How to Respond to a Good Bonus

How to Respond to a Big Bonus | Corporette

2017 Update: We still stand by this advice on how to respond to a good bonus, but you may also want to check out all of our posts on holiday business etiquette.

How do you respond to a generous year-end bonus — after all, yippee is out. So how do you professionally respond to a good bonus? Here’s Reader C’s question:

I am a young lawyer, and have worked at my current firm for 1.5 years. This year, I got a generous bonus. I’d like to know what the etiquette is for responding to the bonus. Is a thank you note for the 5 partners appropriate? an in person thank you? or nothing? The envelope the check is in says “Merry Christmas -The Partners”. It is a small firm (10 lawyers, 5 partners) and I have a good relationship with the partners but would feel a bit awkward going into their offices and closing the door, just to say thank you. What about a small gift from the senior partner and his wife, (think chocolate)?

I looked in the archives for an answer to my question, but wasn’t able to find anything on point and would really like to hear any tips on this!

You and me both! I still remember the big BigLaw bonuses before the recession, and I will always remember getting my biggest bonus (back in January 2008).  We all knew the number before our individual reviews — bonuses were lockstep with class year, and a memo had been circulated to say my firm was matching the going market rates.  Still, when my reviewer said, in a very cursory manner, “Your bonus is $80,000 this year,” and I tried to graciously say “thank you,” it was followed by an awkward, cringe-worthy pause from both of us.  It just felt SO little-girl/feminine and not at all what a Captain of Industry would say. I imagined men saying something like, “Well yes, I earned it!” or “Wonderful, I can make the next payment on the yacht!” or perhaps, “Bully, let’s all go play golf!” But not “thank you.”

In my former firm, thank you notes would certainly not have been appropriate — lockstep bonuses, lots of partners, all just part of doing business/part of your compensation.  For my own $.02, for I would think a thank you note would be inappropriate even in Reader C’s situation, where it may have been a personal bonus for her, and it is such a small firm — I think just continuing to do good work is the appropriate response (if not stepping up your game further).  So, ladies — how do you respond to a good bonus? 

Incidentally:  at my firm, we always got our bonuses in January, and the rumor around the firm was that if you set your 401K contribution to 25% (the highest option we had), you’d ultimately save money.  I’ve always wanted to talk about this on the blog but haven’t quite gotten around to calling a tax professional to research whether there’s truth behind it.  My understanding today is that while bonuses generally are withheld at a higher rate than regular salary, at the end of the year it’s all taxed as income.  So I think the only real benefit is that the the bonus money you “save” from withholding does has a chance to be invested (by you) and grow, rather than be held by the government until tax time.   Readers, do you have any tax tips re: bonuses?  What do you like to use bonuses for? What’s your best advice for how to respond to a good bonus?

(Pictured: Danke stamp, available for $14 from Etsy shop talktothesun.)

Social media credit: Pixabay.



  1. I usually say thank you for letting me know, it was a good (or great) year, I am really proud of and / especially enjoyed project x and y.

    • Ebro, this is EXACTELY what I do. I have learned (from my dad) to be VERY Solicitus of the Manageing partner. He love’s it when I do a good job and give him alot of attention, and he give’s me GIFT’s like the Lord and Taylor card in addtion to the firm annual BONUSSES!

      They are NOT discloseing our 2013 bonusses yet, but since I will be a PARTNER as of 1/1/14, I do NOT vote on my 2013 bonus. The manageing partner said it will be alot bigger than 2012 b/c I think I will be abel to bill about 6000 hour’s and he takes an additional 1500 of my hours as OVERVIEW billeing.

      Once I am a partner, I think I get to do overview billeing b/c there will be a new associate that I will be manageing that the manageing partner told me is comeing in b/c he knows his dad. This guy is just a kid (about 25) and has NO legal experencce, so the manageing partner says I MUST take him UNDER MY WING. YAY! I just do NOT want him lookeing where he should NOT, and I have to keep him away from Frank if that is even possibel.

      Anyway, I will tell the hive later about Bertha Sheketovits, who I bumped into in Bloomie’s. She still want’s Alan to marry me!!!!! I told her I said it was NOT likeley that would hapen.

      • Senior Attorney :




      • How does one become partner — or even get through school — without the ability to spell or use proper grammar?

        • Pretty sure Ellen is just the local comedienne here. Love that she is billing 23 hours a day on average.

  2. Mountain Girl :

    An $80,000 bonus? I thought I was doing pretty good with a box of chocolate covered cherries and a frozen ham.

    • Anonymous :

      That’s double my salary as a state attorney and I now want to throw up!!!

    • I had the same reaction – I vaguely knew salaries and bonuses were crazy in big law but I never would have put that kind of a number to it. I would probably have guessed $10k. Maybe $15k. Wow.

      To put it in contrast – we (in gov’t) get really excited when we get coffee at a branch meeting! :)

      • Anonymous :

        ditto, I assumed like $10-15k. I’m blown away by that number.

      • They aren’t like that anymore. It’s still lockstep but it ranges from $5k-$20k for more senior attorneys.
        Not that I’m complaining, extra money is extra money.

        • Mrs. Jones :

          Crazy. That bonus is more than my salary in my new (government) job.

          • I used to be thrilled to get 1,000 dollars. But the Rethuglicans in the Florida legislature took away the ability of state agencies to reward extra work with small bonuses. And here I thought they wanted government to operate like business?

    • Anonymous :

      I was in big law too at that time, and that was the standard amount at the time (depending on class year). The next year everything cratered, and there were huge layoffs. I don’t think bonuses have reached those levels again.

      I’m in the public sector now, and even with the huge bonuses, I still think of those years as “years of my life I’m never getting back…”

      • Amelia Bedelia :

        Agreed. It was wonderful to make so much money and make a dent in my loans, but I still remember thinking “this is not worth the amount of my life I lost this year.”

      • BigLaw Refugee :

        Ditto. Got the big bonus, but the pounds I put on overeating to try to deal with the work boredom/stress and the resulting end of my marriage will cost that much in post-tax money to get off and keep off (I hate to exercise and love to eat, so I’ve failed to do it myself since leaving – my new year’s resolution is to spend tons of $ on personal trainers and nutritionists – all to get back to being the happy, healthy person I was before I went to BigLaw). Also the $ doesn’t go that far in NYC.

        • BigLaw Refugee :

          Oh, and I forgot to mention the chronic repetitive stress injury and major issues in my neck/back muscles from too much time at the computer on a bad chair while feeling stressed, and not enough physical activity. I’ve spent thousands on equipment, books and physical therapy unsuccessfully trying to fix those problems, which carried over into my govt job.

          Ladies: pay attention to all the ergonomics stuff. It doesn’t seem important until it’s too late. If you type a lot, read about repetitive stress injury a.k.a. carpal tunnel syndrome now. Get up frequently, take stretching breaks, etc.

    • FWIW, that was the high-water mark for bonuses (and pre-financial crash) and bonuses have dropped significantly since then in biglaw.

      • By “dropped significantly,” what do you mean? Are they $40k now, or $5k, or what? Just curious– it seems like a different world to me!

        • Anonymous :

          You can find all the info on bonuses on Above the Law

        • I know for a fact that a very large, prestigious firm gave out $10k bonuses this year. Almost everyone on this site has had the very unfortunate experience of entering the workforce post 2008.

        • Class of 2013 — $10,000 (pro-rated)
          Class of 2012 — $10,000
          Class of 2011 — $14,000
          Class of 2010 — $20,000
          Class of 2009 — $27,000
          Class of 2008 — $34,000
          Class of 2007 — $40,000
          Class of 2006 — $50,000
          Class of 2005 — $60,000

    • Not law, but my bonus this year is $100K. My salary is the same. Some industries/firms, this is just how it works.

  3. Anon4This :

    I have no answer to this question, unfortunately, but this inspired a similar question of my own (I’m not in law, for what it’s worth).

    At my year-end review this year, I got incredibly positive feedback and got promoted (this was not a surprise; I was told a few months ago by our senior management that I was getting promoted at year end). Our firm is having a great year and my team, in particular, is having a stellar year. During my review, I was given a revised compensation package to go with my promotion and while my increased pay was good, it wasn’t great, nor reflective of the work I’d done this year or the new work they were asking me to take on with my new promotion.

    Because I have a good, open relationship with my boss, I expressed some disappointment with my new comp and let them know that it was not in line with my expectations. To my surprise, he then went back to our compensation committee (our President and COO) and got my compensation increased for next year. This was really kind and unexpected, and I made sure to say thank you to my boss for going out of his way and “fighting” for me to get paid appropriately.

    However, I’m struggling with whether or not say thank you to our COO or President? It’s a small firm and and I see them personally on a daily basis, but I’m not necessarily close with them the way I am with my boss. I don’t want to draw more attention to what was a rather awkward situation (because saying “this pay increase is nice but not enough” was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do professionally), but I do want to let them know that I appreciated them increasing my pay and showing that they value my contributions to our company.

    Any ideas on what to do now? Ignore it? Say a quick thank you? Write a note?

    • I think you should thank your boss for going to bat for you. You don’t have to thank everyone for making your pay market level.

    • I agree. Thank your boss verbally, but no need to do so for the higher levels.

    • BigLaw Refugee :

      You already said thank you to your boss for going to bat for you, which he didn’t have to do. Good – it’s always good to express appreciation for the people you work closely with.

      Don’t thank anyone else; the original increase was too low and they should be thanking you for giving them a chance to increase it rather than taking your talents elsewhere. NO man would even consider saying thank you for that! Employees who actually care about and are good at their jobs are fairly rare; their value to their employers is far more than market rate. When you come into a job and are unproven, you’re worth less than market (i.e. 20% chance you’re great, 50% chance you’re average, 30% chance you’re a dud averages out to less than 50-50 chance of being average). Substantial raises and promotions are common in many jobs in the first few years as your employer realizes you’re at least in the average if not great category, so since you’re great, there’s no reason to feel bad about not taking the first offer or feel as if you’re getting something “extra” because you’re getting more than they offered.

      Kudos for standing up for yourself and getting what you deserve.

    • What you did was right. Women always feel awkward asking for more money but this is an area we can all be more assertive in. When I entered the workforce I read a book called “New Girl on the Job” and there was a chapter on negotiating your salary. When my first performance review came up, I knew I wanted to try doing what the book said, no matter how awkward I felt. My boss (unexpectedly) offered me a small increase, to which I said: “thank you, but I was hoping to get a bit more.” Yeah. Imagine a 22 yr old saying that to the owner of the company. Anyway, it worked! I’ll never look back.

  4. Don’t write a note or anything like that. The bonus is like a thank you to you for your work so you don’t thank them for thanking you.

    • Bankratty :

      +1. It’s not a present; saying “thank you” seems to treat it as such.

    • A Nonny Moose :

      Disagree to the extent that some firms have merit bonuses. Bonuses are always coming out of the pocket of partners, and in the event of a merit bonus, someone’s really going to bat for you to make sure that you get one. I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all to thank them for that.

      • “Coming out of their pocket” to the same extent your salary is. It’s an investment in good staff, which they make on the assumption that you’ll make more profit for them next year. It is decidedly not a present.

        • A Nonny Moose :

          OK rereading the OP’s question, I agree with the commenters who say not to write a thank you note. However, just to look at a merit bonus as part of your salary seems a bit over the top to me in the other direction. I think I saw this question posed on a thread a while ago on here, and some responses posed the “what would a man do?” question. Well, I think a *lot* of men would say thank you.

          • Well yeah if someone is handing it to you, of course you say thank you, had a great year, blah blah blah. But there’s no reason to be all “thank you for taking my compensation out of your pocket”. That is ridiculous.

  5. Say thank you by continuing to kick a$$ your your job.

  6. Our bonuses get handed out personally by the managing partner so there is some level of personal interaction expected. exchange as follows: MP: here’s your bonus, we’ve appreciated your work this year, good job. mascot: thank you, its been a great year and I enjoy working here. Smiles and handshakes, the end.

    • This.

    • This is how I handle my year-end bonus, too. “This year’s bonus is $x. Thank you for your commitment to the organization.” “Thanks. I really enjoy being part of our work.”

      (I’m at a very small public interest firm)

    • AnonInfinity :

      This is somewhat how it works at my firm. I had this convo w the partner that came around, but I think a different partner went to bat for me to get me a very generous merit bonus. He wasn’t in the office on bonus day and hasn’t been since, but I’m trying to decide whether to thank him when I do see him tomorrow. I think I’ve decided not to, but I can’t decide if that’s right.

      • Coach Laura :

        I don’t think it’s ever wrong to thank someone “for going to bat for me.” That’s good manners. What I think should be avoided is to thank them for the bonus like it’s a gift. It’s not a gift – it’s a recognition of a job well done and something like Mascot’s response sets the right tone. “I appreciate working with the team and I am happy that I was able to substantially contribute to our successful year. I’m looking forward to an even better year next year. “

        • Right, and it’s not a gift- it’s profit-sharing. If you are given that amount, they are *obviously* making more;)

    • Yep. I’m in the public sector now but during my firm tenure the bonuses got handed out by partners during our holiday party and you were expected to say something along those lines in response.

  7. Bankratty :

    Also: Can I haz a bonus?

  8. Mike Ross :

    Repost from being too late to the morning thread. Hi all! I am seeking wisdom from the hive, specifically the attorneys out there. I am just starting out and am often tasked with reviewing contracts and agreements, suggesting appropriate changes, and to a lesser extent, sometimes drafting them based on previous agreements. Are there any books or guides out there that could help point me in the right direction? I didn’t do a lot of this at school, and only did it infrequently at my internships. I know it is something that I probably have to learn by doing, but any guidance would be appreciated. Often times I read something and have no idea where to begin or what is wrong with it, and I am feeling a little discouraged.

    • Do you have a shared document drive at your office? If so, that is the best place to start.

      • Mike Ross :

        Yes, I have been reading lots and lots of previous redlines but I was just hoping there was a book out there that could teach me things to look out for in general. I know it varies by document and client I just wish I had a little bit of working knowledge to start from.

        • Look for a CLE that covers these topics.

        • The problem is that the issues are often (not always) very specific either to the client, the type of deal, or your firm. So it’s easiest and best to go back and review prior comments that your firm has made on deals with that client, etc. Eventually, you will start to get a handle on this and will be able to make your own generalized checklists of things to look for. But it takes 6 months to a year to start to get a handle on this, so if you only just started, it is very natural for you to be feeling discouraged right now. Good luck!

    • I used to write a lot of Ks. If there are not a lot of “templates” in your shared server, try to find the one that fits best what you are trying to do. Then, take a crack at it by redlining it and then ask to go over it with your supervisor to see what other things need to be added that you missed. You will not only learn by doing, but you will have made yourself a better template for the future.

    • If there isn’t a template and you have to use previously negotiated contracts, start with the earliest versions of the contract that you are using as a model. By the time you get to version 7 or whatever, they are very personalized to a deal and you may be missing important terms because they got negotiated out. Recommended by folks here I’ve seen Adams’ “Manual of Style for Contract Drafting” and Fox’s “Working with Contracts” Those are helpful for some of the more technical questions, like what is a schedule vs exhibit.

    • Former Biglaw :

      When I went in-house, I bought Stark’s “Drafting Contracts: How and Why lawyers do what they do.” I found it extremely useful.

      Depending on the subject matter of your work, there are probably other ones out there, but the Stark one is general, how to write a contract. For example, if you work in M&A, I like Miller’s “mergers & Acquisitions: A Step by Step Legal and Practical Guide.”

      I also look to samples on Association of Corporate Counsel’s website (you’ll need a membership though)–they also have drafting do’s/don’ts for common contracts (like NDAs)

    • BigLaw Refugee :

      I only did this for a year, but I had a senior associate working with me who would mark up my drafts, and I learned a lot by reviewing his markups. If you don’t have such a mentor, that’s tough. Here are some things I looked for:

      1) consistency – if there are phrases of several words repeated throughout the contract, make them appear in the same order (“gift, devise and bequeath” vs “bequeath, devise and gift”) – doesn’t matter but looks more professional
      2) read each promise or obligation of each side carefully, and consider strengthening the promises of the other side and weakening yours. if you’re looking at a template, this may have been negotiated down but when I did this the starting point was usually more favorable to the drafting side. E.g. “best efforts” versus “reasonable efforts.”
      3) each deal with have a few things that make it unique, either about the deal itself or about one of the parties (e.g. a government entity has special concerns when contracting that a private party doesn’t). Make sure the template is modified to reflect these.

      Sounds like you’ve gotten some other good tips, too – good luck!

  9. Any advice for how to respond when the bosses tell you raises and bonuses are cancelled for the 4th consecutive year? Is it appropriate to punch them in the face? RAWR and breathe fire?? Godzilla, can I hire you for your stomping and fire-breathing services?

    • Senior Attorney :

      How about taking the rest of the day off and retiring to the corner bar with the rest of the associates? That is definitely what I would do?

    • My boss ignored my last request for a raise. I’ve been at this salary for 1.5 years and am too scared to ask again because they just hired a new associate at my level. Plus no bonus and I’m underpaid in this market and when you consider how many hours I work. But the job market is so bad for lawyers around here that I still feel lucky to have my job.

    • You wish for Congress to get its act together and hope you aren’t furloughed next year.

      Wait, that’s just the feds? Oh wait, we get our 1% raise this year – the first COLA since 2009.

      • Yeah, but if you were hired this year, it’s eaten up by the increased mandatory contribution to the pension fund.

    • Rawrs on your behalf! I think some midday cocktails are in order.
      There are non-financial perks they could give you if they wanted to – more vacation days, occasional work from home arrangements, maybe an upgrade to technology to help you do your job better (a firm laptop to use at home?), reimburse your phone bill if you make work calls from your phone, etc.
      Would asking for one of these things that matter to you and make your life easier, in the absence of a raise or bonus, be an option?

  10. buying a car... help? :

    Am looking to buy a used car for a very low price (under 10k, maybe under 5k). Thinking it might be best to go to a dealership but I have never done that (always bought via craigslist and took to a mechanic for verification before purchase). Am thinking I should try a dealership this time because of the warranties and such. Advice on this process?

    • I think the “Craigslist” approach is lower cost and, if you really can’t pay too much, the best approach. Dealers may be selling newer used cars that are out of your price range. If you have a mechanic you trust, ask him if knows of any decent cars on the market – he may have other clients who are looking to sell.

    • Jenna Rink :

      I was looking at used cars recently, although I ultimately decided to go with a new one. If you are looking at cars under 10k you are going to have very limited options and they probably aren’t going to come with a warranty. Maybe 30 days or something if the dealer does that for all used cars. If you have a mechanic you trust, I would continue to follow your Craigslist approach.

      • I decided last year to buy an older, inexpensive car. I went with Camry I found on Craigslist and had my mechanic check it out. It was a great decision! I’ve spent about $400 on it in the eighteen months I’ve owned it. It was a great decision to buy it.

    • I just posted my car for sale on autotrader – I asked around to see where friends/family/coworkers have bought used cars from, and they all seemed to think that was the best route. Not paying sales tax, dealers fees, etc by going the private route seemed to be the popular choice.

  11. How do you know if you are getting a bonus? Our firm doesn’t pay out till February but announced lockstep bonuses back in December. Is this usually a make hours and you get it / don’t and you don’t type of thing? Or do they actually decide associate by associate? Is there any appropriate way to ask?

    • AnonInfinity :

      This varies widely by firm. I’d ask another associate who has been there a couple of years.

    • At my so’s firm they tell him during his yr end review (all dec long) & it appears in our account around xmas.

  12. We usually get our bonuses in March. It’s generally a company wide thing – the company announces that the bonus this year will be… XX% of your yearly basic take-home pay. (And then with maybe some individual differences based on performance.) Depending on when the manager has the time to let you know about it, you may find out the amount on the pay check before the announcement.

    For me it is usually just a simple thank you.

  13. I work at a smaller firm, and my managing partner just gave me an iPad Air with a “Merry Christmas from the firm.” Surely that requires a thank you, no? But to whom – separate cards to each partner?

    • Wildkitten :


    • Literally just had the same experience (iPad Air). I sent an immediate thank you to the managing partners via email and thanked the partner I work most closely with in person at the end of the day.

  14. I have the reverse problem as the OP. For the past two+ years, I have been promised a large bonus when a particular project completed, and at regular intervals, they made a point to emphasize my contributions or remind me that they would be recognizing this work at the end. Due to things outside my control, the project took much longer than expected (it actually would have finished about eight months ago instead of two weeks ago, and been about 15% more profitable if they listened to my advice at a crucial point in time, but they took another approach).

    When the two superiors told me my bonus on Monday, it was about a third of what I expected. I diplomatically asked how they came to that number, and they admitted it came out of thin air. When I asked them if they had considered about a half dozen things I had done, they admitted they hadn’t or that they had forgotten about it or that they didn’t think about that. They asked what I thought I should get, and I was able to back up my number with an explanation of how I chose it. They said they would discuss and get back to me.

    I don’t think they’ll match what I had in mind, and I’m doubtful they’ll even come up at all. What would you say if they don’t increase the bonus at all? What would you say if they come up somewhat, but not enough?

    For what it’s worth, I had been wanting to look for another job, but held off in anticipation of this bonus. I’ve already started dusting off the resume, but my field is not doing so hot right now. so I’ll be stuck here for the foreseeable future. Blah.

    • Regardless of what happens, what you did was awesome and absolutely what you should do. High Five! Say what you think you are worth & back it up with facts. Even if it doesn’t end up working, at least you know you tried AND you’ll have some practice in for the next time. Also, fwiw, a friend did this, did not get what she asked for and then about 2 months later got a pretty significant raise, I think in large part because of the arguments she made for the bonus.

    And just tips for taxes in general.
    I have actually been researching this for a year and cannot find a definitive answer (although my non-definitive answer is the one you gave above about withholding vs. actual taxing).
    Would really like this answered.

  16. “Biglaw before the recession” is all you need to know here.

  17. This might be too late but I am in the exact same situation firm wise and I will tell you that one partner went on vacation immediately after bonuses were distributed. I thanked the others in person. But I forgot to thank the other one when he returned and it was brought up later! So, if THAT happens, write a note. Otherwise, I think in person thank you – no need to close door – just walk in and do not interrupt and say thank you very much for the bonus. I really like it here and you make it easy to work hard. or something like that and they will say you are welcome and move on.

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