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Despite perennial complaints among associates about life in Big Law, a combination of rising paychecks, greater attention to associate satisfaction and a more cautious lateral market may be keeping young lawyers at their firms longer.

On average, 16 percent of associates left their firms in 2016, compared with 20 percent in 2015, according to NALP Foundation data for its Update on Associate Attrition Study.

That's the lowest attrition rate in the last four years of the study, according to the NALP Foundation, which gathers information on law firm associate departures from firms of all sizes in the United States and Canada.

Gretta Rusanow, head of advisory services at Citi Private Bank's Law Firm Group, said law firms are repeatedly reporting this year that associate attrition is falling, driven in part by widespread salary increases that were sparked when first-year associate pay at leading New York firms rose by $20,000 to $180,000 last year.

"It's made it more difficult to match those salaries outside the law firm market," she said.

"If an associate has been thinking about looking at a career outside the legal industry and their salary has just gone up significantly, that's a reason they might decide to stay," Rusanow said.

Some firms' approach to hiring may be tamping down attrition rates too.

Richard Spehr, managing partner of Mayer Brown's New York office, said his office has also seen falling attrition and the firm is hiring fewer and fewer lateral associates in Manhattan. And he thinks that's great news.

"That's what we want. We don't want to go back to the lateral market to fill the gaps," he said.

There's less demand for lateral associates because "many lateral associates don't work out," he said. "There's a skepticism in the market about whether to hire them in the first place."

As a result, he said he believes a larger portion of Mayer Brown's associates in New York are coming up through the summer program rather than through individual lateral moves.

"You're spending a huge amount of money investing in summer associates and you want them all to come back and become productive associates," he said.

Spehr said he also believes the impetus to move is not as great for associates as it may have been before. "Everybody thought there were greener pastures if you move from this firm to that firm," he said, adding associates now understand "it's not a panacea" to change firms.

"Big Law is Big Law," he said.

When associates do leave, they tend to move to in-house legal departments, to a smaller or boutique firms or they are moving geographically, he said. "Ten years ago, there was much more movement between and among Big Law firms."

'Move the Needle'

While Spehr and others said the salary increases may raise the threshold in deciding to leave large firms, several associates said in interviews that the compensation hike wasn't a deciding factor, particularly since many rival firms made the same pay hike.

Ivan Torres, an associate at Cahill Gordon & Reindel, said associate retention at his firm has improved since 2014 thanks to the firm's deliberate efforts to address lawyers' satisfaction.

"The firm has made a conscious effort to try to balance the matters" that associates take on, and has made an effort to listen to concerns of associates, slowing attrition, he said.

He and many other associates acknowledged that this year's bigger paychecks are welcome. But they insisted the impact was limited.

"I don't think many people are staying because of the salary increases," said another associate who didn't want to be named. "You're not talking about a 30 percent increase."

The pay bump "doesn't move the needle much" in any decision to leave a firm, the associate said.

Still, a third associate said the extra pay only reinforced his decision to continue practicing at a large firm.

"If all lawyers got the same amount of money, maybe I would do something more in line with ideological passions," he said. "But that's not the case. You make more money in Big Law, and I'm grateful."


Reprinted with permission from the July 28, 2017 edition of New York Law Journal © 2017 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.