It’s no secret that BigLaw firms draw many associates in with the lure of seriously big salaries. It’s also notable that BigLaw operates on a somewhat unusual salary structure; the associate salary scale is almost uniformly fixed and publicly known. This has the unusual effect of taking pay off the table when associates are choosing between firms (putting aside the bonuses that can come into play).
Of course, salaries aren’t (or shouldn’t be) the only decision factor when choosing a firm—employee benefits are an incredibly important part of both compensation and an associate’s overall experience working at a firm. And while most BigLaw firms offer attractive and competitive benefits packages, unlike salaries, benefits across firms aren’t uniform.
Associates frequently fail to fully explore the benefits on offer from firms, including the firm at which they currently work!
We’re going to offer a 10,000-foot view of BigLaw benefits and how they can impact your experience as an associate. For a deeper dive into a firm’s offerings and candid associate assessments, check out Vault Law’s firm profiles.
What do we mean by “employee benefits?”
When we talk about “employee benefits,” we’re using it as an umbrella term to refer to ALL non-wage compensation offered by an employer (which in this context is salary and bonus). Certain employee benefits are mandated by federal and/or state law, such as disability coverage, worker’s compensation, and FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) leave. It’s always a good idea to familiarize yourself with your state employee benefit laws, which can include more worker-friendly laws such as paid sick and family leave.
In a more recent development, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) implemented minimum standards for employer-provided health coverage. Under this Act, most employers with 50 or more employees are required to offer health care plans or pay a penalty.
Beyond legally required benefits, employee benefits can span a huge range of offerings, from pension/retirement and medical plans all the way to office ping pong tables and pet insurance. It is within this broader scope of benefits that many BigLaw firms shine.
What kinds of benefits do BigLaw firms offer?
A useful way to review benefits is in buckets:
- Insurance (Medical, dental, etc.)
- Money (Paid time off, retirement, and various discounts/subsidies)
- Family & wellness (Wellness initiatives, family leave, childcare, etc.)
- Office & transportation (Hybrid/remote work policies, dress codes, transit/parking)
- Diversity & inclusion (Mentorship programs, extended family benefits, etc.)
- Professional development (bar and professional organization fees, networking opportunities, etc.)
There are the benefits you probably know and use…
It’s safe to say that all BigLaw firms (and likely many mid-size/smaller firms as well) offer the following benefits that are usually on associates’ radars, because they’re the most widely/commonly used:
- Medical and dental insurance
- Disability insurance (short- and long-term)
- Life insurance
- Some form of retirement/savings plan
- Parental leave
- Bar fees/CLE fees/bar association membership
- Some form of diversity & inclusion initiative
… And there are probably a lot more you aren’t taking advantage of, but might want to
In recent years, firms have begun to expand their benefits into more innovative, inclusive areas—which is great. There are several reasons for this.
First, as competition for associates becomes increasingly fierce, firms have to find ways to attract top talent that are not tied to salary. Offering expanded benefits is one way to stand out from the crowd.
Second, the legal industry as a whole has been under increased scrutiny regarding work-life balance and associate health. In response, firms have sought out new benefits designed to improve quality of life, both in and out of the office.
Third, the tech industry has surged ahead in terms of employee benefits and perks, and this push has rippled through other industries as well. And while law firms aren’t quite ready to install basketball courts and sponsor workday beer pong tournaments (yet), they do know that Gen Z’s expectations are changing and are trying to respond accordingly.
What are these benefits, and why should you care?
Here are a few examples:
Gender-neutral offerings. Two important examples of such offerings are gender-neutral restrooms and gender-neutral parental leave policies. The former may benefit a relatively small percentage of associates, but can make an enormous difference in a person’s experience of a workplace. The latter has potentially far broader impact, in that it acknowledges a huge variety of family structures and supports any parent’s desire for a role in a new child’s early days.
Formal remote/hybrid work policies. Before the pandemic, remote work policies were more often tied in with flex-time policies, which historically have been made available primarily to women coming back from maternity leave. Now, as we emerge from years of remote work and many workers are resistant to being back in offices full time, firms are developing new remote and/or hybrid policies.
Expanded parental support offerings. A growing number of BigLaw firms are offering benefits such as IVF/fertility coverage and adoption assistance, both of which can be profoundly important to attorneys trying to have families and intense careers. Also in this category are breastmilk storage/shipping services, a perk that probably isn’t on most people’s radars until they need it, but which also contributes to the experience of working mothers.
Billable time off. This one is still pretty rare, but it’s pretty ingenious. Some BigLaw firms, recognizing that the time demands of BigLaw can make it difficult to take advantage of wellness initiatives and vacation time, are offering associates billable credit for time off. Being able to take a week off without worrying about hitting billable targets makes it much more likely that associates can take at least some time away from work.
Reading between the benefits lines
The benefits that a firm offers can inform you about much more than just what a firm’s non-monetary compensation looks like—they can also tell you a lot about the firm’s priorities and values. One of the more obvious examples of this is looking at parental support. While most firms offer some amount of maternity leave, there are multiple ways in which firms differ that signal how supportive they are. Length of leave (16 weeks is hugely different from 12 weeks), availability of leave to non-birthing parents, and fertility treatment coverage (or lack thereof) can all be revealing. When looking at firms, you can use these types of benefits to make inferences about a firm’s culture and your potential experience there.
In a follow-up post about law firm benefits, we’re going to do a deeper dive into this final point about using benefit offerings as crucial data points to aid in thinking critically about firms and choosing the right fit for you. There’s a lot more to be uncovered than you might expect.
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