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Salaries for beginning associates at big firms soared by $10,000 this year, marking the first increase in pay for new lawyers since 2000, according to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). The most common first-year associate salary at law firms with more than 500 attorneys climbed to $135,000 in 2006, NALP reported. That figure likely was welcome relief for law graduates, whose salaries at those firms was stagnant at $125,000 from 2000 to 2005. The rise in pay, in large part, represents a competition among law firms to recruit top talent in a market with plenty of work but a declining number of law school applicants. But what may be a quick recruiting fix could exacerbate the associate attrition problem. “It can be ironically self-defeating,” said Ward Bower, a principal at Altman Weil, a law firm consultancy. The escalation of starting salaries “compresses” compensation for junior attorneys in general, Bower explained, which means that third-, fourth- and fifth-year associates do not receive increases proportionate to what their beginning colleagues are making. The result, then, is a heightened incentive for new lawyers to use their hefty salaries to pay down debt quickly and bid adieu to a big firm after a few years, Bower said. Attrition up dramatically Indeed, attrition has jumped dramatically from 2000, especially for experienced associates, according to NALP. In 2000, some 60% of associates with about five years of experience left their firms. By contrast, 78% of those lawyers with the same level of experience left in 2005. Those attrition rates, coupled with ballooning first-year salaries that make paying debt easier, mean that it is more important than ever for firms to choose their new associates carefully, said Frank Burch Jr., joint chief executive officer of DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary. “It should make us all work harder to determine whether the recruits with whom we are speaking really want to do what we do,” Burch said. “If they don’t and join us mostly for the money, no matter how long they last, they won’t be happy, nor will we.” The prevailing, or most common, salary in the nation’s largest firms rose to $135,000 in Austin, Texas; Boston; Chicago; Dallas; Houston; Los Angeles; Orange County, Calif.; the San Francisco Bay area; and Washington, according to NALP. In New York, the prevailing salary was $145,000. The median starting salary for firms of all sizes was $105,000 this year, compared with $100,000 in 2005.

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