My first question was where do I apply. After all, I could really use a year abroad. Really. Going café to cabaret sounds like a dream come true. So when I read in the New York Times about the Skadden Arps offer to associates to take a year off for a third of their salary, I felt envy of Biglaw associates for the first time ever.
Only in a financial world turned upside down would an arrangement like this one make sense. Looking to cut costs like everyone else, but not prepared to lay off associates, Skadden has chosen instead to offer all of its associates — about 1,300 worldwide — the option of accepting a third of their base pay to not show up for work for a year. (So far, the partners have no equivalent arrangement.)
In the case of the lawyer profiled in the article, a 6th year associate, the pay for her year off would be $80,000. Naturally, she will have to leave New York City to survive, as no one can make it here on such a pittance. Seriously, that’s pin money for those of you in Kansas who won’t understand the prior sentence.
But once I got past my whimsical dream of a never-ending carafe in Aix-en-Provence, a realization hit home. It’s financially better for Skadden to pay $80 grand to be rid of its associates for a year than to have them working. After all, with layoffs aplenty around Biglaw, it’s not like Skadden couldn’t tell its youngins’ that they can work for a third of their salary for a year, or until the revenues justified otherwise, or take a hike. Given the options, particularly that a third of a Biglaw associate’s salary is still more than they would earn doing pretty much anything else they’re qualified to do, they’ve got them by the ‘nads. Since when is Biglaw afraid to squeeze?
What this offer reveals is an astounding lack of value associates bring to the practice of law. The myth is busted. They are worth more to Biglaw out of the office than they are there.
The real joke isn’t on Biglaw, but its clients. You remember them, the folks who pay the freight for the two partners and six associates assigned to every matter, bearing in mind that the first perk of partnership is never having to carry a bag again. Not that there isn’t real heavy lifting to do.
Assuming that Skadden’s program doesn’t take into account the profit motive that some larger law firms consider when making decisions such as this, we are now informed that at least a third of the cost of an associate is utterly, needlessly and totally wasted. My bet is that it costs firms at least that much to keep them in redwelds with gold-leaf monograms and Starbucks. It’s a cost saver to toss a third of their salary down the toilet rather than have them show up. What a smack in the face.
Still, if it will get me to the continent and keep me in lattes for a year, I could learn to suffer. And to all my buddies at Skadden, there’s little that will bruise my ego anymore, so I can take the insult with no hard feelings. Plus, I assure you that I will never want to return to the grind for my shot at your corner office. It’s a win-win. Think about it.