Associate Salaries, Biglaw, Bonuses, Boutique Law Firms, Fabulosity, Litigators, Money, Small Law Firms, Texas

The $160K-Plus Club Welcomes A New Member

A few months ago, we wrote a story about the $160K-Plus Club: those law firms that pay their first-year associates more than $160,000 a year, the going rate within Biglaw. Earlier this week, we covered which cities give young lawyers the biggest bang for their buck — i.e., cities where the buying power of the median salary for that city is the greatest.

Let’s mash up these two stories. Today we bring you news of a law firm that (1) pays a starting salary of more than $160,000 and (2) is based in a city that’s in the top ten for buying power. Associates at this firm are — by our calculations, based on the NALP Buying Power Index — living as well as someone earning $414,000 in New York City. That’s a staggering sum for a first-year associate.

So which firm are we talking about? And are they hiring?

Say hello to the Houston litigation boutique of Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing P.C. — more commonly known as “AZA,” for obvious reasons. We like their slogan: “Tough Name. Tougher Opponent.”

This week, AZA announced a pay raise for its first-year associates. From the press release:

The Houston litigation boutique Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing P.C., or AZA, has raised the salaries and guaranteed bonuses for the firm’s first-year associates to $170,000, significantly higher than what first-year lawyers are paid at most of the biggest law firms in the U.S. and across the globe.

“We are small and lean, and we successfully go toe-to-toe with the biggest law firms in the country on a regular basis,” says AZA founding partner John Zavitsanos. “Like our bigger competitors, we’ve paid our first-year lawyers $160,000 until now. But we’re growing and doing more exciting work, and we want to attract even more top-level talent. We want law grads who are not interested in carrying someone else’s briefcase, but would rather stand up in court themselves.”

Interesting. The AZA approach reminds me of three other members of the $160K-Plus Club, Susman Godfrey, McKool Smith, and Bickel & Brewer — cutting-edge litigation shops, based in or with major presences in Texas, known for big-ticket cases and above-market compensation. No wonder so many talented people are following the jobs and moving to the Lone Star State.

More details, from the AZA press release:

AZA now provides first-year lawyers a $165,000 salary and an additional guaranteed $5,000 bonus. For several years fewer and fewer of the nation’s biggest firms have guaranteed first-year salaries of even $160,000. According to the National Association for Law Placement, AZA’s new first-year salary provides far more buying power in Houston than in almost all other legal hubs.

How much more? Well, according to the NALP Buying Power Index, if you earn $65,670 in Houston, you’re living as well as someone earning $160,000 in New York. So if you earn $170,000 in Houston, that’s like earning $414,000 in NYC. Wow!

I reached out to AZA partner Steven Mitby, an old friend of mine from college, for additional insight into the decision. Here’s what he had to say:

We raised salaries because we emphasize quality over quantity when it comes to our young lawyers. We want to continue to attract the best of the best — young lawyers who are efficient and motivated and who we are proud to put in front of clients and courts. That is why we are able to give our first-year lawyers front-line experience from day one.

It sounds like a winning combination. Some clients complain about paying for the time of junior lawyers (although that trend may be overstated). But if the junior lawyers are smart, talented, and ready for court, that’s a completely different story.

How can the 25-lawyer firm pay so handsomely? As Steve Mitby explained to me, “AZA does a significant amount of commercial and IP contingency work, which helps our profitability over the big firm model.”

Again, it reminds me a lot of Susman Godfrey, McKool Smith, Bickel & Brewer, and Boies Schiller (they of the $250,000 bonuses). Because of the type of work they do and the type of fee arrangements they enter into, these firms can pay their associates handsomely while at the same time delivering good value to their clients. Clients are willing to pay top dollar for great results; what drives them crazy is paying dearly for mediocrity.

As noted in the press release, in a pleasingly matter-of-fact way, “AZA hires laterals from the country’s largest law firms, where young lawyers typically are not given the opportunity to practice in court as quickly as they can at AZA.” So if you’re a talented, trial-ready litigator who likes the sound of interesting work and generous compensation — and who’s based in, or willing to move to, Houston — read more about applying to AZA here.

UPDATE (2:15 PM): From a current associate at AZA:

I honestly think we’re more notable [than the other boutiques] because we generally get everyone to trial their first year here. Other boutiques make the same sort of claims about getting young associates experience, but they can’t make good because they’re too big. We are small and super lean. I argued and won a $2 million summary judgment by myself three weeks after I got licensed. I gave the opening, took witnesses, and handled all the press at my first trial. And I’m not unique here.

Houston Boutique Law Firm AZA Bucks Trend, Ups First-Year Pay to $170,000 [AZA (press release)]
Houston Boutique Law Firm Boosts 1st-Year Pay To $170,000 [Law360 (sub. req.)]

Earlier: Which Cities Give Young Lawyers the Biggest Bang for Their Buck?
The $160K-Plus Club: Which Law Firms Pay the Biggest Starting Salaries?

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