The Leader column

Spring is in the air, the sap is rising, and so are the salaries: it’s budget time. Up until last year, the annual round of pay reviews for assistants was seen as routine. But then SJ Berwin and Clifford Chance raised the stakes. This was no poor-us defensive response to the US firms – it was a deliberate tactic which broke with the unspoken UK salary consensus.

Hence the rumour mill over this year’s reviews. All year, the big question has been whether newly-qualifieds break the £50,000 barrier. The answer is no, though there has been an amusing game of chicken with managing partners and human resource (HR) directors all gingerly sounding each other out behind the scenes. “We’ve all talked about it,” admits one HR director. who naturally denies there is any sort of cartel. “At the end of the day we’re all in competition with each other.”

Well, yes and no. Last year was indeed about competition, but this year there is a pronounced return to consensus. Clifford Chance, Allen & Overy (A&O) and the rest of the magic circle are about to settle for £48,000 – though one suspects that Clifford Chance’s global positioning means that it could probably have bucked the market on this issue, if it had the bottle.

This will not stop magic circle firms from thinking up imaginative extras. Take A&O’s forthcoming 16 per cent (minimum) bonus. According to a firm-wide email from managing partner John Rink, A&O will make that bonus available across the practice, to fee-earners and support staff alike.

The larger mid-sized firms will stabilise at a slightly lower level. A few, such as Richards Butler, may match the magic circle, but DLA’s stance looks like the norm; it will raise newly-qualified levels from £40,000 to £45,000. In the same way as global firms, DLA and the other national practices have to manage different expectations in different locations. Oddly, the most problematic market for the national firms is Birmingham, where Wragge & Co’s dominance means that its local competitors jump through hoops. Wragges’ mischievous tactic is usually to broadcast one figure (this year £33,000), wait for local rivals to match it, and then – ho, ho, ho – raise it again.

Despite the softening market, recruiters report as much mobility as ever. But these are more sober times, and there is an increasing distaste for the inflationary spiral. Feel a shiver? That’ll be the chill wind of reality.