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2015 Associate Bonus Season Bucks Tradition, Confuses Everyone

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on October 21, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

There's been a bit of a tradition for the firm Cravath Swaine & Moore to be the first on the BigLaw block to come out with associate bonuses, but this year the firm Sheppard Mullin decided to pull up ahead and break that trend ... or not?

On Friday, Shepard Mullin released their 2015 bonus "announcement" that mysteriously seemed to appear out of the blue. Above the Law gave Sheppard Mullin the benefit of the doubt and called error. Close but no cigar.

Bucking Traditions

Last Friday it appeared that Shepard Mullin had, without warning, rolled out its associate bonus plan and had beaten Cravath at its own game.

Then, the dust began to clear somewhat. Above the Law was right to trust its instinct and later reported that SM's announcement was, in essence, a mislabeled (perhaps even deliberate?) summary of associate bonuses for the 2013-14 measuring period. This despite the fact that the report was, again mislabeled "2015 Associate Bonus Structure." Hmmm.

Interesting Accounting

According to Sheppard Mullins, associate billing is measured from October 1 through September 30, which means that at the time of the report, no hours for 2015 were actually included. Additionally, the firm has adopted the policy of paying out bonuses in March of the following year instead of its traditional 12/31 of the same year. But this practice doesn't square with the September measurement date because it has the negative effect of holding associates' money in suspension for half a year.

The firm claimed the change was due to other firms not announcing their bonuses even by the end of the year -- a kind of, let the market price come out argument. Netizens don't seem to be persuaded. The suggestion is that Sheppard Mullins basically gets to hold that money interest free. Patrice all but uses the word 'shenanigans.' And again, there's that whole mislabeling thing.

So, if you work for Sheppard Mullins, work that you do today will not amount into a bonus you can take home until a year from now, instead of the usual few months.

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