My Shingle

The Other Side of Biglaw Salaries

by Carolyn Elefant on October 4, 2005 · 14 comments

in Big Law/Small Law, Biglaw Practice and Issues, Legal Profession Trends, What Solos Earn

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This past post on comments by a solo deconstructing biglaw salaries (basically saying that the hourly rate is more along the lines of $30/hour if an associate works 90 hours a week) has generated many comments which I thought I’d address in an additional post.  First, thanks to readers who have pointed out that a 90 hour work week at biglaw is an exaggeration and that hours are are much actually far less.  Yale Law School’s Truth About the Billable Hour shows that on average, an associate will work 50 hours a week to bill 37.5 hour.  Thus, to bill 1800 hours over a 47 week year, an associate must work around 2350 hours (the study, I think adds commute time but I’ve not done that here) which comes to around $58/hr based on a $135,000 salary.  My commentors said that actual time at work is less, with some calculating an hourly payment of as much as $71/hr for a sixth or seventh year associate making at least $185,000.  And they also point out that law firm associates receive benefits, including health care (a biggie), malpractice coverage, office space and CLE, all of which comes out of a solo’s paycheck.

So clearly, biglaw offers benefits to young attorneys.  I realize that I often play these down at my site, if only because the mainstream legal media
constantly glamorizes and touts the accomplishments of large firms life
(full disclosure:  as an ALM affiliate blogger, I guess I’m one of them
now!).  But I’m the first to admit, that biglaw offers benefits to
young attorneys at least for a time.  You earn a good salary, have the
opportunity for great training through coursework if not hands on
experience and you make connections that can help you down the road.
In fact, this will probably surprise you, but if a young  young
attorney with unlimited career options wanted to hang a shingle just
out of law school, I’d advise him to wait and first take a federal
district court clerkship followed by a year or two stint at the best
firm he could find, all the while working like crazy to establish a
reputation for himself.  Those kinds of credentials will forever help
you in solo practice.

Moneywise, it’s hard to compare large and small firm attorneys.  Sure,
a solo practitioner with a general practice in a non-metropolitan area
is going to earn far less than a biglaw attorney even in the same
geographic location.  But that’s the nature of the type of law, not the
size of the practice.  For solos practicing in traditionally biglaw
fields – from energy regulation (my field) to Supreme Court or
appellate practice to telecom or securities law, the salaries are much
more comparable to, and indeed, even surpass large firm partner
salaries.  Moreover, many of these solos have at least one associate,
which also generates income.  I think that many of my readers are
thinking too small, assuming that family law, tax law and estates and
wills are the only topics for solo practices (not that some solos do
awfully well in these fields either, it’s just that there’s lots of
competition).  And in fact, one reason for my site is to make unhappy
large firm associates recognize that they can take those skills and
experience and turn it into a lucrative practice.

But again, I’ll admit that not all solos earn as much as biglaw
partners.  And that’s the other component to consider about solo practice.  As a
poll that I conducted at my site bears out,
most lawyers start a practice for non-financial reasons, i.e., to be
their own boss rather than to get rich.  And with so many associates unhappy at large firms, there’s something to be said for that too.

So, readers, thanks for calling me on the carpet on this one.  I don’t
want my site to be known as a biglaw basher or to taste of sour grapes
by lawyers for whom biglaw didn’t work out.  Above all, I want to
continue to serve as a resource and inspiration to lawyers who have
dreams or desires that aren’t being met at large firms (or other places
of employment) for whom solo practice might offer some answers.

  • http://unusedandunusable.powerblogs.com Eh Nonymous

    I, too, wish to disagree.
    $71 is preposterous. 1800 hours is preposterous – is that the minimum? The quota? Will you be fired for only billing 1750? What about the firms with a quota of 2100? Or a recommended minimum above that?
    Also, a “47 week year”? They’re taking 5 weeks of vacation? Even with firm holidays (some of which first years must work in any case) I seldom hear of lawyers taking so long away from a BigLaw practice.
    And was this 47 work week a 7 day a week work week?
    I recommend reading, for example, Opinionistas, the Anonymous Lawyer, and similar sources for some sanity-checking of the rosy picture. I’m not at BigLaw, but I’ve been there. It’s not roses, no matter how many 4 star restaurants you go to.

  • http://unusedandunusable.powerblogs.com Eh Nonymous

    I, too, wish to disagree.
    $71 is preposterous. 1800 hours is preposterous – is that the minimum? The quota? Will you be fired for only billing 1750? What about the firms with a quota of 2100? Or a recommended minimum above that?
    Also, a “47 week year”? They’re taking 5 weeks of vacation? Even with firm holidays (some of which first years must work in any case) I seldom hear of lawyers taking so long away from a BigLaw practice.
    And was this 47 work week a 7 day a week work week?
    I recommend reading, for example, Opinionistas, the Anonymous Lawyer, and similar sources for some sanity-checking of the rosy picture. I’m not at BigLaw, but I’ve been there. It’s not roses, no matter how many 4 star restaurants you go to.

  • http://tcattorney.typepad.com Enrico Schaefer

    Carolyn is right. Many independent practioners make more than they did as partners at larger firms. Further, young attonreys typically do make more at large law firms to srart. My experience is that they quickly move from a priority of pay, to a priority of experience. Big law associates rarely get to take meaningful depositions or go to court (except to carry soemone elses bags).

  • http://tcattorney.typepad.com Enrico Schaefer

    Carolyn is right. Many independent practioners make more than they did as partners at larger firms. Further, young attonreys typically do make more at large law firms to srart. My experience is that they quickly move from a priority of pay, to a priority of experience. Big law associates rarely get to take meaningful depositions or go to court (except to carry soemone elses bags).

  • http://legalblogwatch.typepad.com/legal_blog_watch/2005/10/blawg_review_27.html Inside Opinions: Legal Blogs

    Blawg Review #27

    I’m no attorney. And it’s been said that I have as much judicial experience as Harriet Miers. All true. What I am is a journalist who covers legal blogging–blawgging, to use Denise Howell’s coinage. That’s why I open this week’s

  • http://legalblogwatch.typepad.com/legal_blog_watch/2005/10/blawg_review_27.html Inside Opinions: Legal Blogs

    Blawg Review #27

    I’m no attorney. And it’s been said that I have as much judicial experience as Harriet Miers. All true. What I am is a journalist who covers legal blogging–blawgging, to use Denise Howell’s coinage. That’s why I open this week’s

  • Stephen Terrell

    Indiana University has been tracking lawyer satisfaction over the past 15 years. The results as I understand them show “bigfirm” lawyers making more money, but solos and small firm lawyers being happier and with a much higher satisfaction with their career. We are making arrangements for a presentation on this study at the 2006 Indiana Solo & Small Firm Conference in Bloomington, Indiana, June 1-3, 2006

  • Stephen Terrell

    Indiana University has been tracking lawyer satisfaction over the past 15 years. The results as I understand them show “bigfirm” lawyers making more money, but solos and small firm lawyers being happier and with a much higher satisfaction with their career. We are making arrangements for a presentation on this study at the 2006 Indiana Solo & Small Firm Conference in Bloomington, Indiana, June 1-3, 2006

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