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US firm White & Case is to pay New York-level salaries of around £45,000 to its newly-qualified lawyers in London as part of a recruitment drive.
The move, which has raised eyebrows among City managing partners, will see the salaries of newly-qualified lawyers rocket from a median of £27,000 to £45,000, with subsequent incremental rises of £5,000 a year.
The salaries of existing solicitors will be increased to be in line with the pay packages of their US colleagues.
White & Case London senior partner Bernard Nelson said the firm, which has 15 English fee-earners, had decided on the move because of the disparity in earnings between its US and UK lawyers in London.
He said the salary difference was "just not equitable", although he added that the firm had taken the initiative without prompting from staff. Such large salaries would encourage young lawyers to "stop and think", said Nelson. He added that the firm had never had a recruitment problem in London.
Executive partner Francis Fitzherbert-Brockholes said: "The volume of our work in London has expanded significantly and we have an immediate need for outstanding assistants."
City lawyers expressed surprise at the move. One simply commented: "Oh dear, it's ridiculous." Another said: "It's throwing down the gauntlet to City firms. Whether they follow or not is another issue."
Ashurst Morris Crisp senior partner Andrew Soundy said: "I hope this is not a trend because clients continue to look for good value for money. Paying people high rates must make this more difficult."
Clifford Chance managing partner Geoffrey Howe described the new salaries as "way above the current rate" and said city firms would not react if it was a one-off. But if it spread, there would be long-term implications, he said.
But Howe added: "At this time there are not enough US firms looking to hire UK solicitors for it to have an impact on the markets. A lot of strategies that offer people high salaries backfire. There is suspicion because people wonder why it is happening."
However, recruitment consultant Seamus Hoare of Quarry Dougall described the move as "exciting, innovative and a historic leap".