WHAT IS the price of tedium? In New York this year, for a young lawyer from a top law school, it's about $70,000.

That's the starting salary that the largest law firms in New York are offering to this year's brightest graduates from Harvard, Yale and other top law schools. At Washington's top firms, the starting salaries are $50,000 or more. And if that seems like an awful lot of money to pay young men and women who have not practiced law for a day in their lives, consider this:

The work of young associates at large law firms is often so boring or trivial that many lawyers would refuse to do it -- if the money weren't so good.

Despite the big bucks, many young lawyers are turning down offers from large firms -- or leaving after a few years -- because the money isn't enough to keep them working at a job they hate.

The law firms' annual dance over starting salaries raises some central questions about the nature of modern legal practice: Why does it cost so much to lure legal talent? And why have many young lawyers decided that that kind of life is not worth it, at $70,000 -- or any price?

Part of the reason for skyrocketing salaries is a simple matter of demand exceeding supply. Major law firms today resemble the monster plant in "Little Shop of Horrors," with an incessant, increasing need to devour young lawyers to nourish the fast-growing "full-service" firm.

At the same time, the pool of students at the top law schools from which the firms do almost all their hiring has remained constant. One New York law firm -- Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom -- ballooned by 140 lawyers last year alone, nearly the size of the entire graduating class of Yale Law School. At Harvard, some 700 firms send recruiters to interview a graduating class of about 500. If Cravath doesn't get them, Skadden Arps will.

To compete successfully for the best and brightest, and to maintain their image in the eyes of clients and recruits as top-tier firms, partners believe, they can't afford not to match the going rate.

After Cravath, Swaine & Moore set off the bidding war for young lawyers last year by tacking a $12,000 "housing allowance" on to its $53,000 starting salary, other New York firms moaned. One firm issued a press release valiantly asserting that it would not cave in. Then it -- and almost all the other major firms in the city -- fell grudgingly into line. The ripple effects raised salaries from Boston to Los Angeles. Washington firms hiked their starting pay from about $42,000 to $50,000. (By contrast, an inexperienced lawyer starting work at the Justice Department makes slightly more than $27,000 -- a princely sum compared to the $15,000 to $20,000 that many public-interest groups pay starting lawyers.)

The competition for warm, well-educated legal bodies helps drive the salary wars. But another crucial factor lies in what life is like for many who choose to join the large corporate firm, particularly in New York.

The hours are brutal. The work can be deadly dull -- poring over stacks of documents, researching obscure points of law for briefs that more senior lawyers will write, spending late nights at the printers proofreading prospectuses. The prospect of "making partner" after slaving away for eight, nine or 10 years is remote.

Moreover, the payoff in job satisfaction is, for many, simply inadequate, if it is present at all. The primary clients of large corporate law firms are, not surprisingly, large corporations. Their legal battles, more often than not, pit them against other large corporations. Some lawyers thrive on the process of crafting the best brief or structuring the most intricate corporate transaction. But others find it difficult to care passionately about a problem or dispute that is, at best, morally neutral.

The money is an effort to make up for all that -- first, to lure top law students to the firms, and second, to keep them there longer. In discussing Cravath's salary hike last year, partners there noted that associates were leaving the firm, on average, after fewer than four years. A decade earlier, they stayed nearly five.

Even at today's inflated salaries, associates, whose time is billed in New York at $100 an hour straight out of school, are enormous money-making machines for law firms. The longer they stay, the more experienced and efficient they are, the higher their billing rates are and the more profit they make for partners to divvy up.

But starting pay of $70,000 -- and $10,000 to $20,000 clerkship bonuses, and raises of at least $5,000 for each year of experience, and four- or five-figure year-end bonuses -- may not be enough to hold them.

A Harvard study of graduates of seven northeastern law schools found that, within four years, half the class of 1981 had switched jobs (a figure that did not include one-year judicial clerkships). Of those who left large firms (85 or more lawyers), 40 percent attributed their departure to such reasons as unhappiness, boredom or burnout. In the class of 1959, only 20 percent said their first job switch was due to what the study characterized as "negative" experiences.

Iwas reminded of this flip side of the salary question when I returned to law school recently for a banquet celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Harvard Law Review. What struck me most was the disillusionment in the voices of so many classmates, just a few years out of school.

These were -- from the law firms' point of view -- the cream of the cream of the legal crop: victors in the three-year paper chase, at the top of their class at "the" law school. On the basis of grades or performance in a writing competition, they had made law review, instantly transforming themselves, in the eyes of employers, into the legal elect. Their resumes were studded with summa this and magna that, with impressive-sounding topics for their law-review notes and prestigious clerkships for federal judges.

They had had their pick of jobs. And now they were unhappy -- many of them -- with the choices they had made.

The classmate at the banquet who suprised me most was a man who had been so eager to start practicing law that he did not want to "waste" a year clerking. He had spent a summer working at an elite New York firm that specializes in "M & A" -- mergers and acquisitions -- facilitating or frustrating corporate takeovers, depending on which outcome the client desires. He loved the intellectual challenge and the thrill of corporate battle and could barely wait to return after graduation. Figuring he would be spending so much time at work that a small place would suffice, he rented a tiny studio apartment near the office.

I saw him at the banquet for the first time since graduation and asked how he was enjoying life at the firm.

He no longer worked there. My first thought was that he had become an investment banker, working even longer hours for even more money. But it turned out he had moved to a firm in another city. The work at his new job, the lapsed M & A lawyer explained ruefully, was no longer on the "cutting edge," devising the most imaginative corporate manuevers to fend off the biggest takeovers. The salary was tens of thousands of dollars less. But the hours were more reasonable.

The previous year, the M & A lawyer said, he had "billed" 3,000 hours -- a staggering workload that amounts to 60 billable hours a week, assuming two weeks of vacation. Billable hours do not constitute every hour a lawyer is at the office, only those in which work is done that can reasonably be charged to a client. Even the most efficient lawyer works perhaps 12 hours for every 10 billable ones. In Washington, an average associate will bill about 1,800 hours in a year; New York firms say they expect associates to bill about 2,100. Billing 3,000 hours in a year means devoting nearly every waking moment to work.

His last big case for the New York firm involved a company on the West Coast. The New York lawyers found that, after 6:15 p.m., Pacific time, they could not reach the West Coast lawyers working with them. At 9:15 in New York, of course, the lawyers were still in the office, feeling superior to their West Coast colleagues who wimped out and left so early.

Then the M & A lawyer went out to the coast to work with the lawyers there on the case. With no choice but to conform to their hours, he discovered life outside the law firm, chunks of time called evenings and weekends. And he found that the West Coast lawyers made fun of the New Yorkers for being foolish enough to be stuck in the office so late every night.

The M & A lawyer reassessed his life. He left New York shortly thereafter.

Another classmate works at a prestigious New York firm on a headline-making piece of corporate litigation. During the previous 12 months, he said, he had billed nearly 4,000 hours, an astronomical amount, even for New York. He spent just five days outside the office.

This associate went to the partner he works for. Unless his hours were reduced, he said, he would leave the firm. The partner reflected for a moment, then proposed what seemed to him an equitable solution. From now on, the partner promised, the associate would have Sundays off.

No one should be weeping for lawyers who had all the options and chose to rake in the bucks from big corporate firms. But it is troubling to hear that sort of cynicism from the supposedly best and brightest, who find themselves disillusioned before they turn 30.

What did they expect practicing law would be like? The truth is that many of them showed up for the first day of law school with little concept of what the job entails. By the time they figured out that their lives would bear little resemblance to Perry Mason's or Clarence Darrow's, they were saddled with student loans: The average Harvard law graduate last year left with a diploma and more than $30,000 in debt. And they had enjoyed a glimpse of the good life, earning as much as $1,200 weekly in their summer jobs at New York firms and wooed to return with theater tickets, rafting trips and three-star lunches.

"The fundamental problem is that many, many people go to law school without really thinking about what they're getting themselves into," says a New York legal headhunter who makes her living finding new places for unhappy associates. "The next thing they know, they've gotten themselves up to their necks in hock with loans and they end up at firms and they're miserable."

A classmate at a large New York firm, tired of dragging home from the office each night at 9:30 or later and of having to beg for weekends off, says she would "be thrilled to take a salary cut" for a job, perhaps in legal services, perhaps in government, that she would find more interesting and socially useful. But such positions are scarce -- and meanwhile, she and her husband, also a lawyer, are looking at Upper West Side apartments in the $300,000 range.

Sticking it out and managing to make partner means more money, but not necessarily more satisfaction. A partner at a New York firm once described his job to me as helping shift money from one deep pocket to another. Another, a well-regarded trial lawyer who handles some of the most interesting cases in the country, said that the only part of work he truly enjoyed was the 10 percent he devoted to public-interest cases. The rest was simply to pay for "all this," he said, gesturing at his large corner office and the pricey modern art and the photograph of his vacation home on the Cape.

Paradoxically, the ultimate effect of the salary increases may be to make life for young lawyers even more unpleasant.

With a more careful eye on the bottom line, firms may be less willing to underwrite pro bono work that many lawyers find more rewarding than their daily, billable fare, not only because they are devoting their talents to the public good, but because such cases may pose more interesting questions than the ramifications of the latest tinkering with the Internal Revenue Code.

And in order to be able to afford the salaries, firms will put increased pressure on associates to bill even more hours. This year one Washington law firm with a reputation as a relatively mellow place to work increased the minimum number of hours it expected associates to bill by 100, from 1,650 to 1,750, and warned that base pay could be reduced if associates failed to bill at least 1,650. Another major firm here summoned its associates -- not renowned for spending days at the beach -- and chastised them for not working hard enough.

"We've had graduates coming back and saying if people understood what these salaries were going to cost them in non-financial terms, they would beg the places to turn back the calendar and resist the salary increases," said Yale Law School Associate Dean Jamienne Studley.

This is not to suggest that every lawyer at every firm is miserable. Few rate such dire terms. But few really love their work. They spend a lot of time pondering what to do next. They talk to headhunters. They take breaks from the six-minute intervals in which they bill their time to sit at the word processor and fiddle with the latest version of their resumes.

My younger brother is now a first-year law student. He talks about finding a public-interest job, working as a prosecutor, becoming an entrepreneur. This summer he is working as a public defender in Massachusetts. Like so many of the people I started law school with six years ago, he insists he is not interested in joining a large firm. He is sincere, but the people who said the same thing when I sat next to them in torts and contracts are now at Covington and Cravath.

And as I listened to my classmates talk about their lives, I could not help but worry about my brother's future: not whether he will be successful, but whether he will be happy.

Ruth Marcus covers legal affairs for The Washington Post.