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Law Firm Model Shifts from Pyramid to Diamond or Possibly a Pear

Posted May 12, 2009 8:22 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The classic law firm staffing model is a pyramid shape, with lots of associates on the bottom and fewer partners on top.

But the recession has upended the model, so that it now appears to be more of a diamond, the Legal Intelligencer reports. The change could permanently alter life for new associates, who will be hired in fewer numbers and paid less, according to one law firm consultant.

The publication describes the new model as one in which several senior associates and junior partners “make up the bulk in the middle,” conjuring images of a pear rather than a diamond.

Law firm consultant Ward Bower of Altman Weil summarized the likely effects of the change for the Intelligencer. Law firms will be hiring smaller first-year classes and will be billing less of their time to clients. New associates will likely bill clients at a lower rate, and there won’t be a billable hours expectation until the new hires have a year or two of experience.

And that means lower starting salaries for first-years, followed by fairly quick increases for those who are valued, Bower said.

The article cites an example of a firm that has already tried a similar approach. Five years ago, Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott abandoned the notion of hiring first-year associates, generally hiring only second- or third-years. The firm’s CEO, Timothy Ryan, made the change to avoid paying costly starting salaries to lawyers just learning the ropes and to avoid losing associates after bearing the costs of training.

“Whether it was luck or intuition, Ryan now seems to have been ahead of the curve,” the story says.

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