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BOSTON-The race to raise first-year associate salaries has opened a chasm in Boston between firms matching New York’s top rate of $160,000 and firms offering a $145,000 starting salary. Several firms jumped from $135,000 to $160,000 in Boston this year, including Fish & Richardson and New York-headquartered Proskauer Rose. Two other New York firms, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and Weil, Gotshal & Manges, boosted first-year Boston rates from $145,000 to $160,000. Fish & Richardson, which raised first-year salaries to $160,000 at all 10 of the firm’s offices, is “always on the lookout for what our competitors are doing,” said President Peter Devlin. “The top of the market seemed to be at $160,000,” Devlin said. “We’ve always had a commitment to be right at the top for our compensation so we decided to use that as our benchmark.” Many other firms opted for a more modest $10,000 hike in Boston, from $135,000 to $145,000, including: Bingham McCutchen; Boston’s Choate, Hall & Stewart, Goodwin Procter, and Ropes & Gray; DLA Piper; McDermott, Will & Emery; Nixon Peabody; and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. Boston-based Foley Hoag is reviewing its $135,000 salary for first-year associates. WilmerHale’s co-managing partner, Bill Lee, who is also a Boston patent litigator, said the firm’s compensation is at the “top of the marketplace” when bonuses are included. “We look at overall compensation including the base salary plus the bonuses and try to ensure that in the marketplace that our people are at the top,” Lee said. Like many of its peers, WilmerHale moved to a $160,000 starting salary in New York. McDermott, Will & Emery’s Donald Goldman, a Los Angeles-based lawyer who chairs the firm’s compensation committee, said the firm’s competitors are the ones that moved to the $145,000 starting salary. “We try to identify firms that are comparable in terms of size and scope of practice,” Goldman said. Both Fish & Richardson and Proskauer view their generous starting salaries and associate pay scale as a recruiting and retention tool. Proskauer expects the higher salaries to help the firm hold on to lawyers, said Steven Bauer, who heads Proskauer’s Boston office. “One of the biggest expenses a law firm faces is losing associates,” Bauer said. “If we can retain two associates this year who might have left, it pays for the increased raise by itself.” Dealing with reality A firm’s work and its client list are still top concerns for potential recruits, but compensation is also a factor, Devlin said. “People look at compensation, too,” Devlin said. “That’s a reality and we have to deal with it.” Associates and new recruits are “very much influenced by starting salaries,” agreed consultant Michael Rynowecer, president of BTI Consulting Group Inc. in Wellesley, Mass. “Those law firms that don’t match the top firms will probably be a disadvantage,” Rynowecer said. Yet billing pressures are pulling law firms in the opposite direction from recruiting rivalries driving salary hikes, Rynowecer said. “Right now, we’re seeing the strongest cost pressure that we’ve seen from general counsel,” Rynowecer said. “General counsels are looking for new ways to reduce legal bills.” Nixon Peabody Boston partner John Snellings said firms paying a $160,000 starting salary in Boston have a different rate structure. “The way their rate structure is created is different than Nixon,” Snellings said. “We were looking at other firms for that guidance.”

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