First-year associate salaries at New Jersey firms continue to climb, with six major firms announcing increases in recent weeks.

The latest hikes push this fall’s entry-level salaries to an average $108,141 at 21 surveyed firms – an 8.9 percent hike over last year’s average of $99,302.

See chart.

The most recent increases are in addition to 14 others reported by the Law Journal on May 8. At the time of that report, some of the firms in the survey group had not set their fall 2006 starting salaries.

Still more increases are on the way. Lowenstein Sandler will raise its first-year rate to $125,000 starting in January, which would make it the highest-paying New Jersey-based firm. But it has yet to decide whether the 14 new associates starting this fall will see their $115,000 salaries raised to the higher level, says Lowenstein chief marketing officer Lee Garfinkel.

On May 23, Archer & Greiner announced a 17.6 percent salary increase – to $95,000 from $85,000 – which was proportionally larger than any other firm in the survey. It will also pay a $5,000 signing bonus.

Steven Mignogna, chairman of the recruiting committee, says the Haddonfield firm acted in response to large increases by its chief competitors for talent: Philadelphia and northern New Jersey firms. Still, Archer & Greiner has traditionally taken the position that it doesn’t need to pay as much as regional competitors because of its free parking and attractive location in Haddonfield. Mignogna says the firm never thought it needed to pay as much as the highest-paying firms to remain competitive. “We don’t want to be at the bottom of the pack, and it looks like we hit the mark.”

This year, Fox Rothschild for the first time instituted a two-tier system, paying $125,000 in its Princeton office and $115,000 in Atlantic City. Last year, first-years in both offices got $110,000.

James Rudy, the firm’s managing partner in Princeton, says that although Atlantic City and Princeton aren’t too far apart geographically, they are in separate markets and the variation in wages reflects differences in competition and rate structure. Similarly, Fox Rothschild adopted a $110,000 rate this year in Pittsburgh, where the decline of the steel industry has reduced the demand for legal work, Rudy says. The remainder of Fox Rothschild’s offices are at $125,000.

Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham increased the entry-level rate for its Newark office to $122,000 from $112,000 this fall, and Proskauer Rose in Newark went to $115,000 from $110,000. Wolff & Samson of West Orange went to $98,000 from $95,000.

The latest increases locally come amid increasing competition for top legal talent and an escalation in first-year associate salaries at firms across the country. In New York, first-year associates are receiving $145,000 this fall at bellwether firms such as Sullivan & Cromwell; Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy; and Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett. In Philadelphia, Morgan Lewis & Bockius boosted starting pay to $135,000, and Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, Blank Rome, Pepper Hamilton and Saul Ewing are offering $125,000.