Bryan Cave makes its case with starting pay at $70,000

by Rick Desloge

St. Louis Business Journal — April 17-23, 1998

Two years after Bryan Cave kicked salaries for starting lawyers up to $60,000, the law firm is giving its freshman attorneys another boost -- this one to $70,000.

In St. Louis, the move will benefit 19 recent law school graduates who join Missouri's largest law firm, with a total of 550 attorneys. In Kansas City, 10 lawyers who join the firm in September will be affected.

The pay raise is sending shock waves through St. Louis' other large law firms.

"We believe there are plenty of capable, talented young law students who would be delighted to come to work at the present wage ($60,000) the law firms are offering," said Ken Teasdale, chairman of Armstrong, Teasdale, Schlafly and Davis, the No. 3 law firm in St. Louis.

"The raise is totally not necessary. Since Bryan Cave is going this way, we're going to have to respond in some manner."

Thompson Coburn, the largest St. Louis law firm, with 214 attorneys and a total of 267 lawyers, said it would match the offer for its 18 associates starting in the fall.

"We will be moving starting salaries in St. Louis to $70,000 with the understanding they pass the bar," said Jack Musgrave, chairman of the firm. "We regret having to do this, because our clients want us to work at the most reasonable prices."

Bryan Cave now has 102 associates in St. Louis. Thompson Coburn had 106, according to a St. Louis Business Journal survey in March.

If those two raise the spread equally among their current associates, it would cost each firm more than $1 million. St. Louis'10 largest corporate law firms have close to a combined 500 associates. If they follow Bryan Cave's lead, it would cost them $5 million in salary.

But some law firms were balking at the hike. Such offers typically go only to top graduates of law schools.

Joseph Conran, chairman of the management committee at Husch & Eppenberger, said: "We're not necessarily going lockstep. We want to act prudently for the law firm and all of the associates."

Husch & Eppenberger is the area's sixth-largest law firm.

St. Louis' top firms groused when Bryan Cave announced its pay hike in 1996, but most followed its lead.

Managemetn at several other large law firms, including the 158-lawyer Lewis, Rice and Fingersh, with 158 lawyers, and Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin, with 312 lawyers, said their slaries would remain competitive.

Peter Van Cleve, chairman of Bryan Cave's St. Louis recruiting committee, said the law firm decided earlier this month to move the salary to $70,000 after surveying the national market.

"We basically looked at the salaries in St. Louis on June 1. the reason we did it is the associates are key. We've got to compete with the national law firms for these lawyers," he said.

Bryan Cave is one of the few St. Louis firms that maintains law firms nationally and internationally. It has handled high-profile corporate work in the past year for local clients including Emerson Electric Co., and Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. The firm's business practice group has worked on the WorldCom merger with MCI.

Van Cleve said Bryan Cave needs a high-quality pool of associates to meet the demand of clients.

"We have no plans to raise the rates," he said. Rather, the firm "will cover costs with increased business," he said.

Aaron Williams, president of Aaron Consulting Inc., a national lawyer-recruiting firm based here, predicted law firms would pay for the increase by trimming associates benefits. Most already have stretched partnership tracks for lawyers to eight to 10 years.

"Lawyers are under pressure to justify their bills and the incomes they earn," he said. "I can't imagine partners raising their hands and say, 'Let's help these young new lawyers in their new careers."

The National Association for Law Placement in Washington, D.C., said lawyers's salaries have been escalating nationally for several years.

New York had the highest median, $86,000. Los Angeles was $78,000; Washington, D.C., was $75,000; and Chicago was $73,000. Bryan Cave said it handles pay market by market.

Paula Patton, executive director of the placement association, said Chicago law firms appear to be pushing St. Louis salaries.

"The same people are being chased by everyone," she said.