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Fieldfisher boss: ‘My heart drops when I see NQ lawyers in US firms earning more than some of our partners’

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Six-figure pay packets ‘unsustainable’, agrees Pinsents senior partner

A pair of top City law firm partners have gone public with their concerns over the eye-watering sums of cash being earned by some junior lawyers.

Michael Chissick, managing partner of Fieldfisher, described to the FT (£) how his “heart drops when I see newly qualified lawyers in US firms earning more than some of our partners”.

Legal Cheek‘s Firms Most List shows how US outfits lead the way in the City salary stakes, with firms including Vinson & Elkins, Akin Gump, Kirkland & Ellis and Latham & Watkins, all dishing out £145,000 plus.

“They don’t need to pay that”, Chissick continued, “It’s not a market rate. They are creating a new market.”

Richard Foley, senior partner at Pinsent Masons, seems to agree. “The levels of pay in major private practice law firms are completely unsustainable,” he reportedly told the Innovative Lawyers Summit on Thursday.

The 2021 Legal Cheek Firms Most List

Foley continued:

“You see stuff in the press about £125k as a starting salary for an NQ… If I was on the other side of the table, I would be thinking how much more value am I going to get from that person?”

While those starting lawyer life at Fieldfisher and Pinsents earn considerably less than their US counterparts — NQ pay packets currently sit at £67,500 and £72,500, respectively — it’s widely acknowledged that those plugging away at US law firms will be expected to work longer hours, and therefore, earn more. Our Firms Most List shows one US outfit has an average leave the office time of 21:46pm.

The pair’s comments come just weeks after US law firm White & Case upped NQ salaries in London by a whopping 24% to £130,000. This comes at a time when many UK outfits, including several members of the magic circle, were cutting rookie pay in response to the pandemic.

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62 Comments

Silver circle minion

My heart drops when I realise at 4PQE I earn less than an NQ at increasingly large numbers of firms and will probably be on a pay freeze this year or get a crappy increment of £4000 whilst getting told by someone on about 15 times my salary that I need to bill more hours again “to show I’m serious”.

(163)(0)

Magic circle minion

I feel the same way too mate

(0)(0)

Heh

Of course you would complain! Paying trainees and NQs higher rates would mean less profits for you. You want to them to grind 24/7 for as little as you can get away with. Absolute fatcats.

If you want top talent but refuse to pay US rates, how about actually creating a work/life balance?

(178)(2)

Anonymous

NQs do have a work life balance that’s why they pay less!

(1)(42)

Truth

The actual news: US law firms generously remunerate trainees.

UK partners: OMG I AM TOO STINGY TO OFFER MORE MONEY AND NEED TO MILK MY TRAINEES! HOW DARE US FIRMS CREATE “NEW MARKET RATE”! REEEEEEE!

(184)(2)

Curious Georgey

Some of your partners in regional offices. REGIONAL OFFICEs – something the partner forgot to mention, because their london partners earn more than 120K per year, excluding the higher bonuses as well.

(31)(0)

Correction.

There will be a lot of London partners on less than the £145,000 mentioned in the article. Partners are many mid-market City firms would pay their partners less than that in years 1-3.

(2)(1)

L

Posting this year, posted it also in the other salary conversation. I am correct. The US market isn’t remotely like the UK market. This is not a matter of ‘is it fair’ but it just is the reality.

The US firms that peg their salary on the dollar is so removed from the UK and even really strong London market.

Students, please don’t think you’ll go into law earning £200k after 5 years. You almost certainly won’t. Be realistic and also don’t forget that salaries are still really high in comparison to other industries.

At regular, but solid, City firms partnership starts at around £160k-£180k. Think WFW, SH, BCLP and some US practices with a small London presence. Shipping firms Ince, HFW, Clyde % Co, around £140k.

Not sure the likes of Macfarlanes and Travers Smith, probably around £180k though.

I used to work directly in this- partner laterals between firms. Salaries may have moved a little, but not by a lot. Remember, these are day 1 salaries, the fixed base for partners, it obviously goes up the larger your following.

(33)(33)

L

Why all the hate? Facts don’t care about your feelings. The US market is far more competitive and do far higher value work which trickles down to the NQs huge salaries.
It’s just facts.

Should Fieldfisher and Pinsent Masons pay more? Sure, but they don’t do the high value work which demands huge fees. This high value work doesn’t actually mean it’s more complex, it’s just the stakes are higher, clients are more demanding, everyone is expected to work harder and they are rewarded with more money.

If you want the real big bucks go straight to PE or a bank. A firm may get £10 million in fees but a bank may get £100 million for the same deal. It’s just business. Trickle the money down to lower value work and it’s the same ratio again, but less money.

(30)(3)

Old Guy

Many people don’t understand that partnership is not the end point, it is the beginning. People still get the chop even as partners if they don’t perform. So yes Fieldfisher and Pinsents may pay 35 year old junior partners only £150k in London, but the point is said partner has 20 years to get to that sweet sweet equity and potential £1 million a year, before they are sent out to pasture.

And you are right about the nature of work too. Almost everyone at K&E is pulling in the same direction. Their employment lawyers and IP lawyers are there to service the funds that give most of the lucrative work that pays the enormous salaries. Pinsents is national and full service with clients that may well be sophisticated but deal with lower value work.

Also it is too simplistic to say the best associates all go to the US firms. Most of the smartest lawyers I know go into areas like competition law and international arbitration. Many leave to go and work for the government. Good lawyers want challenging work in a challenging but supportive environment. The pursuit of cash as the number one priority is only common with boilerplate deal monkeys who have a 2.1 in History from Bristol after Charterhouse, and want to think they are the greatest in the world.

(76)(1)

T

Great comment

(8)(0)

Old Guy

Cheers. You just notice from talking to friends, peers and looking online that there are some genius level people who would prefer to earn £80k a year working at a PIL boutique rather than at Kirkland because they have zero interest in any finance type role. In addition, there are some high IQ and high EQ all rounders who prefer a career in energy/construction and are happy at Pinsents, Herbert Smith, Norton Rose or DAC. Some of the latter may go to Baker Botts or White and Case, but often when you speak to those people salary isn’t the driving factor, and it isn’t quite an exodus as with finance roles. Same is true for Commercial/IP/Life Sciences; Bristows doesn’t struggle to pick up top talent, and neither does Bird & Bird or any of the boutiques. Same for media jobs too.

Legally Brunette

Completely agree with your comment Old Guy. The best thing I ever did for my career progression (Planning Solicitor) was to leave private practice and go to the Local Authority. Varied and challenging work at the Local Authority from day one, whereas in private practice you are limited by the type of cases that come in, and more to the point, whether a partner or managing associate wants to pass over the more interesting work.

(18)(1)

L

Yes. People really don’t have any idea how any of this works. Partnership is not the be all and end all. Most won’t make it to partnership and importantly, most don’t want partnership and they leave. Choosing to have work/life balance and working in a respected but less demanding firm is really attractive, as another poster said, Bird & Bird don’t hugely struggle to get people to join- though from my experience, they do *a little*, their salaries are below market for a number of their practice areas, but it’s a really nice firm to work at. People like their colleagues!

Money isn’t everything. Salary wars only tell you 10% of the true picture. If you’re making £140k as an NQ you’re working pretty much 24/7 and have to be available on holiday, alongside sometimes cancelling them. It’s really tough. It’s not crazy to say you don’t want that life.

Aside from the money, it’s a horrible life. You put on weight, become lethargic and your social skills drop because you’re not interacting with people properly. The money is great but the attrition rate is enormous. K&E has people coming in and out all the time, no one stays.

If you’re serious about a career in law, do a practice area you really want. You’ll still be financially comfortable whichever one you choose.

(19)(1)

The Observer

If you think the attrition rate in K&S is poor, have a look at the attrition rate of Corporate associates in Pinsent’s London office. It’s no wonder their Senior Partner is moaning about the big league US salaries (that have swayed a large proportion of their associates over the last 3 years). Don’t expect your talent to stick around if you’re beasting them for a disproportionally low salary when they can get beasted elsewhere for the better part of double their current salary. My message to the two senior partners moaning in this article – move with the market and look after your associates or drown with your (and your selfish equity partners’) sorrows.

clueless

Sorry, new here – what’s a PE?

(3)(7)

MP

Private Equity

(1)(0)

US 1PQE

Unsure what to think of this comment. It is incredibly pessimistic. To the extent that a student is capable of attaining a TC at some of the firms you mention, they will almost certainly be capable of getting a place at a US firm (whether in TC or as a lateral hire post-qualification).

There are enough US firms out there to mean there are actually a decent amount of places per year. W&C pay around £130k NQ and give out 50 places per year ffs.

(0)(0)

Thoughts of a bored 4th seater

1) These partners are just upset that the pay increase for juniors means their remuneration may take a bit of a hit – boo hoo
2) Untested kids at Man Utd earn more than long serving professionals at some Championship clubs. Doesn’t mean the kid is any better than the championship player, its just the value one business (or a group of businesses) have chosen to apply to that kid. Same thought process applies to law and any other competitive industry really. The firms complaining will either need to compete for the talent on a salary basis or accept that they must recruit from a lower tier of candidate. (not that there is anything wrong with working at Fieldfisher or Pinsents, just the best candidates will generally go to the higher paying firms and then the mid tier firms get the pick of the rest).

(53)(3)

City pen pusher

Not necessarily the best candidates but the most ambitious and money driven will go to the higher paying firms. There are a lot of lawyers that are like teachers, extremely intelligent but not all that ambitious.

(50)(7)

Tony Rocky Horror

Had to chuckle.

“not that ambitious” = LAZY.

(3)(24)

FlourPour

The value to the US firms is not having to spend all that cash on recruitment and training. Instead of having juniors train and qualify into the firm they just take their pick of the best NQs.

It’s like that lizard that lays its eggs in a bird’s nest so the bird will nurture the eggs as its own then the baby lizard eats the mother and the babies.

(58)(5)

LOL

I love this metaphor so much

(8)(3)

Anon

This complaint is pretty weak.

It is a question of finance. The revenue and profits per lawyer of US firms vastly outstrips that of UK firms. Therefore they can afford higher salaries.

So it is sustainable to the extent that they make higher profits to pay out of – they are not damaging their finances by offering these higher salaries. If that falls, then so will salaries (assuming headcount is already as low as possible).

But that applies to English firms as well. And the evidence I have seen suggests it is the profits of English firms (excluding the Magic Circle) which are being hit the most, not US firms.

(19)(1)

Johnny Rotten

Remarkable lack of understanding of basic economics. Unsustainable for whom? Presumably not the firms paying these salaries, who are operating according to basic supply/demand. Are these people suggesting a cartel to hold down salaries?

Let us not forget that magic circle pay for NQs since the early 2000s has until recently barely kept pace with inflation. Those moaning should reflect on the fact growth in partner drawings has very much outstripped junior salary growth.

(69)(2)

Future Legal Influencer at LinkedIn

For many reasons, I really disagree with these statements. Not that I believe for a second that either Pinsents or Fieldfisher are ‘shet firms’ with no clients that are only good for trusts work in Clitheroe. The fact is that they are exist in different markets to the ‘elite’ firms, most of whom will have a much higher RPL and revenue.

Firms are free to set any NQ rate they feel will help them attract talent / fodder (delete as applicable). I don’t think anyone in their right mind would ever compare Fieldfisher to White & Case in terms of the types of work that they do, or in terms of what is expected of their NQs, so why should we compare the salaries? It really comes across poorly in my opinion, whatever that may be worth.

Interesting that both Chissick and Foley have commented on the salaries at these ‘top’ firms, but stayed clear of acknowledging that the conditions that those NQs put in to get those salaries. Perhaps they are worried that people will realise they don’t treat their NQs any better, but when all is said and done, still pay them the better part of 100k less a year.

To me this comes across petty and cheap attempts at point-scoring, combined with a splash of anger for the sake of it. I’m not quite sure who will cry for the poor little men who refuse to let some of their +600k a year PEP go to help their own partners.

(55)(1)

Shut up

Losers at crap firms like these need to shut up

(30)(10)

Anon

Crusty betas detected. These partners coin it on the regular and are (a) not happy about their drawings potentially taking a hit and (b) trying to point score “use us, we’re better value”.

(18)(2)

Sailor Man

“Coin it on the regular”? Have you just wandered out of a Fleischer Brothers cartoon c.1940?

(11)(1)

Randy Cocks

Once you start hearing your firm telling clients it represents “better value”, you know it’s time to jump ship. Proper law firms would never stoop down to become an Aldi or Lidl.

(9)(3)

SC

The US firms do a disproportionate amount of Finance/PE work. The margins on this are completely ridiculous, and dwarf even M&A profits. PM and Fieldfisher will do a lot of project and mid market work which is fine but obviously they won’t be able to compete with firms doing $10bn PE deals. The salaries aren’t inflated but reflective; they reflect the fact you will be working away your youth and being incredibly stressed, get real

(38)(2)

Rav

The part about working away your youth is certainly true of the US firms. But I don’t get the impression that it is significantly easier at the UK firms. They still impose heavy billing targets, long hours and presenteeism in the same way.

Someone further up the thread suggested that the top paying firms will compete for talent on pay, which is clearly right. However, there may be an opportunity for the lower paying firms to compete on quality of life.

(28)(0)

Sc

I think that could be possible pre-COVID but efficiency is going to be the watchword mid market firms live by for the foreseeable. Lots of firms have developed business models dependant on racing growth that cannot withstand significant market downturns and I suspect those bearing the brunt of it will be juniors and their work life balance.

(1)(0)

True facts

What a ridiculous article and ridiculous statement. Partners at US law firms probably get paid x5 times as much as Pinsent and Fieldfisher partners and that trickles downwards. US law firms are just far more profitable and have leaner teams (hence a higher workload for associates). These salaries are perfectly sustainable and have been at a high level for over a decade. Associates at US law firms will bill around 2k hours per year, be on call 24/7 around the clock and be expected to respond to clients within 24hours. Rightly or wrongly the trade off for this is lots of money. I doubt any associates at Pinsents or Fieldfisher are regularly billing 2k hours per year or responding to clients consistently over night and weekends.

Not everyone going into law will get the big bucks, but, if thats what you do want it’s perfectly possible and a legitimate aim. Not everyone goes into law to enjoy the black letter law and work at a medium size city firm – some people want 300k a year and the adrenaline of doing all nighters.

(51)(0)

Tony Rocky Horror

Hilarious. Has made my week.

These fat cats are simply annoyed that market rate for the best is higher than they want to pay. Cream rises to the top. Perish the thought that they might have to pay the market rate out of their own (hugely deep) pockets.

If you’re not prepared to compete with the salaries you offer, then you’ll have to make do with second rate people for your second rate firms.

I say again, hilarious.

(22)(2)

US Junior

Law firms and lawyers shout about “commercial awareness” and “law firms as a business” and come out with terribly sighted statements like this!

US law firms focus on finance heavy deals and sectors, working with power house banks and companies with a streamlined team. This therefore equates to justified high legal fees because there is money to be spent on high returning deals.

Compared to City UK firms who do a wide range of low value deals spread across large teams for mid-market companies. On top of practice areas of negligence and employment which doesnt bring in the same monetary value of PE, LevFi, CapMarket or white collar litigation.

So of course US firms are able to pay their junior lawyers large packages when they literally work for it and have the best talent to choose from. A really poor take

(37)(0)

Anon

If the US firms were paying higher NQ salaries as a proportion of their PEP, I’d agree they were creating in effect a “new rate” (i.e. by running a model of lower profit margins than previous market standard for law firms).

They’re not though, they run the same basic model, just they make more money from it. If UK firms can’t match that, tough, that’s exactly how markets work.

(25)(0)

Tony Rocky Horror

And another thing – these jokers are actually feeling hard done by on their 600k a year. Poor lambs it must be dreadful for them.

Perhaps if they could cut it in the US firms they so quite clearly envy they could join one. Or perhaps they’ve tried and failed………..

Boo. Hoo.

(14)(0)

US Associate

Here’s a £100 note to dry your salty tears.

(30)(1)

Latham NQ

I’m smelling jealousy here

(13)(0)

Latham associate

I am presuming target hours at these firms is around 1400? Target hours at Latham – 1900 with most doing around 2100. Simple maths. Add to that leaner teams, less holidays, etc.

(28)(1)

Robert Simmons

You are mistaken. I have a mate at Simmons and her target hours are in excess of 1700, with a massive emphasis on non billable guff as well. The salaries certainly aren’t six figure pre 4pqe.

(7)(0)

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