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If you look into lawyer salaries, there's one number that appears consistently: $160,000. This is the number often cited as the starting salary of first year associates at BigLaw firms such as Latham Watkins, DLA Piper, and Jones Day.
This $160,000 figure has remained largely unchanged for years and is expected to basically carry over into 2016. It's easy for many attorneys to be dazzled by this number and to make their primary mission to get into one of the BigLaw firms without taking into full account some of the trade-offs.
Polls and studies indicate that there's tremendous trade-off for that $160,000. Eighty hour weeks can happen. Among other things, this means getting used to being sleep deprived. Also, new lawyers in BigLaw are under tremendous pressure to satisfy billable hour requirements.
Outside BigLaw, $62,000 is the number often appearing as an average salary. Small firms usually require fewer billable hours because their workload is almost necessarily smaller than at BigLaw. Salaries reflect the workload more than an associate's willingness to put in the work. If you're completely new, you can expect to average between $80 and $112K at a midsize law firm and expect to pull fewer billable hours. As an added bonus, that sort of salary can at least fund a life outside of the office (depending on where you live).
It's been suggested that BigLaw firms can attract talent by offering lower salaries with more flexible hours. In that way, associates and new hires can at least find a healthy balance somewhere in the middle. However, since lawyer salaries are associated with the prestige of the firm, there's a fear that a loosening of the hours and lowering of associate salaries will dilute the brand-image of the firm. And so, starting salaries are likely to remain at $160,000.
The associate should also consider other factors. If you've just been hired at BigLaw, you're a small fish in a very big sea and its your job to prove you shouldn't be fished out.
The stresses of having to prove your worth combined with the long hours can be too much for many associates to handle. At a small firm, you'll learn things that no one at the larger firm will likely want (or even have time) to teach you. It mostly comes down to a the issue of quality of life. Although it's not fun to hear as someone with six figures of law school debt, it's still probably true: money isn't everything.
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