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Pay hikes to $160,000 for first-year associates no doubt have made those daunting hourly demands at big law firms more tolerable, but some shops are finding that a few special perks can go a long way in cultivating a warmer, fuzzier workplace. Some law firms in the last year or so have initiated innovative fringe benefits � from retirement plans for associates to dog-walking services for busy lawyers � in an effort to distinguish them from the pack and boost attorney recruiting and retention. While many of these firms have followed salary increases in the same lemming-like fashion as other top firms, they also have come up with some creative extras for their partners and employees that they hope build good will beyond a paycheck. Nixon Peabody, for example, started a 401(k) plan for its associates who have practiced at the firm for two years, which features matching contributions by the firm. A matching 401(k) plan is something most law firms do only for partners and administrative staff, said Stanley Kolodziejczak, national leader of law firm services at PricewaterhouseCoopers International Ltd. Nixon Peabody, which was named this year and last year as one of the 100 best companies to work for by Fortune, decided to implement the benefit as a message to associates. “It’s important when we hire associates that they know we’re hoping that we can create a long-term relationship,” said Bill Simpson, director of human resources at Nixon Peabody. The firm also has started what Simpson calls a “very attractive referral fee,” which pays $10,000 to attorneys who connect the firm with successful new hires. In a market in which partner lateral defections have become commonplace, and where associate attrition is near 80% by the time lawyers are in their fifth year of practice, law firms are looking for new ways to retain top performers. “There’s only so much you can do in terms of raising base salaries,” Kolodziejczak said. He expects midsized firms to become the most creative in devising new fringe benefits, since they generally cannot keep up with the salary jumps. Latest round of raises Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe sparked the latest round of first-year associate pay raises earlier in May, when it upped its starting pay to $160,000, matching several firms, most based in New York, that had done so in January. Kolodziejczak said the new incentives can include bonuses that vary according to hours billed, in addition to concierge services (including picking up dry cleaning and arranging dentist appointments), seminars on financial planning, elder care, child care and more. DLA Piper recently started a program that provides an incentive to its lawyers that helps out the environment. Its workers, partners excluded, are entitled to a hybrid car reimbursement that pays $2,000 for vehicle purchases and $1,500 for leases. The reimbursement is part of the firm’s larger global sustainability initiative announced in January, which calls for increased benefits for mass transit and a commitment to curtail air travel when possible, among other initiatives. In February, DLA Piper associate Brian Patten traded in his 1992 Nissan Sentra � which leaked during rainstorms and lacked a working radio and air conditioner � for a new Nissan Altima Hybrid with the help of the firm’s reimbursement program. He was in the market to buy a new car, he said, but was persuaded to go green because of the benefit. “It’s watertight,” said Patten, a seventh-year associate in the firm’s Boston office. “I couldn’t be happier.” So far, about 20 employees have used the reimbursement program since its inception at the 3,333-attorney firm, said Clarissa Peterson, chief people officer at DLA Piper. Other benefits the firm has implemented recently include a health advocates service, a company DLA hired to assist workers in resolving health insurance hassles. The law firm also provides a special child care benefit, which gives its employees priority for emergency child care. Law firms are likely to get more ingenious in fashioning benefits, since they have more difficulty in passing along the costs of salary hikes to corporate clients under pressure to reduce legal costs, Kolodziejczak said. Many of the new benefits address work-life problems, particularly those that women face. According to a study released in October by the National Association of Women Lawyers, although 45% of associates are women, only 16% of equity partners are women. Some firms, including Fulbright & Jaworski, have backup dependant daycare programs that provide services when the usual caregiver is not available and the attorney cannot stay home. “You feel caught in the middle,” said Marcy Greer, a partner in Fulbright & Jaworski’s Austin, Texas, office. The firm this year contracted with a company called Work Options Group, which provides backup care, in-home or at participating centers across the country. Greer said she expects to use the service this summer when she plans to take her newborn to California on business. Greer, who was part of a focus group that sought ways to make the firm more family-friendly, said backup daycare was a topic of big concern to women at Fulbright. Creating a workplace where “people are happy to come to work” was the idea behind establishing several quality-of-life benefits at Atlanta-based Alston & Bird, said Jonathan Lowe, chairman of the hiring committee in its Atlanta office. The firm, ranked for the past eight years among Fortune‘s 100 best companies to work for, also provides backup care. In addition, its offices have an on-site room for nursing mothers and a maternity closet for swapping or borrowing maternity clothes. The firm’s Atlanta office also provides special parking spaces for expecting mothers. For all attorneys, it provides on-site massage therapy and a corporate concierge service for a fee. “It’s not free, but it’s available,” Lowe said. One of the benefits New York’s Shearman & Sterling touts is its associate-run affinity groups. Designed as an alternative to a formal mentoring program, these groups enable similarly situated associates to pair up by choice, with a senior associate providing help and guidance to a junior associate. “You get more out of it by taking management out of the picture,” said Lisa Jacobs, a Shearman & Sterling partner and co-chairwoman of its associate development committee. The firm has affinity groups for women associates, black attorneys and gay and lesbian attorneys, Jacobs said.

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