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Some, but not all, of Boston’s biggest law firms have joined the latest round of $10,000 raises for first-year associates nationally, and others may be waiting to see how much the economy will slow before they re-enter the associate pay race that consumed the legal community a year ago. Either way, firm spokesmen say any reduced hiring in the next year will be a reflection of the general economy’s condition, not whether their entry-level attorneys get another pay boost. “We’ll have our biggest class ever in the fall — 35 first-year associates — but they were hired last October when things were going great,” said Irwin M. Heller, managing partner of the 500-attorney Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky & Popeo in Boston. “What happens next year will decide whether we cut back on associates. But if we had to, we would probably trim a little bit of both [first-year and mid-level associates], because you need a balance in all of your classes.” Of the top-tier firms that offered raises this year, Goodwin Procter and Hale and Dorr were earliest, in January, when they boosted the base rate to $135,000 for graduates in the Class of 2001. Ropes & Gray also is starting associates at a base of $135,000. That figure rivals the pay raises at some West Coast firms this year, although New York firms generally stayed put at $125,000 for first-year associates. Many large and mid-size firms in Boston also offer the option for associates to earn bonuses — as much as $30,000 to $40,000 — by pushing their billable hours beyond targets of 1,800 to 1,900 billables annually. But to reach top money requires associates to take on huge workloads, billing as many as 2,200 to 2,400 hours for the year. Most recently, Nutter, McClennen & Fish raised its base salary for first-year associates from $100,000 to $115,000 — effective May 1 — and bonuses there can go as high as the mid-$30,000s. “With bonuses, we provide an opportunity for our associates to earn as much as any peer at comparable firms,” said Nutter’s Managing Partner Michael E. Mooney, of the 165-attorney firm. “But we want lawyers here to feel valued as lawyers and as people,” said Mooney. “If someone is putting in 1,900 billable hours and they feel they are failing, what kind of message does that send? At the same time, if someone wants to dedicate more time, they have an avenue to earn more money.” Nutter associate Steven R. Bourne, active on the Boston Bar Association’s new lawyers steering committee, said an associate’s choice to earn big dollars has become “a self-selecting process. I have friends who are working tons of hours, but that’s what they want.” Some law firm Web sites, as well as the banter on “Greedy Boston (Associates) Board” of www.infirmation.com, indicate that some Boston firms have increased first-year salaries. Among those cited recently is Palmer & Dodge, offering a $110,000 base salary with bonuses up to $40,000. Sullivan & Worcester has bumped its entry-level salary to $120,000. Mintz Levin seems to be on a merit-based route that some major firms in cities such as Baltimore, Chicago and Cleveland are following. Instead of raising the base pay, the firm kept first-year associate salaries at $125,000, but added $10,000 to its bonus range. The maximum amount of bonus money to be earned there now is $35,000. Mintz Levin’s Irwin M. Heller said he found the $10,000 salary boosts at other large Boston firms “a surprising decision, because of the economy.” “The first-year salaries were raised by 40 percent last year, and one would think there would be some sort of pause after that,” he said. “A lot of people are looking for flexibility to work part time or deal with issues in their lives, so we decided to build more into the bonuses as a reward for those people who want to work at one pace, but keep the flexibility for those who want to work fewer hours.” At the other end of the spectrum is Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault, where associates are starting at $150,000 — according to the Testa Web site — but the firm eschews bonuses because “treating everyone at the same level equally contributes to a better working atmosphere and avoids internal competition.” Bingham Dana, one of the city’s largest firms, hasn’t increased from last year’s rate — first-year associates there start at $125,000 with as much as $40,000 to be earned in bonuses. “There’s been no decision yet on a raise,” said Communications Director Hank Shafran, although Bingham Dana recently raised its first-year base salary to $95,000 in its Hartford office to meet the competition there. Meanwhile, the California-based law firm that is credited with boosting Boston associate salaries to where they are today — Gunderson, Dettmer, Stough, Villeneuve, Franklin & Hachigian — is keeping its first-year rate at $145,000, the same as last year. The firm’s Boston area office, with 18 attorneys, is located on the Rte. 128 corridor in Waltham, Mass. Jay Hachigian, a founding partner at Gunderson Dettmer, said the firm pays $125,000 through the year and a guaranteed payment of $20,000 at the end of the year. One difference this year is that the firm will offer up to $5,000 as a year-end bonus, based on individual performance, he said. “There’s actually less pressure to raise this year than last year, because associates are more concerned about job security than squeaking out another $5,000 or $10,000 a year,” he said. Earlier this spring, the “Greedy Associates” Web site was rife with worries about mid-level associates being laid off to pay for higher first-year salaries. But other observers in the legal community say the economy, not first-year salaries, will dictate staffing decisions. “Firms may take the opportunity to trim people who are not going to make partner, but it’s not related to salary levels. It’s because there’s a slower deal flow in corporate law,” said Brion Bickerton, a legal placement consultant at Bickerton & Gordon in Boston.

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