I came across this Salary Chart for Solo Practitioners, updated as of January 21, 2007. I can’t say that it’s all that scientific, since it sampled 244 respondents. But for what it is worth, according to the chart, median salary for a solo 1-4 years out is $50k, 5-9 years, $80k, 10-19 years – 82k and 20 years or more, $110,000. Not surprisingly, salaries vary by city, where Houston solos earn $100k, and and Atlanta solos down at $50k (it’s not clear how experienced the solos in each city were). As for practice area, all seem very close n range; family law is on the low end with a median of $55k, most others up around $75k.
The chart corroborates a couple of observations I’ve had about solos and salary. First, for newbie lawyers (under 5 years out of school) who don’t have the $160k large firm option, solo practice either matches or exceeds the salaries that these lawyers would earn at a small firm or working for a prosecutor or public defender. Farther down the line, solo practice continues to match earnings at other alternative employment until leveling off at around the 10 year mark. At that point, I think solos have a choice if they want to increase earnings: either diversify their business model to take on alternative fee or contingency cases, or outsource or hire an associate, and earn a profit off that person’s work.
As for large firm attorneys, the comparison is obviously different. Initially, you may take a pay cut moving from a large firm to solo practice, unless you can take one or two “anchor clients” who can guarantee a decent baseload income. At the same time, you gain more flexibility over your schedule and more hands on experience. And though you’ll still work hard, you’ll likely work less than the regular 60-70 hours that large firm associates put in on a regular basis. And over time, having a “biglaw” specialty will give a larger payout in the future. You may not regularly match the salary of a biglaw rainmaker/partner, but you can certainly earn 4-5 times what the average solo does.