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This fall, despite the potential difficulty in comparing pay offers in what may be becoming a multitiered system, there is good news for job seekers. The job market for law students and new lawyers is excellent. There is more movement and greater flexibility in the world of legal work than ever before. This year, too, there are new elements to deal with in weighing offers. By now everyone knows the story of how, sparked by the salary increase at law firms in Silicon Valley, new associate salaries at large law firms across the country have skyrocketed. What is somewhat unclear at this point is what this means for students interviewing for summer jobs this fall, and how they should evaluate offers. The factors that caused this leap in salaries seem somewhat ironic at this point; record high levels of the Nasdaq and the desertion by midlevel associates for lucrative stock option deals at dot-com companies. But the law firm marketplace has responded. SOME FIRMS OPT OUT For the first time in a number of years, there may be a split in the ranks of larger law firms in metropolitan areas. Although many firms in cities on both coasts have reached parity in salary, some in smaller markets — particularly those with no offices in cities near the East or West coasts — are balking. For the first time, some are considering not raising their salaries to the level of their local market leaders. In some instances, they are even considering offering different salaries to each attorney depending on the number of hours billed. In many instances, elaborate bonus structures based on a minimum set of billable hours are being put in place. What is unclear is whether or not candidates will find this new system attractive. Some of these packages will not be in place by fall, and because they are new structures, neither candidate nor employer will know exactly how they will affect the hiring process or workplace. There is some indication that because of this salary jump, hiring numbers this fall may be somewhat conservative. It is clear that law firms that have raised their salaries by up to 30 percent will either have to raise the rates they charge their clients, increase the number of hours their new associates bill, or work out some combination of the two. Consequently, when students read the forms that employer members of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) complete for on-campus interviews, they would be wise to look not only for the bottom line of weekly salary, but also for the listing that indicates the number of hours worked and the number of hours billed. The only problem is that neither the employer nor the student will be entirely sure what those bottom-line numbers will mean. Clearly, the new salary figures are impressive; for many students deep in debt, they offer an opportunity to pay off loans more quickly. But for a generation characterized by a desire to have life balance, the potential corresponding expectation of longer work days may offset the attraction of higher salaries. DECISION-MAKING TOOLS How can candidates evaluate this new set of factors in the marketplace? First, most students need to understand that law, although a profession, is also a business. Any student interested in working in private practice should become educated as to the economic realities of the practice of law. Firms are working in an increasingly competitive marketplace, and law students need to understand this. This is a significant burden for law students who are starting only their third semester in law school, but it really is essential. The second thing that students need to understand about the interview process is the issue of timing. The point at which a candidate should be asking questions about billable-hour expectations, working conditions and bonus structures is only after a job offer has been made. Until then, the candidate is still in the selling position. But once an employer has made the commitment of an offer, the student can — and should — explore any new salary and billable requirement system that has been put into place and ask questions of current attorneys about the expectations of the firm. Third, and most important, students need to conduct a real self-assessment to determine what matters most to them. Most, although sensitive to salary needs, seriously consider several other factors in assessing job offers: their general regard for the lawyers they met during the interview process and the quality of work they believe they will be able to do at the firm. Also in the mix is the nebulous term “quality of life.” Candidates need to have a good definition of what that means to them and how to measure job offers within the structure of their personal value system. FRAUGHT TIME FOR STUDENTS Often students believe that their second year will be easier than the first. They have faced two sets of exams and are coming into their second year with a greater sense of confidence. But in reality, the third semester of law school often is the most fraught with demands. This is the time when career considerations come forward in earnest. Students are selected for and begin participating in journals, writing competitions, moot court, client counseling, trial advocacy and a dizzying array of interviews. Those considering the pursuit of a judicial clerkship will be readying themselves during the first semester of their second year for positions that will be filled the year or two after graduation. And for students caught up in the interview process, it may be difficult to keep sight of the reasons they chose law school. No matter what area of the profession a law student eventually chooses, it really pays to consider a variety of options and study the market. Large law firms represent only a small portion of the job market for new law school graduates — according to the most recent survey of law school graduates from NALP, about 55 percent of the graduates of the class of attorneys. For the rest, the new salary figures at large firms may represent only the hope of raising the floor in their new positions. Once again, a dose of information could be a potent tool. Although smaller law firms and government agencies have considerably lower starting salaries, increases in salary levels at the midlevel may be higher than students recognize. Federal positions may put students in line for other options in the future and — although it is hard to get excited about it at their stage in life — an excellent retirement package. If they are fully aware of market conditions, students may find themselves in the positive position of tactfully educating potential employers. Another difficulty for job candidates, for which there is no real solution, is the lack of unity in hiring cycles. Large law firms hire summer associates in the fall; government employers and smaller firms may not do their hiring until late in the first semester or in the spring. This leaves little chance for law students to comparison shop; the growing salary gap makes it more likely that they will want to take those earlier, more lucrative offers. THE EMPLOYER’S PROSPECTIVE Employers, too, have a new set of circumstances to cope with. The current generation of law students expects to make a number of moves in a career and now often regard their first job as a place to start their legal career, not as a long-term employment prospect. This increasing willingness to move around and not wait for the gold watch is not attractive to large employers. The cost of interviewing, hiring and training new attorneys is enormous. And with the increases in starting salaries and midlevel associate salaries, the cost of losing associates before their third or fourth year becomes even higher. So what are the employers to do? For one thing, it will be a great help to both the employers and their applicants if the firms can successfully explain the new salary system and bonus arrangements. If a firm is still in the process of putting such a system together during the interview season, the more information that can be shared with candidates the better. That means educating all of the interviewing attorneys so that they can explain how it will all work. If candidates are viewing their starting positions simply as a jumping-off point, so that turnover in the firm is high, the issues of attrition and attorney job satisfaction need to be forthrightly addressed. It is certainly practical to determine what factors will make a young lawyer stay, rather than to spend a lot of time later in exit interviews, trying to determine why they are leaving. What many career services representatives hear is that young lawyers stay in a position if they believe the work they are doing matters to the firm, if they are getting good supervision, if they have some access to clients and if they feel like they are part of things. Long days and assignments that are less than stimulating may be acceptable if the young attorney feels part of a team and essential to the positive outcome of a project. ‘STAYING BONUSES’ Some firms are considering the addition of “staying bonuses.” These are rewards to associates for working hard, and staying in a position long enough to become profitable for the firm. Over the long term, it will be important for law firms to assess the impact of these new salaries on client relationships, attorney recruitment and the bottom line. Wendy Werner is the assistant dean and director of career services at Saint Louis University School of Law.

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