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A new report predicts that starting salaries for associates at top Manhattan law firms could reach $190,000 by December, and one expert says they have no signs of stopping.

The 2007 Salary Guide - published by Robert Half Legal, a recruitment firm based in Menlo Park, Calif. - anticipates compensation increases to the tune of $30,000 over current peak first-year salaries by the end of the year.

And the guide's expectations for a nearly 20-percent salary increase for first-year associates is not merely an optimistic guess, says Maura Mann, training and development manager at Robert Half Legal.

Students who earn their J.D., Mann explained, are far from constrained to the typical "partner track."

Today's law graduates have greater opportunities than ever to pursue other avenues outside of the traditional high-powered firms - becoming staff attorneys and in-house legal consultants, working in an "of-council" capacity or entering nontraditional or public-interest careers.

She added that, as more options become available for law-school graduates, firms will increasingly be competing for "a very select group of candidates."

"Firms will do what they think it takes to retain top talent because they don't want that top talent working for competitors," Mann said.

Increasing competition for a shrinking pool of talent among firms has thus turned newsworthy salary gains into a trend that Mann says may continue far into the future.

Salaries took their latest jump just in the last two weeks, said Penn Law career counselor Christine Fritton, with several New York firms moving their peak compensation from $145,000 to $160,000.

Fritton explained that, once a New York firm makes these kinds of salary increases, other major firms tend to follow suit rather quickly. When firm salaries begin to even out once again, an audacious firm will up the ante with another starting salary raise, beginning the process all over again.

But this pattern isn't specific to New York firms - Fritton said Philadelphia firms follow these trends too, although most "will not go as high [with salaries] as the New York firms have gone."

She added that a starting salary deficit of $25,000 or more versus top New York firms hasn't driven all Penn Law grads to Manhattan -10 to 20 percent still stay in Philadelphia after graduation.

Penn Law student Aram Muradyan said the current trend of increasing salaries is obviously nice for potential graduates, but it's not the cash that drives students to pursue a law degree.

"I don't think I've met anyone who went to law school just for the money," he said.

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