By Michael Bradley
Special to Delaware Business Times
When managing partner Dave White speaks about the opportunities awaiting talented first-year associates at McCarter & English and other Wilmington-based law firms, he sounds like a member of the state’s Chamber of Commerce.
“Delaware is the corporate capital,” White said. “We have a pretty high amount of corporate litigation here. There’s also a top bankruptcy court and plenty of high-end pharmaceutical work here.”
White may sound like he’s selling, but he’s right. Delaware’s favorable business environment creates an environment that attracts many corporations. And where there are big businesses, there is a substantial need for good counsel. No wonder so many top law school graduates from all over the region — and beyond — want to work for firms in the state.
And while Delaware may be the First State, it isn’t the only place newly minted lawyers want to be. With New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore so close, there is no shortage of options for those who thrive during their legal training. That means there is competition for the best of the best. And when there is competition, there are benefits.
In November, McCarter & English joined other local firms in raising the salary it was offering first-year associates to $150,000 a year. Those who served a judicial clerkship would get a $5,000 bonus, sweetening things even more. It’s a $15,000/year jump, and it reflects the growing trend toward firms’ trying to build stables of future partners who can start performing complex casework as soon as they sign their contracts.
White’s firm is not the only one to decide it was necessary to give its rookies a raise. Potter Anderson & Corroon went to $160,000 earlier in 2016. It has been nearly a year since Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnell gave its new conscripts a $15,000 bump, to $160K. And, according to Delaware Law Weekly, Reed Smith, a firm based in Pittsburgh with an office in Wilmington, will up its compensation to $160,000 on Jan. 1.
“You have to do what’s best,” White said. “We have to balance our own needs with those of our clients to keep costs down. But you have to stay competitive. We have to attract top talent and to service our clients in the best way possible.”
According to LeaNora Ruffin, assistant dean for career development at Delaware Law School, the recruiting climate is getting a lot more competitive, thanks to fewer students’ studying law and larger firms needing to build farm systems from a smaller pool. With supply down and demand remaining strong, young lawyers are the winners. Plus, as one firm ups its compensation, others are likely to follow suit.
“There is some peer pressure,” Ruffin said. “When firms are competing for talent in the same market, they have to raise salaries. Salary remains a big carrot for a lot of students.”
So does culture. It’s important to make a good living, but few people want to work somewhere that treats employees poorly, especially those who are just starting out. Young attorneys want to work on interesting cases — and not just as grunts. They want to receive constructive feedback from supervisors.
How much will they work? According to Christine A. Lydon, McCarter & English’s firm-wide director of human resources, “the average annual number [of hours], comprising billable and pro bono combined, is 1,850 plus 200 or more non-billable.”
That does mean associates will be expected to hustle, although for $150,000 to $160,000 a year to start, they should want to earn their money. But it is important for firms to create an environment that makes the new hires want to come back to the office every morning.
“[Potential associates] want to know if we are a sweat shop,” White said. “Do we force them to work 3,000 hours a year? We try to maintain a good work-life balance. Do our attorneys come in, shut their doors and not talk to people?”
Although Delaware is not home to some of the large-scale law firms found in neighboring markets, it still offers compensation that matches that found in big cities. According to the Law Weekly, top Philadelphia firms offer first-year hires $160,000 a year, while in cities like New York, Chicago, Houston and in Washington D.C., it’s $180K — with a higher cost of living. White said a big part of Delaware’s competitive status among those heavy hitters is the state’s history of doing high-level commercial and corporate work. Ruffin agrees that the sophisticated level of cases plays a role. There is no need to look for Philadelphia, D.C. or even New York when the state serves as a hub of high-level corporate activity.
“Because of the reputation of the bench and bar, young attorneys want to come here,” she said. “It’s a small market, but people can get into the Chancery Court and the Supreme Court. It’s a small market, but firms are doing cutting-edge work and can compete for top talent.”
According to McCarter & English’s Lydon, the firm’s Delaware office “considers candidates from all areas of the country.” But most are from “in state and nearby.” In order to secure the coveted positions, law students must be ready to compete. Excellent grades still matter the most, but it’s important for those who want to be considered for the top-paying first-year associates positions to be preparing for the process almost immediately after being accepted to law school.
“Students need to be mindful of [planning] much earlier in their student careers than before,” Ruffin said. “Some of the large firms are bringing in rising second-year students in the summers, and if they do well, they give them an offer for after graduation.”
And promise an attractive pay stub every two weeks.