Many new lawyers at the nation's biggest firms continue to reap fat paychecks despite attorney layoffs across the country caused by the recession and a drop in merger work, according to a new study.

The National Law Journal, a weekly trade publication, showed that first-year associates at leading firms continue to earn anywhere from $52,000 to $83,000 annually as of April 1.That top figure is being paid to first-year associates employed at the New York-based firms of Debevoise & Plimpton, Shearman & Sterling and Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy.

Many lawyers, particularly some of the highly paid associates at the largest law firms, found themselves at year-end looking for a job," the paper reported.

Nevertheless, many first-time lawyers continued to reap fat paychecks.

In some cases, these salaries have remained the same instead of increasing. For example, Los Angeles-based Latham & Watkins is paying first-year associates $70,000, the same amount as in 1990.

A sample of first-year salaries from other law firms across the country are: $68,000 at Boston's Choate, Hall & Stewart; $52,000 at Dallas' Gardere & Wynne; $51,000 plus $5,500 bonus at Houston's Butler & Binion; $53,000 plus $3,000 stipend at St. Louis' Lewis, Rice & Fingersh; $65,000 at San Francisco's Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and $67,500 at the Washington firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow.

Entry-level lawyers who work for the federal government earn far less.

For example at the Securities and Exchange Commission, they earn $31,116 to $40,449 and at the Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency $31,116.

The survey also gives examples of salaries paid in 1990 to in-house counsel at major corporations. Among those cited were Walter Alford of BellSouth Corp. in Atlanta, who earned $412,500; Raymond Burke of NYNEX Corp., who earned $438,000 and James Callison of Delta Air Lines who earned $317,086.