Law firms are off to a great start in the new millennium if they want to emulate major league baseball owners. In the last two weeks, Big Silicon Valley and San Francisco firms have rushed into a steeply escalating salary war that threatens to spread across the country. Menlo Park’s Gunderson Dettmer jumped first, before the new year, elevating first year salaries to $125,000 with a guaranteed bonus of $20,000 and another $5,000 for … well … good behavior. By mid-January, Silicon Valley stalwarts Cooley Godward, Wilson Sonsini, and Gray Cary had matched Gunderson leap for leap. By the end of the month, another dozen Bay Area firms and a few New York firms’ west coast outposts had jumped into the compensation abyss.

Fears of losing associates to the temptations of Silicon Valley start-ups undoubtedly played a role in Gunderson’s thinking. But the firms that have followed Gunderson are more reminiscent of lemmings. “When Cooley decided to match Gunderson’s base that meant we were going to, “Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison’s chairman Tower Snow, Jr. said. Hastings, Janofsky & Walker’s Seth Zachary sees it as a recruitment issue: “The demand for legal talent is huge, and we want to continue to attract top-tier associates and pay whatever the market is.” One legal recruiter agreed. “Quality of life is a myth. Put your money where your mouth is,” she insisted.

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