The top starting salary for cream of the crop new lawyers has soared to a record $76,000 but even the average - $37,000 - for neophyte lawyers in the class of 1988 is an all-time high, an American Bar Association "Journal" poll showed Saturday.

"The $76,000 is being paid by one law firm, Weil-Gotshal-Manges in New York," Larry Bodine, editor of the journal reported in an an interview."Mega salaries (anything over $60,000), a trend started in the mid-1970s by another New York law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, are not typical. They are reserved for only about 3,000 of the 30,000 new graduates each year."

"At the highest level, you're talking about seven day a week work, 8 a.m. to 7 or 8 at night," Bodine said, recalling a recent "Journal" report detailing working conditions and showing discontent among some of the most highly paid neophytes on staffs of huge law firms in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago.

"We're talking a 70-hour or better week. It's like one person working two 35-hour a week jobs."

Bodine contends the average of $37,000 for a starting lawyer is "pretty handsome.

"Ten years ago the average starting pay was below $20,000 a year," he said.

"I would say $37,000 now is a pretty handsome salary for someone coming out of law school."

Bodine explained that competition for the best law school graduates has pushed up salaries.

"The size of the legal profession and law firm membership has practically doubled overnight," he said. "A law firm never used to be over 500 members. Now one, Baker and McKenzie in Chicago, is over a thousand.

The survey report was based on a poll of 515 lawyers - half ABA members and half non-members - between June 13 and 20. The margin of error is five percentage points, plus or minus.

Other highlights from the survey report in the August "ABA Journal":

-4.9 percent said new associates will make less than $20,000.

-57.5 percent of the lawyers believe that very high starting salaries are bad for the profession.