What Chinese Associates Make
Two weeks ago, New York’s Cravath, Swaine & Moore kicked off bonus season for associates at the top U.S. firms, announcing that first-years would receive $10,000 on top of their base salaries of $160,000. The amount, unchanged from the year before, has already sparked some grumbling about the firm's perceived stinginess.
In China, though, $10,000 is frequently more than what starting lawyers at leading firms make in a whole year.
According to senior partners, most major Chinese firms pay their Beijing-based first-year associates monthly salaries ranging from 5,000 renminbi, or $823, to 10,000 renminbi, or $1,646. Dacheng Law Offices, China’s largest firm, falls in this category, along with other well-known firms, including Allbright Law Offices, JunZeJun Law Offices and Broad & Bright. There is also a group of top-tier firms such as King & Wood Mallesons, Jun He Law Office, Fangda Partners, Haiwen & Partners and Zhong Lun Law Firm that pay monthly salaries between RMB 11,000 ($1,811) and RMB 14,000 ($2,304).
And young lawyers working in the capital undoubtedly earn more than lawyers working in most other cities in China.
Such salaries reflect the fact that, despite China’s economic rise over the past two decades, it remains a relatively poor country. According to a recent Peking University study, the average income for a Chinese household in 2012 was just RMB 13,000, or $2,100. But there is also staggering inequality of wealth in the nation, and that is also true within its law firms. Top partners often earn as much as or more than their peers at Western firms, even while their associates earn less than fast-food workers in the U.S.
Partners can get away with that because China is still very much a buyer’s market when it comes to young lawyers, thousands of whom graduate every year. In contrast, there are still only a small number of prominent firms, and most young lawyers consider themselves lucky to land an associate position at all.
“It’s true no matter what package they offer, they can always make hires,” says Lin Yanping, a first-year with Zhong Lun in Shanghai. “Many graduates will just go for the second-best, or the third-best, if they can’t get in the firm they want. It’s not ideal. Sometimes you don’t want to wait, you need the experience.”
The sorts of salary wars that periodically rock the profession in the U.S. or U.K. haven’t really taken off in China. Two years ago, Beijing’s Han Kun Law Offices decided to up the ante and pay starting lawyers a monthly base salary of RMB 20,000, or $3,292.
“We know that many graduates have little money to spend on rents and other life necessities,” says Han Kun partner Charles Li, “so we offer a higher starting salary when they need it the most.”
Yet 70-lawyer Han Kun remains alone among Chinese firms in offering its comparatively princely salary.