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Every law school student knows the scene. Tom Cruise, in the movie adaptation of John Grisham’s novel “The Firm,” is being courted by prospective law firms. Each interview includes a proffered salary that either brushes right up against, or easily tops, six figures. But for most new lawyers, venturing into the local job market means a little less Tom Cruise and little more belt-tightening. While there are associates in Western Massachusetts who make healthy — perhaps even enviable — livings, they are a far cry from being the norm. Both the geographical and economic landscape can change in a matter of miles. In the town of Orange, for example, there are no practicing attorneys. In Springfield, the roster of lawyers fills over 30 pages in the telephone directory. Charlene Allen, director of career services at Western New England College School of Law, said that, while she doesn’t believe the local job market rises and falls as precipitously as other urban markets, the average associate’s salary in a large Springfield firm is significantly lower than their peers’ in other cities. According to Allen, Springfield associates may earn up to $40,000 less than their counterparts in Hartford, some 26 miles to the south. The average annual salary earned by Western New England’s Class of 2003 is $50,614, according to Allen. First-year associates at large Hartford-based law firms, such as Day, Berry & Howard, are taking home up to $85,000 a year in base pay alone. In Boston, six-figure salaries for raw recruits are not uncommon. Michael H. Burke, hiring partner at Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas, the area’s largest law firm with 38 attorneys in Springfield and five in Boston, said it doesn’t release salary information. Still, Burke echoed Allen’s assessment of the local market. It is often difficult, he said, to attract talented young lawyers to Springfield when they are entertaining offers from comparable firms in Boston and Hartford. Burke said that salary figures at Bulkley Richardson are generally market driven, as well as based on experience. The firm, he said, hires on a rolling basis. “It’s more of a passive approach to hiring,” said Burke. “We’re always entertaining resumes. If the right person knocks on the door, then we’ll interview them and we may make them an offer. We’re always looking for good people.” The firm, he added, hires associates with the expectation that they will eventually become partners. If its track record is any indication, reaching partnership at Bulkley Richardson is hardly an unrealistic goal, as it is for many large-firm associates in larger legal markets. Partners currently outnumber associates at the firm by a roughly 3-to-1 margin. MAKING ENDS MEET In the face of a diminished earning capacity, lawyers in the western half of the state — especially those in rural areas — need to display some adaptability in order to thrive financially. William F. Mazanec III is the president of the Franklin County Bar Association and a sole practitioner in Greenfield with 15 years in practice. A former Hampshire County prosecutor, Mazanec acknowledged that rural counties tend by virtue of their demographics to offer fewer opportunities to make terrific amounts of money or to specialize in certain higher-paying areas of practice. “You really have to be able to hit to all fields to thrive in this county,” said Mazanec. “It’s a small area and it’s a small economy,” he said. “Because of that, it won’t support of lot of attorneys as well as an area like Springfield or even Northampton.” Mazanec said local practitioners often take cases outside of Franklin County in order to make ends meet. “To some extent, if you rely on local clients, then you’re subject to the local economy and it’s no secret that this area has been, at times, depressed compared to the rest of the state.” Still, Mazanec said the Franklin County bar is close-knit and driven by lawyers who are in the profession for what he calls, “the right reasons — that is to help people.” “It would be easy to burn out if what you’re about is making money,” he added. Job burnout, and the corresponding relationship to law firm culture, has shifted over the past 10 years. Lawyers are increasingly aware of the nexus between high pay and billable hour expectations. Today’s law students and young lawyers, said Allen, are much more aware of lifestyle issues, and are thus more likely to take a balanced view of salary as they consider post-law school employment. “Ten to 15 years ago, it wasn’t the common knowledge that it is today,” said Allen. For many new attorneys who don’t procure jobs — salaries aside — the next step is to open their own shop. Marie T. Jablonski, a 2002 graduate of Western New England College School of Law, hung out her own shingle in Chicopee after 15 months of searching for a job without success. “I never dreamed I would be opening my own practice,” she said. A former disabilities management coordinator at ABB Combustion Engineering in Windsor, now Alston Power, Jablonski said that her income as a sole practitioner is approximately a third of her old salary. While the adjustment is difficult — “My relatives are very good to me and I have a home equity loan,” — she said she is pleased with the current direction of her legal career. “I’m very satisfied,” said Jablonski. “There’s a great freedom in choosing your own cases and choosing your own hours.” Jablonski interviewed with law firms in Connecticut and Rhode Island, as well as Boston. A Providence, R.I., firm, she said, told her they offered a salary of $30,000 in exchange for a 55-hour work week that included Saturdays. “I was glad that they didn’t offer me the job,” she said. Jablonski said that the scuttlebutt amongst local attorneys is that the job market is still tightening. And while solo practice may not offer the big bucks or the steady paycheck of established firms, it does include opportunities that aren’t generally available to lawyers in those larger firms. “I was in court in my second month,” said Jablonski. “That would be very unusual for an associate in a larger firm.” Allen said that most new lawyers successful at going it alone have brought previous business experience to the venture. Solo practice, she said, can be a viable option. “The range for a solo practitioner is great,” she said. “Some of them do extremely well and others are finding it a real struggle.” COMMITTED TO THE AREA Attorneys gravitate in other directions as well. New public defenders and assistant district attorneys, for example, make $35,000 a year, a figure that is set by statute. Other attorneys do bar advocacy work to supplement their incomes. In District Court, the rate of pay is $30 per hour. For lawyers defending clients in Superior Court, the hourly rate jumps to $39. But those figures do not represent a pay scale that attracts many lawyers, said Christine Baronas, executive director of the Franklin County Bar Association Advocates. “For most of them, they do it because they feel a real commitment to the work,” Baronas said. Even the attorneys who are more focused on their private practice, said Baronas, are committed to providing critical legal services to citizens who are accused of crime and lack the resources to pay for a private attorney. “They certainly could make more money by taking private cases,” she proclaimed. In the end, it is the desire to practice law, be it in the public or private sector, for a large or a small salary, that forms the bulwark for the region’s legal practitioners. Loving the work and loving the area, most attorneys agree, are the engine that drives the Western Massachusetts bar. “There are a lot of excellent attorneys out here,” said Mazanec. “They work extremely hard.”

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