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October 6, 2010 2:13 PM

On New Associate Models and Associates as Day Laborers

Posted by Zach Lowe

The Legal Intelligencer, our Philly-based sibling publication, takes a lengthy look today at the state of the old pyramid model close to its home base and beyond. And the upshot is: That model as we knew it is probably gone. Large law firms that still pay their associates the old market rate salaries, starting at $160,000, are hiring fewer such associates for their partnership tracks, several consultants told the paper. They are hiring more associates for nonpartner-track positions at much lower salaries--or demoting current associates into such positions.

"There's a vast underbelly of people who are being hired at these large law firms at substantially reduced salaries," one consultant told the paper. Staff lawyers, sometimes decorated with various "counsel" titles, are making $90,000 on the high end, and the firm does not expect as much from them in terms of work and hours, consultants told the Intelligencer. To be clear: These full-time lawyers are a step above contract lawyers in what the Intelligencer calls the new law firm "caste system." As for those contract lawyers, here's how one consultant, Jerome Kowalski, described them to the Intelligencer: "I compare [them to] those guys who hang around in front of Home Depot waiting for some contractor to show up with a truck."

The story also raises questions about the new associate training programs adopted at several firms, including Reed Smith, Drinker Biddle & Reath, and Howrey. The programs place first-years in training courses rather than giving them billable work. The goal is to have them ready for the real stuff as second- and third-years that clients will be willing to pay. But various studies have shown the programs may cost firms money in the long run even if they make their associates better lawyers. 

So: Will the programs just vanish when the economy improves? 

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