So I showed up to the headhunter obtained interview. They made a big deal about the firm having a maritime background, which is why I was going to be a perfect fit. The office was decently high up a mid-to-high skyscraper. It occupied half of the whole floor, so I figured it must be decently solvent. The firm itself had few offices in a couple states so it wasn’t small either.
Upon getting to the firm, I noted that the lobby was nicely furnished and I chatted up the receptionist for a few minutes. She had been there for years, so I felt there might actually be decent retention. I was ushered into a conference room with a long wooden table. The table had some big slabs of glass over it to protect it, but under the glass was so much dust and dirt, I actually didn’t really want to rest my arms on the top of the glass. I should elaborate slightly, the top of the glass was clean, but between the glass and the wood, was a layer of dust so thick it looked like someone had spread ash all over the table and then put glass on top of it. Odd, definitely, but not a dealbreaker.
I met with Frank, one of the senior attorneys. Frank was a nice guy and actually seemed to like the place. I think the firm may have been a decent place to work at one point. Frank talked a bit too reticently about the halcyon days when the firm had significantly more maritime work, and he stated it has mostly dried up and will continue in that vein for at a minimum, several more years. The firm, it seemed, used to be more of a niche firm and in recent years has had to branch out trying to find a new niche, and was apparently failing to make a real distinction for itself in the market.
When it came to the question of the salary, Frank almost seemed embarrassed / confused by his own firm’s compensation scheme. To give you the short version, he told me that starting in the new year they “weren’t going to have salaries anymore” and “you could work as much or as little as you wanted“. That tag line is almost universally used when someone is selling a scam. In fact, it is the exact wording people use when trying to sell a Multi-Level Marketing / Pyramid scheme. I’m pretty sure Frank knew he had said something wrong. I had been unconsciously (nervous energy… what can I say) moving my chair back and forth ever so slightly, and at his mention of the above I stopped instantly. I know my body language changed, it was a visceral change.
Their new compensation scheme that gets rid of salaries is, in Frank’s words: “you eat what you kill”; which is the same model used for plaintiff’s contingency work. The major difference is that the delta for the payoff on plaintiff’s work is significantly higher on most all cases than it is for hourly defense work. Which is why “contingency” style compensation doesn’t work for defense work. (sorry if this is boring for non-lawyers, but I think most attorneys will agree 100% with me on this one.) Since they haven’t implemented this yet, Frank didn’t know how it would work with new associates while they get acquainted with the firm and work, and there would also be what sounded like a fair amount of required “un-billed but credited time” which he was even more fuzzy on how associates would be compensated. Ridiculous compensation schemes aside, I was also told that if I was considering the equity track, I would have to be consistently billing out at 2500 hours.
My guess was someone at the top seems to have decided they wanted to start getting the type of money they used to when they were a successful niche firm, and the easiest way for them to get more money was by taking it from the people at the bottom.
So… no salary and an hourly (very likely unattainable) expectation over even most Biglaw norms.
Starting in the new year, every non-partner level attorney (and likely some partners) are going to be trying to find a new job. That firm is set to become even more of a revolving door of attorneys than it was currently. From a legal recruiter’s standpoint, this place was win / win. You’d get new clients as everyone jumped ship, and also be able to keep selling the firm new blood to try to fill the ever-present gaps created by the inane compensation scheme (at least until the office closed down).
The final punchline of this interview was that after I told the recruiter this information, they said they had a “long history / relationship” with this firm. Which was odd considering the local office has all of about 10 attorneys in it. What long relationship can a headhunter have with such a small firm unless they are already a revolving door.
I’m still undecided as to whether this was just a crappy job thrown out by the headhunter, or a specific pick based upon my previous interaction with the other headhunter at the agency.