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For the first time since the mid-1990s, Connecticut’s top-paying law firms are holding the line on first-year associate salaries as they head into the fall recruiting season. Among large firms headquartered in Connecticut, perennial market leaders Cummings & Lockwood and Wiggin & Dana, according to their hiring partners, are among those firms foregoing further pay hikes and sticking with first-year base salaries introduced at the beginning of the year or in late 2000. Branch offices of out-of-state firms also are practicing restraint a year after unprecedented earnings of $135,000 or more for raw recruits in Silicon Valley, Boston and other markets rocked the legal profession. New J.D.s starting this fall at the Stamford office of Los Angeles-based Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker will earn annual base salaries of $112,500 — the same amount their predecessors were paid a year ago, partner Kurt W. Hansson said. The top-paying branch office in Hartford — LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae — also has no plans to raise the $100,000 first-year base wage it instituted in February, according to its office administrator, Susan Crawford. The Hartford office of Boston-based Bingham Dana is holding steady at $95,000, as well. “Although we’re doing well, especially in Hartford, … the economy is in a questionable state these days,” said Bingham Dana Communications Director Hank Shafran. “It’s a question of being responsible and leaving things the way they are until we see where the economy is going,” he said. PLAYING CATCH-UP The slowdown among market leaders has given law firms trailing behind a chance to play catch-up. Effective Oct. 1, the annual base pay for new lawyers at Hartford-based Murtha Cullina will jump to $80,000 �- a $6,000 increase, hiring partner Hugh F. Murray said. Among other firms instituting raises this fall, first-years at Waterbury’s Carmody & Torrance, according to Director of Client Services and Human Relations Karen L. Hunziker, will receive $73,000 a year — $3,000 more than the firm’s 2000 associate class earned. Meanwhile on Sept. 1, Robinson & Cole upped its annual base pay for its 16-lawyer incoming associate class to $85,000 in Hartford and $95,000 in its Stamford and Greenwich offices, hiring partner Glenn A. Santoro said. Both figures remain the going rate for new J.D.s in those cities among large, Connecticut-based outfits. Stamford-based Cummings & Lockwood continues to pay first-years in its Hartford and New Haven offices $90,000 a year, but they are paid at an $85,000-a-year pay level until Jan. 1. New Haven’s Wiggin & Dana, as well as Hartford-based Day, Berry & Howard and Shipman & Goodwin, have offered first-years in Hartford $85,000 a year since the beginning of 2001 or before. All three above-mentioned firms pay $95,000 a year to first-years in their Stamford offices, while Cummings pays $100,000, which again includes $5,000 in deferred salary. FEAR FACTOR During the recession in the early and mid-1990s, the going rate for first-years among large, Connecticut-based firms remained unchanged for several years in a row. Toward the end of the decade, however, the surging economy, coupled with the fierce competition for entry-level legal help from larger Boston and New York firms, prompted many local outfits to hike associate salaries at least once every 12 months. Often, large Connecticut firms would implement raises in the beginning of the year only to enact further wage increases in time for the fall recruiting season. However, firms remained fairly cautious in 2000. While associate salaries went through the roof in larger markets — in part to keep law firms from losing their rank-and-file attorneys to once-promising dot-com ventures — none of Connecticut’s largest firms ratcheted up first-year salaries beyond the $100,000 mark. Now, with many dot-com companies going bust and news of associate layoffs swirling in larger legal markets on both coasts, the pressure to raise salaries locally has cooled, Connecticut hiring partners say. Even Stamford’s 25-lawyer, corporate law boutique Finn Dixon & Herling, known for consistently paying above-market wages, foresees no reason to increase its $110,000 base salary this year, said its hiring partner, Charles J. Downey III. “I definitely sense, [when] interviewing on campus, … a little nervousness creeping in among the law students,” added Stephen K. Gellman, chairman of Shipman & Goodwin’s hiring committee. “There was a few questions about [firms'] financial stability that you didn’t have a year ago,” he said. Though no firm interviewed for this story said its salary decisions were prompted out of fear of potentially having to cut associate positions later on, some firms expressed relief at not having to support higher salaries in the face of a period of economic decline. “We certainly would have had concerns about the sustainability [of associate salaries] if we had gone up to $100,000,” Murtha Cullina hiring partner Hugh F. Murray admitted. Indeed, William H. Prout, chairman of Wiggin & Dana’s hiring committee, among other local firm recruiters, said he expects more top law students to consider working in Connecticut over the uncertain prospect of accepting a $140,000 position in a larger legal market these days. Related chart: First Year Base Salaries in Connecticut

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