to remain competitive, Crumbie believes in bonuses for all, and larger bonuses for those who earn it.
"We set goals at the beginning of the year," Crumbie said, "and as long as those goals are met, I feel it's my responsibility to hold up my end of the bargain with a bonus."