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When the Howrey law firm called its incoming associates into a conference room last June to announce it was breaking from industry custom and changing the role of its entry-level attorneys, there was a fair amount of apprehension. After all, the news came at a time when the economic downturn was forcing other firms to cut salaries or tell associates to delay their start.

But the law firm's move now seems prescient.

"Howrey was a first-mover, not a fast follower, here. And now we're going to see some other firms" doing the same, said William D. Henderson, an Indiana University law professor who studies law firm economics.

Instead of wooing first- and second-year attorneys with ever-higher salaries, Howrey set up a two-year program it called First Tier that offered new attorneys reduced salaries in exchange for more training. First Tier was the final step in a progression toward changing how associates advance at the firm.

In 2001, Howrey replaced its typical summer associate program with a "boot camp" for aspiring litigators. In 2007, it announced it would eliminate "lock-step compensation," in which attorneys are promoted en masse based on graduation year, and replace it with a merit-based system -- a move the firm completed at the beginning of 2009.




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