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It is hard to pick up a legal newspaper, read a blog, or even converse with other lawyers these days without discussing the associate salary hike radiating out from New York like wildfire. Even if the salary increase itself is spreading more like an erratic tornado with a preference for coastal cities, the chatter surrounding it is certainly sweeping the nation. Who’s raised? Who’s going to raise? Who’s holding tough at $135K? Who’s waiting for the lemmings? For those who have raised, how is the raised structured for more senior associates? With most annual salary increases limited to 3% or the current rate of inflation, I suppose it’s little wonder that a 7.4% increase in first year associate base pay is catching the nation’s attention, particularly given the starting point of the analysis. When I began writing for The National Law Journal just over two years ago, my first column, “Sticker Shock,” depicted a rather uncomfortable conversation I’d had with one of my father’s friends over the starting salary � then at $125K � for first year associates in top U.S. firms. If his remarks were disparaging back then, I can only imagine his reaction to learning that this number has increased by $20K in just over three years. Skepticism over associate starting salaries is not limited to those outside the legal community, either. When I offered to pick up the tab after dining with a favorite professor from law school, her offhanded remark rang true: “Since you make more money than I do now, I suppose I should let you.” Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy recently cited associate salaries during his remarks before Congress in support of an increase in federal judges’ salaries. Although the thrust of Justice Kennedy’s remarks mirrored those law firm managers have espoused in favor of raising associate salaries � in order to attract and retain the best people, salaries have to keep pace with the market � his comparison between federal judges and associate salaries was likely not lost on the lawyers in the crowd. Indeed, what must federal judges think of fourth year associates, often sitting mute as third or fourth chairs on major litigation cases, being paid more than they are? Reactions to the raise from within the associate community also seem to be mixed. Those descendants of King Midas who never consider the consequences of increased riches, or believe them to be nonexistent, are excited. For those who still suffer from the crushing weight of student loans, the idea is enamoring, regardless of the consequences. Then there are those that would rather forego the $10K than risk the seemingly inevitable consequences of increased competition among 2Ls for fewer positions, increased pressure on associate performance, higher minimum billable hours, fewer associates making partner, lower bonuses, etc. Of course, I suspect this third category may be virtually nonexistent at firms where the work/life balance is so far off keel that the associates perceive they have nothing left to lose. My two cents, however, is that the rate at which associate salaries have increased in recent years is not unwelcome, unearned, or illogical, even if those sitting outside the circle may feel increasingly embittered as they look in upon it. That’s the point, really. The more coveted the spots within the circle, the less likely they are to be vacated by those that have earned them. Amy J. McMaster is an associate in the environmental department at Venable LLP in Washington. Her practice focuses on both criminal defense and civil regulatory compliance.

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