- Industry experts say the associate market is the hottest it’s been since the 2008 recession.
- Kirkland, Davis Polk, and others are offering five- and six-figure signing bonuses to some lawyers.
- Top firms are moving fast to make offers to capital markets, M&A, and other corporate associates.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Big Law firms have been slammed in recent months, advising clients on
deals and corporate transactions, and many are scrambling to keep up with the workload.
US mergers and acquisitions hit $563 billion last quarter, according to Mergermarket. Special-purpose acquisition companies raised more in the first quarter of 2021 than they did in all of 2020, and it was the busiest quarter for operating-company initial public offerings since 2000.
The flow of deals shows no sign of stopping, and neither does the work for law firms, with some associates billing more than 300 or 400 hours a month. On top of extra bonuses for junior lawyers, top firms are rushing to hire associates, even offering signing bonuses to get more talent in the door.
Kirkland & Ellis, known for its deals prowess and busy restructuring practice, has made five- and six-figure bonus offers, sometimes conditioned upon a lawyer staying for a certain length of time, according to three people familiar with the offers.
Davis Polk, whose lawyers have faced a crush of SPAC deals and other capital-markets activity, recently offered signing bonuses at or above $20,000, according to two people familiar with the offers.
And Schulte Roth & Zabel, a firm that has major investment-fund clients, has also offered signing bonuses, a source said.
Some people who spoke to Insider did so on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing industry relationships or running afoul of their employers’ policies.
Representatives for Kirkland, Davis Polk, and Schulte Roth did not respond to requests for comment.
Not every associate working in a sought-after practice area is getting a bonus, and some young lawyers are switching firms for nonfinancial reasons. But Michelle Fivel, a recruiter at Major, Lindsey & Africa who works with associates, said the Big Law scramble for talent was “frenetic” and “unprecedented.”
“The last time the market was this busy was before the ’08
,” she said. “I don’t recall it being this frenzied even then.”
Law firms are moving faster than ever to make hiring offers
There are signs that nonstop deals are wearing junior attorneys out, and dozens of law firms have disclosed plans to pay extra bonuses to associates who can hang on through 2021. Some firms have offered spring, summer, and fall bonuses contingent on associates hitting a certain billable-hours threshold.
Anticipating some attrition, firms are also moving quickly to hire. One corporate lawyer said he scheduled multiple interviews with a firm but was given a job offer at the end of the first one. A fifth-year investment-funds lawyer who recently moved firms said he got five offers from a mix of white-shoe firms in two weeks.
Signing bonuses “happened very sparingly in the past,” Ru Bhatt, another recruiter with Major Lindsey & Africa who works frequently with Big Law associates, said. “For a long time after the recession, people were just excited to be employed.”
When firms did offer signing bonuses, they typically offered them to New York associates relocating to other parts of the US, according to Bhatt. But that’s changed in the past year.
Bhatt said most of the signing bonuses he’d seen were in the $20,000 to $25,000 range for…