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Gold-plated associate salaries are heightening the incentives for firms to “push work down.” Increasingly, sophisticated work is assigned to higher-paid staff, such as secretaries and paralegals, while lower-paid employees like file clerks perform the routine, clerical tasks. Firms are also looking for cheaper alternatives to associates, whether nonpartnership track “staff lawyers” or professionals without law degrees. “The pressures like [salary hikes] increase any law firm’s cost of doing business,” said Deborah Johnson of Pillsbury Madison & Sutro in San Francisco. “And whenever the cost of doing business increases, any company — whether it’s a law firm or any other company — [will] really focus on making sure that you’re as efficient as you can be. Obviously that means pushing work down to the appropriate levels.” That, in turn, means managers are more closely scrutinizing which work is performed by a senior secretary earning in the mid-$50,000s and which is being handled by a file clerk making about half of that. “It’s something that we do on an ongoing basis,” Johnson said. “It’s just part of being a business. That’s an important point — that law firms look and act like real businesses.” “We’re going to try and reduce the number of associates that we have to hire to get the work done,” said Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld chairman Bruce McLean, who spoke on the use and retention of associates last month at the Fulcrum Law Firm Leadership Conference in San Francisco. McLean hopes to reduce his firm’s incoming associate classes from 90 lawyers to 70, handing over the extra work to paralegals and other staffers who cost much less than associates. For instance, by the end of 2001, Akin, Gump plans to hire about 40 new “staff lawyers” who will join a dozen or so already on board. These are primarily lawyers who graduate “in the middle of their class at a good but not an elite law school,” McLean said. The firm has been hiring staff lawyers for about 20 percent less than new associates on the partnership track and billing their work at a comparable discount. But with this year’s enormous hike in associate salaries and only a small increase in pay for staff lawyers, McLean said, “that salary differential is quite substantial” — about $80,000 for a staff lawyer versus a minimum of $125,000 for a new associate. Akin, Gump also will look to hire midcareer professionals from government and industry, people who can work alongside lawyers, with supervision, if necessary. For example, McLean said, the firm might hire a government employee with expertise in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement, or a staffer from a venture capital firm or investment bank who understands how deals are structured. “Two years ago, paying somebody $75,000 who was a nonlawyer” didn’t seem like much of a bargain, McLean said. “Now with the very enormous salary differentials, those kind of seasoned professionals could make a difference.” One secretary at a San Francisco-based firm said there was plenty of room for improvement in efficiency. “I’ve noticed some times in the past where I’ll see that an attorney is typing up a chronology for a case, and that’s something I could do or a legal assistant could do,” this secretary said. “I see situations where there’s a lot of time wasted.” As for whether the associate salary hikes might propel increased efficiency, this secretary said: “It’s all going to depend on the client. If the clients start kicking and screaming” then attorneys will delegate more work to lower-paid staff. “If the clients don’t complain, then they won’t.”

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