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When associate Brian Adler opened his Christmas bonus envelope, he was, for the first time in his life, speechless. He thinks he may even have teared up. He won’t reveal the exact size of the bonus, but says it was more than $45,000. “This was the largest check I have ever received in my life,” says land use attorney Adler, 32, who’s been at Bilzin Sumberg Dunn Price & Axelrod two and one-half years. “I didn’t even contemplate that it could be that high. I could not be happier.” Those who thought associate pay could not go any higher following the record-high salaries law firms implemented last year should think again. Coming off their busiest year ever and facing continued fierce competition for top associates and law students, law firms handed out sky-high Christmas bonuses this year and are starting to make compensation packages more attractive for next year’s associates. The large rewards apparently started in New York, where the 20 biggest law firms gave out blanket $40,000 Christmas bonuses, compared with the prior year’s bonuses of $10,000. While no blanket bounties were awarded in South Florida, many firms did dish out significantly higher bonuses this year. Bilzin Sumberg’s Miami office handed out its highest Christmas bonuses ever a couple of weeks ago. The firm traditionally gave bonuses of between $3,000 and $25,000, said Michelle Weber, the firm’s legal administrator. But this year, the partners decided to truly reward those who worked grueling schedules, billing up to 2,700 hours. These amounts are over and above the bonuses spelled out in the compensation packages that are tied to billable hours. “We felt we needed to compensate them even more,” said Weber, adding that the firm “did not even look at New York” when making its decision. “There were people who worked a lot harder than anyone expected, incredibly hard.” The highest bonus at Bilzin was a whopping $58,000, handed to a female senior associate whom Weber won’t name. The lawyer billed 2,500 hours last year. That bonus is on top of her $130,000 salary. “People were blown away,” said Weber. “I see the e-mails they sent to partners thanking them.” The Miami office of Pennsylvania-based Morgan Lewis & Bockius also awarded higher bonuses than in past years. “I’m not aware of the [New York-level bonuses] coming to Miami,” said Mark Zelek, hiring partner for Morgan Lewis in Miami. “But our associates were happy with their bonuses. We had a great year.” Greenberg Traurig, one of the largest Florida firms, also gave out record bonuses this year in Miami. First-year associates typically got $40,000 and more. Senior associates of seven or eight years got as much as $85,000 — although that amount included the bonuses that are tied to billable hours and spelled out in the firm’s new compensation packages, said chief executive Cesar Alvarez. “People who worked hard were rewarded,” Alvarez said simply. Holland & Knight is giving out two bonuses to associates this year. One, awarded in February, will be tied to billable hours, as was spelled out in raises implemented in April. The second, awarded in March, will be purely discretionary. The discretionary bonuses have not yet been determined, but they will likely be record-level, ranging from $2,000 to $50,000, says Jim Groh, chairman of the associate evaluation committee. “Y2K was a record-breaker in the history of the law firm,” said Groh. “The economy is so good and associates have worked harder than ever.” The bonuses are one way of making sure associates are happy and don’t leave for greener pastures. But Morgan Lewis has devised another method: The firm has decided to decrease the number of hours that associates must bill next year to receive a top salary of $105,000. Previously, associates had to bill 2,200 hours to receive the big bucks. Next year, that number drops to 2,000 hours. Zelek of Morgan Lewis says the firm must do something to compete for top associate candidates, particularly since it wants to hire six new associates this year, compared with four hired last year. “There aren’t that many slots at the top firms here, compared with New York, where they hire dozens of associates,” he said. “The competition to attract the best and the brightest is fierce.” But the big question — whether salary levels will rise again next year — is still up in the air and may not be decided until midyear. Alvarez, for one, says his firm plans to stay put at its current market rate but will continue to reward hard-working associates through higher bonuses. He sighed. “It almost makes me wish I was an associate again,” he said.

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