Now that several top-tier law firms have given first-year associates a big raise to $160,000, some of their smaller regional competitors say they're enjoying the consequence: a bump in business.

"There's a surge of new work coming in," said Stuart Liner of Liner Yankelevitz Sunshine & Regenstreif LLP, a regional firm with 85 lawyers. "It's been a boon to those of us who are able to price more efficiently."

Although rates vary, a smaller regional law firm might charge half or a little more than half of what a big national firm in the next skyscraper might charge. Top partners at regional firms may charge $350 to $700 an hour, but they can cost $1,000 an hour at the nation's big-name firms.

And now that salaries for lawyers are going up in the big firms, there's a belief that the rates the big firms charge their clients may go up soon, widening the gulf between big firms and small.

"Each firm is individually reacting to this phenomenon," said Dan Hatch, head of the partner practice at Major Lindsey & Africa LLC. "But there certainly are firms that will raise their rates to pay for this cost."

The phenomenon, as he referred to it, is the recent surge in pay for lawyers.

The pay for first-year associates at top firms had held steady at about $125,000 since about 2000, with a few exceptions. But a round of raises started in late 2005 and are continuing today.

Early this month O'Melveny & Myers LLP, an international firm that was founded in Los Angeles, raised its starting pay for first year associates to $160,000 firmwide. L.A.-based Quinn Emanuel Oliver Urquhart & Hedges LLP bumped first-year pay to $160,000 in February and Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP and Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP followed.

At the time of the last raise, Quinn's Bill Urquhart said the firm was responding to salary increases in the New York market, which has a higher pay scale.

Some other big firms with L.A.-origins, such as Latham & Watkins LLP, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP and Paul Hastings Janofsky & Walker LLP have all given their New York associates $160,000, but are clinging to $145,000 in Los Angeles at least for now.

Most top-paying firms don't want to talk about it. Quinn, Latham, O'Melveny and Gibson Dunn all declined interviews.

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