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BigFirm Associate Salaries Are Really Small Potatoes When You Do the Math

by Carolyn Elefant on September 28, 2005 · 16 comments

in Biglaw Practice and Issues, Legal Profession Trends

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At least one small firm lawyer isn’t very impressed by the recent news that first year associate salaries at some firms will increase to $135,000.  In a listserve post, attorney Robert Hughes noted that:

Let’s see.  $135,000 per year equals $2600 per week divided by about 90 hours per week equals $28.85 per hour.  What a deal.  I pay contract lawyers this much.  I rate in the top 1% of law firms nationwide in my payrates.  Hooray!

So if you’ve turned up your nose at small firm practice because you thought it couldn’t match a large firm salary, you may want to think again.  $135k a year is plenty of money (which you might really need if you have family or loans).   But how long is that kind of pay worth it to you?

  • http://temp.starklawlibrary.org/blog/archive/2005_09.html#004254 Stark County Law Library Blawg

    “BigFirm Associate Salaries Are Really Small Potatoes When You Do the Math”

    Posted by Carolyn Elefant: ?t least one small firm lawyer isn’t very impressed by the recent news [Reg. Req.] a

  • http://temp.starklawlibrary.org/blog/archive/2005_09.html#004254 Stark County Law Library Blawg

    “BigFirm Associate Salaries Are Really Small Potatoes When You Do the Math”

    Posted by Carolyn Elefant: ?t least one small firm lawyer isn’t very impressed by the recent news [Reg. Req.] a

  • Tim

    Way off. Big firm associates don’t bill 90 hours a week or 4500 a year. His $28 an hour to contract lawyers is only for real work. Moreover, they don’t do anywhere close to 90 in the office hours either. More like 50.

  • Tim

    Way off. Big firm associates don’t bill 90 hours a week or 4500 a year. His $28 an hour to contract lawyers is only for real work. Moreover, they don’t do anywhere close to 90 in the office hours either. More like 50.

  • http://www.biglawassociate.blogspot.com/ BigLaw Associate

    I agree with Tim. As much as I don’t like BigLaw and have come to dislike my BigLaw job, this is nowhere close! The hours are long, and once in a blue moon you may do a 90 hour week, but that is very rare! An average of 50 to 60 hours is more like it. Still too much though, and it may feel like 90 hours ’cause it can be so mindnumbingly boring!

  • http://www.biglawassociate.blogspot.com/ BigLaw Associate

    I agree with Tim. As much as I don’t like BigLaw and have come to dislike my BigLaw job, this is nowhere close! The hours are long, and once in a blue moon you may do a 90 hour week, but that is very rare! An average of 50 to 60 hours is more like it. Still too much though, and it may feel like 90 hours ’cause it can be so mindnumbingly boring!

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    Thanks to both readers for pointing out these discrepancies. At 50 hours a week will bump the rate up to $68/hr which is actually not a bad hourly rate, especially when you factor in the benefits. That kind of hourly rate, especially considering the steady pay, could certainly make it harder to leave – which I imagine is precisely why the firms proposed the increase.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    Thanks to both readers for pointing out these discrepancies. At 50 hours a week will bump the rate up to $68/hr which is actually not a bad hourly rate, especially when you factor in the benefits. That kind of hourly rate, especially considering the steady pay, could certainly make it harder to leave – which I imagine is precisely why the firms proposed the increase.

  • Tim

    While that it true, I’d go even further and point out that very few law firm lawyers BILL even 50 hours a week, either. Even 40 is doing very well (2,000 a year). Now, I too hate my biglaw job and want to escape, but I’m just saying it is an exaggeration when biglaw lawyer talk about “80 hour week” or even “60 hour weeks.” 8 out of 10 of us arrive at the office after 9:45 and leave by 6:30 or 7–and spend 3 hours a day doing things like leaving comments on blogs.
    Saying “80 hours a week” is for impressing (not impressive actually) friends and family.
    Now, the point of the original comment is valid. Let’s do the real math. The average big firm associate–except perhaps at the very top NY firms–puts in 2,200 to 2,300 “real” hours devoted to her job a year (billable, nonbillable time in office, travel time, time having to check blackberry, working at home). Looking at us as hourly workers like folks who work at McDonald’s, a salary of $125,000 means we get paid $56 an “hour.”
    I would bet that 9 out of 10 solos would be happy to get that sort of efficiency. If you work 40 real hours a week, you’d need to get paid for 25 of them at $90 an hour. Doable but not easy. Does the average solo BRING HOME $125,000 a year after overhead?
    Now, I would also say it is not all about the money. Just pointing out the math for those who care about the money.

  • Tim

    While that it true, I’d go even further and point out that very few law firm lawyers BILL even 50 hours a week, either. Even 40 is doing very well (2,000 a year). Now, I too hate my biglaw job and want to escape, but I’m just saying it is an exaggeration when biglaw lawyer talk about “80 hour week” or even “60 hour weeks.” 8 out of 10 of us arrive at the office after 9:45 and leave by 6:30 or 7–and spend 3 hours a day doing things like leaving comments on blogs.
    Saying “80 hours a week” is for impressing (not impressive actually) friends and family.
    Now, the point of the original comment is valid. Let’s do the real math. The average big firm associate–except perhaps at the very top NY firms–puts in 2,200 to 2,300 “real” hours devoted to her job a year (billable, nonbillable time in office, travel time, time having to check blackberry, working at home). Looking at us as hourly workers like folks who work at McDonald’s, a salary of $125,000 means we get paid $56 an “hour.”
    I would bet that 9 out of 10 solos would be happy to get that sort of efficiency. If you work 40 real hours a week, you’d need to get paid for 25 of them at $90 an hour. Doable but not easy. Does the average solo BRING HOME $125,000 a year after overhead?
    Now, I would also say it is not all about the money. Just pointing out the math for those who care about the money.

  • http://www.attorneyisaacs.com Marshall R. Isaacs

    While I am a solo and love waving my “Solo Flag”, I have to agree with your detractors, Carolyn. First of all, it takes most solos years and years at low to mid-five figure salaries before attaining the knowledge and skill to go solo. So you are really comparing 1st years with 6th, 7th and 8th years (i.e. apples and oranges). Secondly, the prestige of biglaw often allows biglaw alum to obtain cushy, 9 to 5 jobs at banks and other large institutions for very enviable salaries.

  • http://www.attorneyisaacs.com Marshall R. Isaacs

    While I am a solo and love waving my “Solo Flag”, I have to agree with your detractors, Carolyn. First of all, it takes most solos years and years at low to mid-five figure salaries before attaining the knowledge and skill to go solo. So you are really comparing 1st years with 6th, 7th and 8th years (i.e. apples and oranges). Secondly, the prestige of biglaw often allows biglaw alum to obtain cushy, 9 to 5 jobs at banks and other large institutions for very enviable salaries.

  • BigLaw Refugee

    As a refugee of BigLaw, and certainly no defender of BigLaw, I have to agree with the consensus here. There is a reason that so many young lawyers flock to the big firms. You can’t dispute that the money is good.
    To put together the math of the other posts, and to compare apples-to-apples, a BigLaw firm that pays $135,000 to its first year associates probably pays at LEAST $185,000 to a 6th year associate (without factoring in bonuses). That’s $3558/week. And lets assume a very busy year — 2600 billiable hours, or 50 billables/week. That comes to just over $71/hour. And with that kind of a billable year, you could probably expect a significant bonus (possibly another $20-50K) on top of that at most big firms.
    Also not factored into this equation is the value of the benefits you’d receive from the firm, including, at most big firms, some kind of matching contribution on a retirement plan.
    You’d have to be a pretty damn good solo, and I’d expect, have to work even longer hours, to match all of that.

  • BigLaw Refugee

    As a refugee of BigLaw, and certainly no defender of BigLaw, I have to agree with the consensus here. There is a reason that so many young lawyers flock to the big firms. You can’t dispute that the money is good.
    To put together the math of the other posts, and to compare apples-to-apples, a BigLaw firm that pays $135,000 to its first year associates probably pays at LEAST $185,000 to a 6th year associate (without factoring in bonuses). That’s $3558/week. And lets assume a very busy year — 2600 billiable hours, or 50 billables/week. That comes to just over $71/hour. And with that kind of a billable year, you could probably expect a significant bonus (possibly another $20-50K) on top of that at most big firms.
    Also not factored into this equation is the value of the benefits you’d receive from the firm, including, at most big firms, some kind of matching contribution on a retirement plan.
    You’d have to be a pretty damn good solo, and I’d expect, have to work even longer hours, to match all of that.

  • http://www.pushinpaper.blogspot.com Amanuensis

    As a Biglaw assocaite myself, I’d add that while the typical Biglaw assocaite may only bill 40-50 hours per week on average, many of those hours come at a torid pace and at inconvenient times, such as nights, weekends, holidays and birthdays. It’s the lack of control over my hours and the inablility to make and keep plans, that drives me insane. Basically, a Biglaw associate is on call 24/7. So, I figure I make like $15.41 per hour before taxes ($135,000 / (24 * 365)). I don’t count my bonus, beucase if I get lucky and get hit by a car on the way to the office to collect said bonus in December, my heirs are SOL.

  • http://www.pushinpaper.blogspot.com Amanuensis

    As a Biglaw assocaite myself, I’d add that while the typical Biglaw assocaite may only bill 40-50 hours per week on average, many of those hours come at a torid pace and at inconvenient times, such as nights, weekends, holidays and birthdays. It’s the lack of control over my hours and the inablility to make and keep plans, that drives me insane. Basically, a Biglaw associate is on call 24/7. So, I figure I make like $15.41 per hour before taxes ($135,000 / (24 * 365)). I don’t count my bonus, beucase if I get lucky and get hit by a car on the way to the office to collect said bonus in December, my heirs are SOL.

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