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The economy has had a noticeable effect on new associate hiring at New Jersey’s largest law firms, with starting salaries leveling off after their recent run-up and new hires dropping about 15 percent. The findings mark the end of a windfall era for new associates, in which some New Jersey firms began paying $100,000, in an effort to keep up with the $150,000 scales at New York firms. In 2002, only four of the large New Jersey firms surveyed raised new associate compensation from the previous year, while in a 2001 survey of the same group, 16 increased compensation from 2000. Only two of the firms surveyed were hiring more new associates in 2002 than in the year before. Together, the firms surveyed hired 122 new associates, down from 143 in 2001. Typifying the new terrain is Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith, Ravin, Davis and Himmel in Woodbridge, which is hiring 6 new associates this year, down from 10 in 2001. Pay for this year’s freshman class will be $95,000, close to the top of New Jersey firms but the same rate as last year’s new associates received. Managing partner Paul Rowe says last year’s incoming group was an unusually large one because everyone who was extended an offer accepted, and this year’s contingent of six was more typical of the firm’s hiring through the years. This year’s leveling off in salaries results from a series of market forces, he says. “It started out on the West Coast when the dot-coms started paying lawyers fabulous money. The New York firms started paying more to compete and the Philadelphia firms started paying more, and New Jersey started feeling the heat,” says Rowe. “Now, the dot-coms have disappeared and some of the New York firms are not paying bonuses this year. It’s the market.” Soft spots in New York’s employment market are being felt in New Jersey in the form of greater reluctance to work in the Big Apple, says Debra King, director of career services at Seton Hall University School of Law. More of her students this year were interested in Philadelphia firms and in-state firms, which King says were not caught in the downturn. “Everything seems to be holding pretty solid. Overall, we’re doing at least as well as last year,” King says of the school’s recruiting program. At Rutgers Law School-Camden, the slowdown in recruitment was noticeable to students, says career services director Mary Beth Daisey. “Money did not go up. Some students didn’t get jobs that they thought they would, with their grades and credentials. In general, the job market for larger firms was down slightly from last year but not significantly,” says Daisey. Fewer hires and flat wages are the story for new associates at Newark’s McCarter & English. The firm expects a crop of 10 new associates this fall, down from 14 in 2001. The firm froze salaries for new associates this year at last year’s level of $95,000. Like several of the firms surveyed, McCarter & English’s hiring and compensation levels are subject to increases later in the year, says hiring partner Richard Eittreim. The reason for the smaller class is that lawyers are staying put. “The job market is sufficiently tight that we find fewer people leaving,” he says. Eittreim says new offices in Hartford and Baltimore as well as established outposts in New York and Philadelphia are fueling growth at McCarter & English. The firm has been relatively unscathed by the drop on the transactional market, says Eittreim. Pitney, Hardin, Kipp & Szuch of Florham Park, whose freshman class went from 13 lawyers last year to 11 this year, is likewise experiencing growth related to its New York office, says managing partner Dennis LaFiura. But that’s because the new hires came from the ranks of summer associates, so there’s a lag time in responding to market shifts. “Whatever impact the slowdown in the legal market might have, you’re not going to feel it this year, you’ll feel it next year,” he says. “What recession?” was the question at four firms that broke the trend of the year and increased salaries for first-year associates. They were Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard of Hackensack, which hiked first-year pay to $85,000 from $77,500; Wolff & Sampson of Roseland, which went to $84,000 from $82,000; Sills Cummis Radin Tischman Epstein & Gross of Newark, which went to $100,000 from $97,000; and Drinker Biddle & Shanley of Florham Park, which raised its pay to $102,500 from $100,000. Max Crane, the hiring partner at Sills Cummis, says the firm raised salaries because business is increasing and clients’ expectations of lawyers are increasing. “If you stand still, you lose,” Crane says. At Drinker Biddle, where the freshman class this fall will have 14 new associates, the firm saw no reason to curtail its hiring program. The Philadelphia firm’s Florham Park office has seen a heavy volume of litigation cases, including defense of pharmaceutical mass torts, says managing partner Daniel O’Connell. The freshmen “will all be going right to work. Most of them will end up in litigation, which is very, very active here right now,” O’Connell says.

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