Sunday, February 26, 2012

Greedy Evil lawyers?

So how much do lawyers really make? They HAVE to be rolling in dough . . .

The answer to that question is that it depends. Where you are living, what you do as a specialty, and who you work for make huge differences in what your earnings actually are and when you get the reward. (This cartoon comes up in images if your search for 'evil lawyers' on

First of all, with the recession, there are many more lawyers graduating from law school than jobs available, particularly in the private sector. If you are watching a Law and Order episode, the assistant to the assistant DA (the chick) potentially makes 60K and the (male) assistant DA makes around 75k. The DA, herself/himself, usually an elected/political position, often has a salary around 100K. The public defender, which is usually the job of a first year lawyer without other prospects or just really interested in helping society, is 35K-40K. Keep in mind that many of them have loans greater than Hubby JD's 90K since I paid for his living expenses.

Moving to the private sector in a big firm, starting salary is 90-100K (adjust upward by 20-40K in a large LA/Chicago/NY city).  However, the firms and companies that are hiring in that range are VERY few. Only the top 5% of law students at good name schools even have a chance at interviewing for those spots. A small to mid-sized firm might offer 50-60K as its starting salary. A few people get positions in companies as 'in house counsel,' but it is also very rare. In house counsels make 80K-100K, but have an advantage of a less stressful environment due to the differing methods of repayment.

Some people go into personal injury/divorce/family law. They often have a low base salary 30-40K and may or may not get bonuses based on judgments awarded.  It is very 'feast of famine' for those people and only a few individuals in the country make those million dollar verdicts. Most people are seeing 100 'slip and fall' cases to get a single $10,000 verdict.  (Of which the lawyer usually gets 1/3).  Did you think they were doing such classy advertising on phonebooks because they think it makes them look like pillars of the community?

Even if you do get the 100K job, almost all firms have something called a 'billable hour goal.' Each lawyer is expected to do 1800 to 2200 billable hours per year. Something is billable when it directly works on a client's case. Lunch is not billable, and there are 'norms' for certain tasks. If it takes a lawyer 7 hours to do a task that usually takes 5 hours, they get 2 billable hours cut off. Making your billable hours often puts you eligible for a bonus; failing to make billable hours will often make you eligible for being out of a job.

To calculate that: 1800 hours over 50 weeks (vacation, sick time) is 36 hours a week. 2200 hours over 50 weeks is 44 hours a week. Now add some time for lunch, commute, having a dentist appointment - many people work 10-12 hour days to get it done. If you end up working 11 hours a day for 50 weeks 5 days a week would be 2750 hours to get that 1800 billable hours. That would drop their 1800 billable hour salary from $55.5/hr to $36/hr. Lawyers who need the 2200 hours will work 6 days a week for the same salary.

Hubby JD is a first year associate and easily spends 45 hours a week at work. Also, he was gifted with a 40 hour long project that is non-billable so he has been working on the weekends to complete it. Hubby JD arrives at 6am and leaves at 6pm. He works all day long without taking lunch (he eats at his desk) and on a good day bills up to 9 hours. At my request, he brought work with him to my 48 hour labor, though he was too nervous to work on it - we watched 12 episodes of Animal Cops and House Hunters instead.

So the morale of the story is that a very few lawyers will make 100K starting out of the gate. Everyone else is going to eke by at much lower salaries. Even if you are making a good salary, you are still going to have to work extremely hard to maintain your job. The inappropriately huge salaries are few and far between and not the norm, though they make great news clips.


  1. Sadly, the picture can be even more bleak than brother graduated from a lower ranking law school in around 2008, and has yet to obtain a job that requires his degree. His family is drowning in his six figure debt, and it breaks my heart every time I hear him say that going to law school was the biggest mistake he ever made. Since experiencing his plight, I have become more aware of the bleak numbers regarding number of law school graduates v. jobs, pretty discouraging.

    1. I'm sure this would be hard on his family, but has he looked into moving to a smaller market where the job prospects are better? I know it sounds weird to say that. I have some college friends who moved to small towns and joined the 'largest practice in the county' - 4 lawyers. Cost of living is cheaper even if the salary is a bit lower.

  2. Yes, actually I think that is an excellent suggestion, and one that they have considered but forgone, I think because his wife does have a good job that she enjoys. I agree with you though that the prospects seem to be better, I live in a small city and they live in a large one and surprisingly enough, things seem quite a bit easier here for many professionals.

  3. For light relief here is a lawyer cartoon

  4. Hi Jane, reading through your blog for the first time and really enjoying your take on things. (How did I not make it here sooner? I was also a fan of NMHD and frequently noted your comments there.)

    I'm a lawyer in a family full of doctors and love your rational approach--and that you use real numbers to make your point. In 2012, the high end base salary for a first year lawyer in one of the big firms was actually $160k or $170k at certain firms if you had an additional graduate degree relevant to your practice area. As you point out, those jobs are far and few between. The disparity is shocking.

    Also wanted to compliment you and your husband on doing a great job managing to keep his law school debt low. Most law students I know graduated with about $150k in loans.

  5. Re: our lower debt - That's probably because I fed and clothed him during law school on my resident salary. We also got in-state tuition for part of the time which lowered the cost tremendously.