Anthony Conti was 25, fresh from law school, when Piper Marbury Rudnick and Wolfe offered him his first job two years ago. But before he started work, the firm sent him two letters - bumping his starting salary $10,000, to $95,000.
"I was ecstatic," Conti recalled.
Faced with competition from dot-coms and other technology firms, law firms across the nation were forced into bidding wars for new talent. To compete for top graduates, for example, Baltimore law firms raised the average salary for new attorneys almost 20 percent.
But letters such as the one Conti received aren't in the mail this year. Just as the technology sector explosion inflated salaries, its implosion has put the brakes on raises. Today, some firms are freezing starting salaries and adding fewer new associates.
"We're hiring less than we were two years ago," said James D. Mathias, who hired Conti. "I call it 'right-sizing.' We're cautiously optimistic about our hiring."
The salary inflation began when firms on the West Coast, awash in work and competing with dot-coms for talent, offered beginning attorneys $125,000. That price ricocheted to New York and then to Washington. In Baltimore, in a bid to compete for top new attorneys, Piper increased starting salaries to $115,000 last year.
Baltimore firm Venable Baetjer and Howard raised starting salaries to $105,000 last year and budgeted more for performance-based bonuses. In light of the higher starting salaries, both firms were forced to increase salaries up the career ladder to keep other employees satisfied. "It was great for me," said Conti, who received another $10,000 raise, to $105,000, soon after he joined the firm. "But now responsible firms are slowing down on the hiring and raises."
This year, Piper hired 15 associates in Baltimore, down from 17 in 2000.
"We've cut back a bit on our offers," said Co-Chairman Francis B. Burch Jr. "It's somewhat smaller than the number last year and the number you'd expect in a more vibrant economy."
Because firms typically hire new lawyers who first work for them during summer breaks, a firm's level of summer hiring is one indication of how many lawyers it plans to add later.
This summer, Piper hired just 11 law students for its Baltimore office, down from 21 last year and 24 in 1999.
"You don't want to have too many people in the pipeline," Mathias said. "If two years from now the economy is booming, there are always good people out there on the market."
Small law firms "are less sensitive to climactic change than a larger firm," said Geoffrey H. Genth, a member of the hiring committee at Kramon and Graham downtown. The 22-lawyer firm doesn't hire new lawyers every year.
To justify the six-figure salaries, firms are demanding more of their beginning attorneys, said Paula Patton, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, which tracks associate salaries and hours.
New hires have traditionally logged fewer billable hours, spending time honing their legal-writing, research and problem-solving skills. But higher associate salaries can make partners eager to ensure that their investment is paying off.
"When salaries are high, the tolerance for the length of learning curves is less," Patton said. "Associates who succeed are those who can come in and make a difference right away. Underperformers are being encouraged to find other work."
Baltimore firms said they aren't laying off associate attorneys who don't perform right away. But because of increased salaries, "there's more of a sense of urgency about getting people ramped up and working a full caseload," Mathias said.
"The pressure is tremendous if you've got a family and commitments outside the office," said a Piper associate who asked not to be named. "There's an expectation that to advance you have to bill 2,000 hours every year," 50 more hours than were expected two years ago.
"You do the math," he said. "If you divide 2,000 hours across a year of work days, you have to put in an average of 10 hours a day, unless you don't take holidays and vacations."
"It's something I struggle with on a daily basis," the associate said. "I'm trying to meet the hours requirements while still having time for my family and my life outside. It's difficult."