At Large Law Firms, A New Position is Created for Associates Who Will Never Become Partners and receive smaller salaries

WHEELING, W.Va. — The nation’s biggest law firms are creating a second tier of workers, stripping pay and prestige from one of the most coveted jobs in the business world.

Make no mistake: These are full-fledged lawyers, not paralegals, and they do the same work traditional legal associates do. But they earn less than half the pay of their counterparts — usually around $60,000 — and they know from the outset they will never make partner.

Some of the lawyers who have taken these new jobs are putting the best face on their reduced status. “To me there’s not much of a difference between what I’m doing now and what I would be doing in a partner-track job,” said Mark Thompson, 29, who accepted a non-partner-track post at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe when he could not find a traditional associate job. “I still feel like I’m doing pretty high-level work — writing briefs, visiting client sites, prepping witnesses for hearings.”

Asked whether he hopes someday to switch onto the partner track, given the higher pay for this same work, he is diplomatic. “I’m leaving all my possibilities open,” he said.

Lawyers like Mr. Thompson are part of a fundamental shift in the 50-year-old business model for big firms.

Besides making less, these associates work fewer hours and travel less than those on the grueling partner track, making these jobs more family-friendly. And this new system probably prevents jobs from going offshore.

But as has been the case in other industries, a two-tier system threatens to breed resentments among workers in both tiers, given disparities in pay and workload expectations. And as these programs expand to more and more firms, they will eliminate many of the lucrative partner-track positions for which law students suffer so much debt.

Mr. Thompson is one of 37 lawyers in Orrick’s new program, which is based in this small Rust Belt city an hour southwest of Pittsburgh. An international firm headquartered in San Francisco, Orrick is one of a handful of law firms, including WilmerHale and McDermott Will & Emery, experimenting with ways to control escalating billing rates.

“For a long time the wind was at the back of these big law firms,” said William D. Henderson, a historian at Indiana University-Bloomington.

“They could grow, expand and raise rates, and clients just went along with absorbing the high overhead and lack of innovation. But eventually clients started to resist, especially when the economy soured.”

For decades, firms used essentially the same model: charging increasingly higher rates for relatively routine work done by junior associates, whose entry-level salaries in major markets have now been bid up to $160,000 (plus bonus, of course), a sum reported by the big law schools. Even under pressure to reduce rates, firms are reluctant to lower starting salaries unilaterally for fear of losing the best talent — and their reputations.

“Everyone acknowledges that $160,000 is too much, but they don’t want to back down because that signals they’re just a midmarket firm,” said Mr. Henderson. “It’s a big game of chicken.”

So now firms are copying some manufacturers — which have similarly inflexible pay because of union contracts — by creating a separate class of lower-paid workers.

At law firms, these positions are generally called “career associates” or “permanent associates.” They pay about $50,000 to $65,000, according to Michael D. Bell, a managing principal at Fronterion, which advises law firms on outsourcing.

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