Career Audit

Bringing Up the Raise

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With many law firms climbing slowly out of the economic doldrums, attorneys are wondering about their pay. Like, for example, is it enough?

But even for those in calm financial wat­ers, this may not be the time to rock the boat by pushing for a raise, ex­perts say.

For one thing, despite a recovery for many firms, there still are a lot of lawyers and law firms struggling to regain lost ground following the dot-com crash four years ago. “I’d say the job market is still pretty tough for associates,” says Marci M. Krufka of Altman Weil, a legal consulting firm based in suburban Philadelphia.

“It’s a much different environment for associates than it was four years ago,” Krufka says. So, “Associates have been pretty quiet” on the pay-raise front.

Even at firms that are now busy, the main benefits for associates are juicier job opportunities rather than puffi­er paychecks, says John C. Sumberg, a senior partner in a 75-lawyer Miami firm that specializes in real estate. He is in an enviable position. A staggering amount of development in South Florida has made it easier for experienced real estate lawyers to get jobs, he says. Miami firms are also busy with litigation, bankruptcy and corporate matters, he adds.

So large firms in Miami are paying associates more. Ear­lier this year, top starting sal­aries for first-year associates went up to approximately $115,000, an increase of around $5,000, Sumberg says. The increase has had a ripple effect for senior associates, bumping up their pay, too.

Enjoy the wealth, but don’t push, he says. Compar­able raises aren’t being offered by all local firms, and, Sumberg says, associates could hurt their prospects by driving too hard a bargain.

After all, it’s not a buyers’ market anymore. “I thought the other [firms] would increase their rates, and they did not,” he says. “I assume they made the judgment that they didn’t have to, that they would get the same talent either way.”

Monitor Market Conditions

In San Francisco, particularly hard hit by the tech downturn, firms of all sizes feel they don’t have to pay associates more than they did three or four years ago, says Lisa Dickinson, career services director at the University Of San Francisco School Of Law. First-year salaries for her students range from a high of $125,000 at big firms there to an average of $60,000 or $70,000 at others. Meanwhile, firms hiring associates to work for tech-related clients are requiring stronger credentials, she says, such as hard science degrees, even if they are going to handle litigation rather than corporate matters. Thus, while the stronger economy seems to be generating more transactional work, “It’s not the type of market where students can be all that choosy,” let alone push for more money, Dickinson says. “If they have an opportunity in an area that’s of interest to them, they should take it.”

Since smaller firms don’t routinely give lockstep raises to all associates who graduated from law school in the same class year, there may be a chance to make significantly more money a year or two down the road, if the associate’s performance is stellar, Dickinson adds.

Nationally, the latest law firm survey by Altman Weil shows that profits per partner are up greater than 5 percent since the previous year, says Krufka.

“Obviously, when your practice is picking up, it’s a good time to ask for an increase,” she says. If lawyers feel a raise is deserved, they should put in writing what they assess to be their value to the firm, including revenue brought in, business development and contributions to management, Krufka says.

“Lawyers have a hard time asking for everything–for new business, for more money,” she says. “They also usually don’t charge enough for rates, because they’re afraid to ask their clients for more money.”

So fear not–but tread carefully.

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