Despite slowdown, Boston welcomes young lawyers

BY BRION BICKERTON

Why stay in Boston? Although the high-tech boom has ended, Boston remains endowed with a wonderfully diverse industry base. With strengths in software, Internet, telecommunications, biotechnology, biomedical, venture capital, investment management, mutual fund, health care, defense and education industries, Boston is a balanced economic market.

But what about the future? Will Boston provide opportunity five years from now when your career begins to take off?

A Washington, D.C., think tank — the Progressive Policy Institute — recently ranked the 50 states by their progress toward becoming “new economy” centers. Such places are where ideas, technology and innovation will be key factors in determining the success of a region’s economy in the global market. Massachusetts was rated best in the region for having taken the lead in moving to this “new economy.” Massachu-setts recently climbed into the No. 1 spot for biotechnology hubs in the country.

The strength of the economy had an obvious impact on the Boston legal market. Hiring at law firms boomed until the beginning of 1991. Since then, the firms have slammed the brakes on and backed off of hiring.

The most immediate impact is on the market for lateral hires — few firms are looking for experienced attorneys. Firms will be reducing their hiring numbers for entry-level positions and summer hires. While offers for permanent employment were made to a very high percentage rate of summer associates this summer (usually in the 90 percent range), the number of aggregate offers is in most instances measurably lower from prior years. However the current expectation is that the downturn in the Boston market will be relatively short-lived and that the diversity of the industry base will blunt the full impact of the nationwide slowdown. The strength of the biotech and life-science industries is testimony to that diversity. If you can establish a toehold in the Boston market, long term professional growth potential should be excellent.

Last year, salaries took a quantum leap at the major Boston firms. Base salaries at the top 10 firms range between $125,00 and $145,000. This year, first-year base salaries stayed frozen at most firms and will probably not see much movement for one to two years.

This salary freeze is being felt at most of the top firms throughout the country.

Third-year attorneys in Boston are now earning base salaries of $150,000 in addition to bonus possibilities. Taking into account the New York cost of living adjustments, Boston has all but closed the compensation gap with New York. Partner compensation at the top firms has escalated to the point that a number of the top Boston firms rank within the top 40 U.S. law firms in profitability. Another significant move forward for some Boston firms has been the expansion of their New York and branch offices. This year, however, little further expansion in these offices is expected.

The opportunities for young lawyers to move into high-flying tech companies with the prospect of significant income gains and of talking a business role in the company has abruptly stopped. The in-house market, however, continues to hire in the face of a slow economy, and a good number of associates from the top Boston firms will continue to secure highly attractive positions in a company environment. Boston has strengths in many practice areas, but attorneys looking to launch a career in certain fields will find fewer opportunities. These areas include entertainment, admiralty, capital markets (such as commodities or derivatives) and international law. Certain other areas of practice, like environmental, bank regulatory and bank finance, have stagnated for several years and do not show signs of rejuvenation.

However, law firm options in Boston continue to expand. With the strength of its economy, Boston has drawn a lot of attention from out-of-state firms looking to secure a foothold. Florida-based Holland & Knight and Greenberg Traurig developed branch offices in Boston two years ago and show good growth rates, as did Philadelphia-based Duane, Morris & Hecksher. Existing branch offices of Pittsburgh-based Kirkpatrick & Lockhart expanded by merging with a mid-size Boston firm and Chicago powerhouse McDermott, Will & Emery made some key partner hires, increasing its size to almost 100 lawyers. Defying the trend to go big, other partners from established firms have opened up new law firms with the expectation of developing niche practices.

Boston continues to be one of the most attractive cities to call home. New construction projects along the waterfront have created the prospect of such diverse developments as a new arts center and a European-style housing community. When the “Big Dig” project puts the current elevated autoway under city streets in less than three years, Boston’s infrastructure will have been upgraded to keep pace with the rest of the economy.

BRION A. BICKERTON is the founding partner of Bickerton & Gordon LLC, which specializes in the placement of lawyers in Boston and New England. He formerly practiced in the London and Boston offices of a major Boston law firm and can be reached at 617-371-2929 or bbickerton@bickertongordon. com. Bickerton & Gordon hosts a website which provides updates about the Boston legal market and its opportunities (see www.BickertonGordon.com).

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