Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Document Review for the Chief Justice

Justice Kennedy testified before the Senate today that federal judicial salaries are too low and are hurting judicial morale and independence. This is an old issue, and Kennedy didn’t say anything that he and others haven’t said many times before. But with law firm salaries on the rise again, I began to wonder: Is it possible that first-year associates might soon make more than Supreme Court justices? And sure enough, the answer is yes.

Simpson Thatcher recently raised starting salaries to $160,000, and the expectation is that other major firms will match, if not beat, that number. A typical bonus is about $25,000, but with a little effort and luck a first-year associate could receive $50,000 to $60,000. Add it up, and that 25-year-old who still doesn’t understand the hearsay rule is making $210,000 to $220,000. The salary of Supreme Court justices? $203,000. And the Chief’s salary? $212,000. Can you say document review, John Roberts?

12 comments:

Kenji said...

According to this blog, all major law firms have already matched.

http://www.abovethelaw.com/2007/02/skaddenfreude_tuesday_list_of.php

Jamison Colburn said...

The ABA Journal online has a nice piece on what day that week the competitors matched. It's quite a testament to how unrelated to skill law firm (starting?) salaries have become and how "stupid" as far as far as recruiting goes major law firms have become. The only tool they now use to attract top talent is salary, notwithstanding good research suggesting people would be attracted to firms that operated differently (being more family friendly, etc.) even if it meant a significant pay cut. Talk about unimaginative institutions.

Adam P. said...

I'm a little bit disappointed in Justice Kennedy. One of his explicit points was that Judges (Levi of CDCal, and assumedly McConnell), were leaving the federal judiciary because they weren't getting paid enough. First off, that's not necessarily the cause.
Second, I really don't buy into this whole $165k isnt enough for what is a prestigious, public service job. If a judge is motivated by money, maybe I don't want him on the bench. I remember someone pointed out that McConnell has kids going to college... Well, neither of my parents made $165k when my sister and I were in college, and no one felt pity for them.
I think that there's a bias among elite law types sometimes that there's a right to make these exorbitant sums of money. If we lose 2 federal judges a year over salary, then maybe we're screening out those who shouldn't be there in the first place.
Full disclosure: I'm not making any close to the $160k of major law firms, and likely never well.

Craig J. Albert said...

Apropos of this, the same argument gets made from time to time when law schools make their pitches to university presidents that the law faculty needs to be paid more than they're getting now, and also need to be paid more than other faculty members are paid. The dirty secret, of course, is that I never met a law professor who was in it for the money, and the ones who were in private practice before going off to teach had basically said that the money wasn't worth it. (I also know a few -- none on this blog -- who would be affirmatively incapable of practicing law under any circumstances, and therefore aren't in the market for first-year document review salaries.)

So I'd venture to guess that you could cut law faculty salaries back to the level of tenure-track comparative literature salaries, and not see much of an impact on faculty retention.

Craig J. Albert said...

By the way (and this is a point that I've stolen from Adrienne Koch), there's a pretty big difference between how you live as a judge when you're paid $165K in Manhattan (New York) and how you live as a judge when you're paid $165K in Manhattan, Kansas. Here in New York, our federal judges for the most part (not exclusively) were partners at big law firms for a long time, who earned enough money in their first careers so that they didn't need to rely on their judicial salaries as a primary source of income. That's gotten us a pretty good group of judges here in the Southern District of New York. Occasionally, you'll see one leave the bench, but it's rare that it happens for money. (For example, the previous chief judge, Michael Mukasey, left after he would have been eligible for senior status, going back to his old firm, Patterson Belknap.) I like the idea that we don't get many district judge appointees who are in their thirties, because I don't think that they're seasoned enough as lawyers. The money is a good way of weeding them out.

That being said, it means that the judges we get in New York tend to be pretty affluent, if not indpendently wealthy, and that's going to be a very different profile from your average judge in a low cost-of-living jurisdiction.

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