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Salary increases ripples into the Puget Sound region

As a result of associate salary increases across the country, law firms in the Puget Sound area are feeling mounting pressure to offer greater pay for their for first-year associates.

Major law firms in New York, California and Washington, DC have recently increased starting salaries for attorneys by 8% to an average of $135,000. Firms located in smaller markets, such as Atlanta, have also raised salaries as high as $115,000. Likewise, many Seattle firms are now planning on offering $15,000 more than the standard $100,000 they currently offer. Competition to hire talented new lawyers seems to be the driving force behind this latest round of pay hikes.

Considering that starting salaries act as a barometer of a firm’s prestige level, industry experts speculate that Seattle-based firms with national practices will have to match what their peer firms are offering in other cities.

The two biggest Seattle-based firms, Perkins Coie LLP and Preston Gates & Ellis LLP, are reviewing 2006 starting salaries. The third largest, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, raised salaries from $95,000 to $100,000 in 2005. It does not plan to raise associates’ salaries in the near future.


Rising legal-education costs dampen salary optimism

Despite recent law firm salary hikes, law school tuition fees are rising faster than firms can keep up. Compared to the phenomenal increase for law school tuition, which ranges from 130% to 267%, the salaries at the major law firms have risen by just 78% since 1990.

According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), the 2004 median salary for first-year associates in private practice was $80,000, which represents a meager 60% increase over the 1990 median salary, which was $50,000.

About 80% of law students receive loans to pay for law school. The average loan debt is approximately $76,763 for private law school graduates and $48,910 for public school graduates. As a result, budding lawyers are carrying a larger debt at graduation than their predecessors—a fearsome situation that might lead to greater loan defaults, attrition and job dissatisfaction.


Demand for talented lawyers pushes salaries higher

Struggling to find ways to compete for new talent, law firms throughout the Southeast, particularly in North Carolina’s growing Triad region, are feeling the pressure to consider pay raises for young associates.

Columbia, SC-based Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough announced entry-level salary increases from $100,000 to $115,000 earlier this week. International firm Kilpatrick Stockton has reportedly already offered increased associate salaries.

The Southeast region’s last big increase in new associate salaries was over five years ago, when the average first-year salary rose from $85,000 to $100,000. Experts attributed that salary hike to the dot-com boom of the late ‘90s, when attorneys left their firms in droves, hoping to break into the then-thriving technology sector.

According to Leary Davis, Dean of the new Elon University School of Law, the number of law school graduates has remained fairly steady for the past decade, with between 39,000 and 40,500 attorneys starting to practice each year. This constant supply of new attorneys, coupled with growing demand, is forcing firms to review their pay scale.

The Triad’s second-largest law firm, Smith Moore, is currently weighing its options in terms of making the firm more attractive to new attorneys. “There’s no doubt that the more firms that do it, the more pressure there is for us to do it,” said Steve Earp, chairman of the firm’s management committee.


Squire Sanders & Dempsey’s likely merger may bring it into the Top 10

Ohio-based Squire Sanders & Dempsey is on the threshold of joining a tripartite merger with Bryan Cave and the London and Frankfurt offices of Haarmann Hemmelrath. In addition to providing Squire Saunders an entry into the German legal market, this merger will double the firm’s UK operation and transform it into one of the Top 10 best moneymaking firms in the U.S.

If successful, a Squire Sanders-Haarmann-Bryan Cave London office would consist of 50 attorneys and could bring in more than £20M a year. Haarmann’s London office has extensive energy, finance, restructuring and tax experience that Squire Sanders is eager to build upon.

“We’re in discussions with London and part of the Frankfurt office of Haarmann and those discussions are well advanced,” said Squire Sanders’ international practice coordinator Mark Cusick.

Currently, Frankfurt and London are the only Haarmann offices involved, although it is predicted that other branches, including Paris, may soon join.


DLA Piper’s Philadelphia office raises associate salaries

DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary has increased associate salaries in its Philadelphia branch to match with Dechert, Morgan Lewis & Bockius and Woodcock Washburn. First-year associates at DLA Piper in Philadelphia will now make $125,000 per year with second through fourth-years earning between $130,000 and $140,000. Each associate level after the fourth year will receive a $10,000 raise, reaching a base salary of $210,000 for an eleventh-year associate.

According to DLA Piper co-managing partner for the U.S. Jeffrey F. Liss, the firm is inviting suggestions from associates for a lock-step program. Liss cited two reasons for the salary increases.

“First, the associates work hard and they deserve rewards; second, there’s a market out there and we want to be competitive,” said Liss.

Two weeks ago, DLA Piper raised salaries in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, San Diego, Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Boston and Washington, DC by $10,000. Many of those offices are now offering $135,000 to first-years.

Drinker Biddle & Reath has followed suit by raising salaries to $125,000, effective February 1, 2006. On the other hand, Buchanan Ingersoll, Reed Smith, Cozen O’Connor, Fox Rothschild, Wolf Block Schorr & Solis-Cohen and Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young are still monitoring market trends before raising salaries.


US law firm mergers on the rise

New research shows that large-scale law firm mergers are on the rise, leading to consolidation within the U.S. legal market. The research, compiled by consultant Hildebrandt International, records the merger of 49 U.S. law firms in 2005.

The total number of mergers in 2005 increased only marginally from the previous year’s figure of 47. The average number of lawyers at the smaller merging firms, however, more than doubled in 2005, shooting up from 30 lawyers in 2004 to 67 in 2005.

The three largest mergers of 2005 were the three-way merge of Piper Rudnick, Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich and the UK’s DLA; Pillsbury Winthrop’s merge with Shaw Pittman; and Squire Sanders & Dempsey’s merge with Steel Hector & Davis.

Other notable mergers included Rhode Island’s Edwards & Angell and Boston’s Palmer & Dodge; Boston’s Ropes & Gray and New York’s Fish & Neave; Pittsburgh-based Kirkpatrick & Lockhart and London’s Nicholson Graham & Jones; and Philadelphia-based Duane Morris’ takeover of San Francisco’s Hancock Rothert & Bunshoft.

The beginning of 2006 has already witnessed a spate of merger talks. Some deals already announced include those between Boston’s Bingham McCutchen and Washington, DC’s Swidler Berlin, as well as San Francisco-based Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe and Rambaud Martel in Paris. Chicago’s McGuireWoods has agreed to a merger with local technology boutique Gordon & Glickson. Still, the likely merger of Squire Sanders and Bryan Cave could result in one of the largest U.S. mergers ever.


Large Miami firms join the associate salary race

In order to remain competitive in the hiring market, major South Florida law firms are significantly raising first-year associate pay scales. Numerous Miami firms have boosted entry-level salaries with increases ranging from 4% to nearly 10%. Others in the Miami-area have instead opted to offer generous hiring bonuses.

Miami’s associate salary increases are in line with the raises offered in other major cities across the country. New York-based White & Case has increased first-year associate salaries from $115,000 to $120,000, maintaining its position as one of the top destinations for recent law school graduates.

Miami-based Greenberg Traurig has raised the pay to around $121,000, which includes bonuses. Bilzin Sumberg, a midsize Miami-based firm, has also upped their salaries from $105,000 to $115,000. Holland & Knight’s Miami office is maintaining its $105,000 salary with an additional $5,000 signing bonus and an $8,000 billable-hours bonus. Some firms, like Richmond-based Hunton & Williams, are waiting on other firms to make their move before making any salary determinations.

Akerman Senterfitt Office Managing Shareholder James M. Miller said his firm looks at both national and local trends when analyzing first-year salaries.

“That is pretty much dictated by the marketplace, what other people are paying entry-level associates,” Miller said. “And it’s sometimes affected by what the pay is in other markets.”


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