Who Is Better Compensated: Elite Biglaw Partners Or Top General Counsel? (2023 Update)

Shutterstock_603111194It’s no secret that it pays to be a Biglaw equity partner. A 2022 survey of partners in “NLJ 350- and Global 100-size firms” found average compensation of $1.12 million, a 15% increase over the average in the prior survey conducted in 2020.

Seven-figure compensation is nothing to sneeze at, but as with professional sports teams, the real stars of Biglaw make significantly more than the average. Firms vary widely in their compensation ranges. At the most traditional end of the spectrum, a firm’s highest-paid partner might take home 4x the pay of the lowest-paid partner. In contrast, at a firm with a strong eat-what-you-kill culture, that ratio may be 10x or higher. Bloomberg reports that the top earners at Kirkland & Ellis earn more than $20 million annually. Eight-figure pay packages remain uncommon in Biglaw, but with competition for partners with the strongest books of business as intense as ever, rainmakers at an increasing number of firms are breaching the $10 million mark.

So the top tier of law firm partners are doing very nicely, indeed. But what about the leading in-house lawyers? In this article, we take a look at the pay packages of the top 100 highest-paid General Counsels, in comparison to partners of top Biglaw firms (as measured by profits per equity partner). We find that on a cash compensation basis, equity partnership is more lucrative than being a General Counsel. But the story is more complicated when taking stock options into account.

A quick note on sources. For general counsel compensation data, we look at the top 100 highest paid GCs as listed in the 2022 ALM Intelligence GC Compensation Survey. This data set is not comprehensive. For one thing, ALM compiles its data from proxy statements filed with the SEC, so only public companies are included. Our source for Biglaw partner compensation is the 2022 edition of the Am Law 200 ranking.

It’s hard to outearn a top Biglaw partner (in cash)

The General Counsel Compensation Survey ranks General Counsels based on total cash compensation. The top 100 highest-paid GCs earned total cash compensation of $2.7 million on average. We don’t know how much the 100 best-paid Biglaw partners earned in the comparable period, but as one benchmark, the 91 equity partners at Wachtell enjoyed profits per partner of $8.4 million.

Just one General Counsel took home cash compensation higher than $8.4 million: Alan Braverman of Disney ($8.8 million). Meanwhile, 42 Am Law firms had profits per equity partner in excess of the $2.7 million average General Counsel cash compensation.

What about cash compensation growth over the recent past? From a growth perspective, who did better in the two-year period from 2020 until 2022: the top 100 General Counsels or the partnership of the top Am Law firms? The table below shows the results, ranked by growth rate. The law firms in the table were the top 10 firms by profits per equity partner in the 2020 Am Law 200. We see that all 10 Biglaw partnerships outpaced the General Counsels, some by a substantial margin.

Group (equity partnership or GCs) Compensation growth from 2020 to 2022
Davis Polk 55%
Kirkland & Ellis 42%
Sullivan & Cromwell 37%
Simpson Thacher 35%
Wachtell 33%
Cravath 31%
Paul Weiss 31%
Skadden 30%
Weil Gotshal 29%
Quinn Emanuel 26%
Top 100 GCs 25%

But stock options can make a big difference

It’s critical to note that the very highest-earning General Counsels receive a substantial portion of their compensation in the form of equity. Taking stock options into account, some General Counsel roles start to look considerably more attractive. For example, revisiting the 2022 surveys, when considering total compensation, the number of General Counsels topping Wachtell’s profits per partner rises from one to 16. Kathryn Ruemmler (Goldman Sachs) and Kate Adams (Apple) top the list, each earning total compensation just shy of $27 million. David Sorkin (KKR) also cracked the $20 million threshold. These examples illustrate the importance of equity: Ruemmler, Adams, and Sorkin earned total cash compensation of $7.9 million, $5 million, and $5.75 million, respectively.

Conclusion

There are a lot of reasons why an attorney might prefer to be a General Counsel than a law firm partner. But viewed strictly through the lens of compensation, high-performing lawyers are typically better off staying on the law firm track. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean they should stick with their current firm. With Biglaw partnerships increasingly diverging in their approaches to compensation, it’s a mistake to assume that a partner with a given book of business will be paid similarly at any comparably prestigious firm. Productive partners have a variety of options—and it pays to know about them.

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