New England In-House: Views vary on local impact of Big Laws salary wars

Managing partners at small and mid-size firms aren’t anticipating a trickle-down effect on attorney compensation in the Boston market from Big Law’s scramble to offer first-year associates annual salaries of $190,000 or more.

Instead, the consensus is that the smaller firms won’t feel the need to respond competitively to the pay bump enjoyed by associates at firms such as Ropes & Gray and WilmerHale, at least in the near term.

“The salary wars might be going on nationwide, but they’re going on at a certain altitude,” says John T. Morrier, managing partner at the 44-attorney Boston firm Casner & Edwards.

But the professionals who trade in legal talent aren’t so sure.

Recruitment and retention

Judy St. John, a recruiter with the associate practice group at Major, Lindsey & Africa’s Boston office, says she expects all the big firms in Boston at least to match the $190,000 starting salary for associates. Some firms are even spicing up job offers with signing or “early” bonuses, she says.

According to St. John, the increase in salary structures is due as much to the need to retain legal talent as it is to attract new talent.

“Firms are anxious to retain the talent that they already have,” she reports. “I get calls all the time from associates who are completely burned-out and want to go in-house or to a ‘life-style’ firm.”

Domino effect?

While managing partners such as Morrier and Lando don’t see firms like their own being impacted by the new round of Big Law salary increases, St. John is another legal recruiter who thinks that Boston-area boutiques and mid-sized firms may not be as immune as they think they are.

St. John foresees smaller and mid-sized firms struggling to compete for and retain talent as a result of the new Big Law pay structures for one basic reason: supply and demand. She points out that law school applications are down, meaning the pool of candidates to fill openings is significantly smaller than what it has been.

“And associates are burning-out very quickly on both the corporate side and the IP side,” she says, adding that, overall, smaller firms are going to have a “big challenge on their hands.”

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