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To mark our 30th anniversary, we’ve reached into our archives to highlight key events and players who made a difference since we made our debut. A version of the following article appeared in the Oct. 10, 1988, edition…
D.C.’s Williams & Connolly has decided to pay its first-year associates $70,000, an almost 17 percent increase over the firm’s 1987 starting salary of $60,000. The raise makes Williams & Connolly the first D.C.-based firm to pay $70,000 to incoming associates and could touch off a chain reaction of similar hikes throughout the D.C. legal community. For now, the $70,000 starting salary leaves other major Washington firms behind. A survey of top D.C. firms found that most have set base salary for first-year associates from $58,000 to $63,000. Williams & Connolly’s decision to pay $70,000 to its incoming associates provides the firm with market dominance in associate salaries among Washington-based firms. Last year, the firm paid its starting associates $60,000, but some out-of-town firms — including the D.C. office of Chicago’s Kirkland & Ellis and the D.C. outpost of Cleveland’s Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue — were also paying $60,000. But so far this year, neither Kirkland & Ellis nor Jones, Day has chosen to match Williams & Connolly. The only D.C. shops of any sort that currently exceed Williams & Connolly are the D.C. offices of New York-based firms. Last year, the D.C. office of New York’s Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson paid its incoming associates a salary and bonus totaling $74,000, and the D.C. office of New York’s Davis Polk & Wardwell paid its first-year associates a salary and bonus totaling $73,000. For the class of 1988, Davis Polk reports that its starting salary is $76,000; Fried, Frank has yet to set 1988 associate salaries. At least one major D.C. firm has also not set its starting salary. Last year, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld paid its first-year associates $58,000, which was consistent with the salaries paid by Washington firms like Crowell & Moring, Steptoe & Johnson, and Arnold & Porter. But Akin, Gump has yet to announce its associate salaries for this year. THE BEST ASSOCIATES Williams & Connolly leaders say their decision to raise starting salaries was not motivated by a desire to reassure prospective recruits about the firm’s future after the August death of firm founder Edward Bennett Williams. Nonetheless, the associate raise is reflective of Williams & Connolly’s new management style. Several partners at the firm report that the decision to hike salaries was made collectively, in contrast to the firm’s past practice of relying on the opinions of a few senior partners. “We’ve always tried to pay our associates the most,” says Paul Wolff, a member of Williams & Connolly’s executive committee. “We think we get the best associates who work the hardest, who take on the most responsibility for their age, and who put out the best product, and we want to pay them accordingly.”
Update:The top-paying firm in D.C. today? Still Williams & Connolly. The firm made market-leading pay hikes in 1996 and 2002. And just last month, the firm boosted starting pay for first-year associates to $180,000 — one of the highest base salaries in the nation. Sure, inflation’s a factor, but even adjusted for inflation, Williams & Connolly associates are earning about 50 percent more than their 1988 peers. D.C. firms, so far, haven’t rushed to match the latest increase. With the economy tightening and a few firms laying off associates to cope with the subprime-mortgage crisis, don’t expect anyone to move to do so anytime soon.

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