Reality Check for Law Firm Associates

New associates have to consider the changing landscape of the law industry.

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 “Being a really good attorney isn’t good enough,” says Rita Davis, a commercial litigator and upper-level associate at Hunton & Williams’s Richmond, Va., office. You have to be an articulate communicator, a thought leader and understand the business of law firms. “I wasn’t half as savvy about marketing myself or developing business or client relationships,” she says.

You also might need to lower your salary expectations: “2009 was really the peak year that $160,000 was the peak [starting] salary,” says Leipold. While the top recruited entry-levels still fetch $160,000, “the middle salary at Big Law has fallen to $145,000,” he notes. The erosion of big firm hiring has triggered a plunge in average starting private practice salaries—from $130,000 to $85,000—in just two years. “There is a push-down effect,” says Leipold. “You see students who thought they were going to Big Law going into public interest” or other lower-paying positions.

That happened to Lisa Ventress, a 2010 graduate of Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich. “When I started law school I wanted to work at a traditional law firm doing compliance work,” says Ventress, 28, of Frisco, Texas. Today, she works for Pangea3, a global legal process outsourcing firm, managing a team of five attorneys assisting with discovery in bank litigation cases. “I’m reviewing documents and checking the work of my colleagues,” she says. Big Law associates are doing more than just document review and discovery. “The work is not always going to be glamorous” but the 40-hour workweeks help, she says. Her pay is about one half that of a law firm associate, says Ventress, who entered law school in 2007 and racked up nearly $200,000 in loans.  

The tight market doesn’t mean young lawyers are locked out. Cultivating early associate-level skills in federal government honors programs and other positions can lead to mid-level associate positions at large firms. Legal recruiter Grossberg says mid-levels are in demand, particularly those specializing in certain corporate work, intellectual property, and some other areas. Going forward, Grossberg foresees fewer summer and first-year associate hirings. The 86 summer associates Paul Hastings tapped last year was one of the largest classes among law firms. This year, the class fell to 74. In 2005-06, there were 109 and 144, respectively.

Meanwhile,  the lives of associates overall seem to be brightening. After facing massive layoffs, hiring deferments, frozen salaries, and weaker bonuses, mid-level associates are happier about their jobs than they’ve been since 2004, according to the most recent survey of The American Lawyer. Of course, “I think when you have a job, you’re happier,” reasons Wilkins. 

“In 2005 and 2006, everybody was getting jobs,” says Mor Wetzler, a Cornell Law grad and fifth-year associate in Paul Hastings’s New York office. “Younger folks coming in are more thankful to have a job now.” The survey cited Paul Hastings associates as among the happiest. There is an emphasis on pro bono work, training programs, and feedback at the firm, says Wetzler, and “it’s supportive at every level.”

“Associates grow up faster now than five to 10 years ago,” notes Hunton & Williams’s Murdock. “We’re working leaner generally, so young associates will have more responsibility and deal with clients earlier.” There is a push today for young attorneys to specialize quickly. Fifteen years ago, “you never had associate training programs around leadership or client interaction,” notes Nitzkowski. Today, first- and second-year associates get that training and constant performance feedback. “Originations really matter, client relationships really matter,” Grossberg says. 

Keeping talent is key. At Hunton & Williams, Davis took advantage of a program providing attorneys flexibility for life’s milestones and surprises—a baby in Davis’s case. In 2008, she went part-time for a year. Judith Itkin, the firm’s partner overseeing recruiting and development, says Hunton & Williams is open to such flexibility because “losing 40 to 60 percent of your associates within three or four years is not a great model in this economy.”