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What Solos Earn

by Carolyn Elefant on January 29, 2007 · 14 comments

in Setting and Collecting Fees, What Solos Earn

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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.

  • Sarah Unsicker

    While browsing the site, I noticed a difference in solo salary by gender — $75,000 for males as opposed to $47,900 for females! What a difference!!
    I wonder how much of this is due to choices individuals make. I chose to be solo, in part, so I can choose my working hours and work less some times, even though that will result in less income. I am not the primary breadwinner, and for me family is more important than higher salary. On the other hand, others may feel societal or individual pressure to work more and bring home more money — these people may choose to work more!

  • Sarah Unsicker

    While browsing the site, I noticed a difference in solo salary by gender — $75,000 for males as opposed to $47,900 for females! What a difference!!
    I wonder how much of this is due to choices individuals make. I chose to be solo, in part, so I can choose my working hours and work less some times, even though that will result in less income. I am not the primary breadwinner, and for me family is more important than higher salary. On the other hand, others may feel societal or individual pressure to work more and bring home more money — these people may choose to work more!

  • http://www.susancartierliebel.typepad.com Susan Cartier Liebel

    Although you didn’t create this chart (if you had I KNOW it would have been much more detailed and “scientific”). However, this chart..and its sister charts..are very suspect as to sampling size, the participants, their unique circumstances of each solo. It is also “median” earnings meaning if 3 solos were sampled and they earned as follows: $15,000, 40,000, 200,000, the median would be $40,000 (the average would be $85,000.) It is an awkward representation and highly vulnerable to serious challenge.

  • http://www.susancartierliebel.typepad.com Susan Cartier Liebel

    Although you didn’t create this chart (if you had I KNOW it would have been much more detailed and “scientific”). However, this chart..and its sister charts..are very suspect as to sampling size, the participants, their unique circumstances of each solo. It is also “median” earnings meaning if 3 solos were sampled and they earned as follows: $15,000, 40,000, 200,000, the median would be $40,000 (the average would be $85,000.) It is an awkward representation and highly vulnerable to serious challenge.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    I did hesitate to put up the chart, as there’s no attribution, data sources, etc…But this is a question that many do have about solo practice. I welcome other information on solo salaries from other sources.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    I did hesitate to put up the chart, as there’s no attribution, data sources, etc…But this is a question that many do have about solo practice. I welcome other information on solo salaries from other sources.

  • Keith Finch

    I agree that the survey is perhaps not that scientific, but here’s a much more authoritative survey for 2005 by the Texas State Bar (PDF link):
    http://tinyurl.com/2hlb2r
    Note in particular page 10, which has the following median income figures for solos based on years of experience:
    2 or fewer: $48K
    3 to 6: $71K
    7 to 10: $65K
    11 to 15: $90K
    16 to 20: $146K
    21 to 25: $85K
    Over 25: $94K
    The survey included 407 solos. Also, from adding up the numbers in the first column on page 9, you can see that although 12% of solos earned less than $30K, 15% or so earned more than $200K.

  • Keith Finch

    I agree that the survey is perhaps not that scientific, but here’s a much more authoritative survey for 2005 by the Texas State Bar (PDF link):
    http://tinyurl.com/2hlb2r
    Note in particular page 10, which has the following median income figures for solos based on years of experience:
    2 or fewer: $48K
    3 to 6: $71K
    7 to 10: $65K
    11 to 15: $90K
    16 to 20: $146K
    21 to 25: $85K
    Over 25: $94K
    The survey included 407 solos. Also, from adding up the numbers in the first column on page 9, you can see that although 12% of solos earned less than $30K, 15% or so earned more than $200K.

  • Anonymous

    Well, that’s a pretty depressing set of numbers. Many undergraduate degrees apparently lead to higher pay than a JD. Solos need to stop being such bottom feeders and try to find a way to challenge large firms directly. There must be a way for the small fry to get a piece of the highly compensated action.

  • Anonymous

    Well, that’s a pretty depressing set of numbers. Many undergraduate degrees apparently lead to higher pay than a JD. Solos need to stop being such bottom feeders and try to find a way to challenge large firms directly. There must be a way for the small fry to get a piece of the highly compensated action.

  • Phil

    Just to respond to an earlier comment about solos competing with large firms. I am not a solo, but I live in the Philadelphia area. Recently the PA State Senator Fumo was indicted for a list of corruption charges. One part of the indictment detailed Fumo’s relationship with Dilworth Paxon (I think, or another large firm). Fumo was paid over 1 million dollars a year as “of counsel” to the firm. In return Fumo would leverage corporations that needed favorable treatment in the Senate to hire Dilworth to do millions of dollars worth of legal work. You can’t compete with that, and trust me, all of the large firms have similiar arrangements to get the lucrative corporate work.

  • Phil

    Just to respond to an earlier comment about solos competing with large firms. I am not a solo, but I live in the Philadelphia area. Recently the PA State Senator Fumo was indicted for a list of corruption charges. One part of the indictment detailed Fumo’s relationship with Dilworth Paxon (I think, or another large firm). Fumo was paid over 1 million dollars a year as “of counsel” to the firm. In return Fumo would leverage corporations that needed favorable treatment in the Senate to hire Dilworth to do millions of dollars worth of legal work. You can’t compete with that, and trust me, all of the large firms have similiar arrangements to get the lucrative corporate work.

  • Anonymous

    I noticed that solos have a higher hourly rate than firms in general, according to those charts.
    Could the lower reported salaries for solos have anything to do with the fact that solos have significant control over their taxable income? I’m not saying that solos are tax cheats……but there are opportunities to run a few expenses here and there through the business.

  • Anonymous

    I noticed that solos have a higher hourly rate than firms in general, according to those charts.
    Could the lower reported salaries for solos have anything to do with the fact that solos have significant control over their taxable income? I’m not saying that solos are tax cheats……but there are opportunities to run a few expenses here and there through the business.

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