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Reflections on higher salaries

Based on this from the Chicago Tribune and other reports from around the country -- salaries at large law firms are, once again, going up.


I was just interviewed on this very subject for the second time in a decade -- and the question was what impact will increased salaries have on law firms and law practice? This time around, there is general agreement about the consequences -- both good and bad -- and to the eternal credit of managers, a significant part of the discussion balances both effects.

But the short answer is that some lawyers -- often with huge school loans -- will earn more money.

The more nuanced answer is that there will be more billable hours worked to pay for higher salaries; the partners will either earn less (unlikely) or make the associates work more hours. Some firms will crater because they want to pay top dollar but can't "compete." Others will decide that paying top dollar is unsustainable within their business models, and they will fall back onto the tradeoff of time for money, attempting with a range of success, to portray their firms as "lifestyle."

There will be less money on the table for law firm philanthropy and pro bono -- which is extremely sad because law firms are great engines of philanthropy and provide the bulk of the sorely needed pro bono hours.

There will -- again -- be damage to the culture. When new lawyers complain about working more hours than they were promised during recruiting, the partners may reasonably reply "Be quiet, we're paying you a lot of money to sit in the chair."

New lawyers will have an even steeper learning curve than they have had in recent years. While the Olde Training Model was "carry my briefcase for three years -- and don't speak," the new training model gives new associates no more than two chances to demonstrate their legal writing ability before being consigned to the Dreaded Document Review Team because no one trusts them do to their work. No work = no review = no job.*

One positive result in the decade since the last salary increase has been an increased emphasis on professional development and training. Major firms and agencies spend hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars each year on professional development. I suspect that this will happen again, on the theory that "if we are going to pay these salaries, then by golly, these new lawyers had better be able to do darned good work AND become really productive as soon as possible." But that's just a theory.

*Based on interviews conducted at the 2006 NALP ALI-ABA Professional Development Institute. When asked what would happen to a new associate who was perceived to be a "bad writer" after two assignments, every Professional Development Professional except one said "The associate would stop getting work." The dissenter said that the associate would get a writing coach.