If you're intrigued by a career as an attorney, there are several facts about lawyers that you should know before investing in law school. Practicing as a lawyer isn't the same today as it was even a decade ago. Instead of considering the pros and cons of job offers, new law-school grads hope to get even one offer, and many do not. For those who do get jobs, numerous obstacles may stand in the way of having a fulfilling legal career.
It's normal for salaries in all types of industries to vary between large and small companies, and big cities versus rural locations. But with legal jobs, the difference from one lawyer salary to another can be huge.
After holding associates' salaries steady for several years, some top tier, large law firms (often known as Biglaw) raised their first-year associates' starting salaries to a base of $180,000 as of the summer of 2018. On top of the base salary, they can earn big bonuses, depending how much work they bill and how much new business they bring in. Rival firms have begun to match this compensation to attract grads from top-ranked law schools. Keep in mind, though, that these firms are in large cities like New York , Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Not everyone wants to work in those fast-paced, high stress environments, and among those who do, very few will make the cut.
The median lawyer salary nationwide as of May 2017 was a more realistic $119,250. A median salary is one illustrating that half earn more and half earn less. And this figure from the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes both new lawyers and those with 30 years' experience, so new grads should expect to earn less starting out.
Other median salaries from May 2017 include lawyers working in:
- Federal government: $141,900
- State government: $85,260
- Local government: $93,020
- Legal services: $120,280.
About 20 percent of lawyers are self-employed, including recent grads who couldn't find jobs and lawyers who worked as employees for years before going out on their own. Being your own boss means you can take off for an appointment or for family time, but self-employed lawyers typically don't earn as much as those who work for larger firms.
What "Billable Hours" Really Mean
Many law firms expect their associates to earn their pay by billing clients enough to pay their salaries and help support the firm. This time working with and for clients is called "billable hours," and many firms have minimum and expected quotas. It can be confusing, because billable hours aren't the same as the number of hours you work. Lawyers have to read briefs, emails from colleagues and management, and attend company meetings, take coffee breaks and lunch hours, and go on vacation, so you can't bill for all the time you work.
The average expected billable hours annually stated by law firms ranges from 1,700 to 2,300. An article on the Yale Law School website estimates the hours you'd need to work in order to bill hours in this range:
- To bill 1,834 hours, you'd have been at work 2,434 hours.
- To bill 2,201 hours, you'd have been at work 3,058 hours.
A 40-hour work week equates to 2,000 hours worked per year. Working two extra hours per day is 10 extra hours per week, for 500 extra hours per year. To get to 3,000+ hours, you'd need to work longer than 10-hour days or add Saturdays, or both.
Little Work-Life Balance
As workers in all fields struggle to achieve work-life balance, working lawyers today say it isn't even a consideration in a law career. Much as they're depicted in TV shows and movies, law firms are pressure-cooker environments where associates compete against one another. To keep their jobs, they must meet not only the stated billable hours, but regularly exceed them if they want to stand out. In fact, it's understood at many firms that the required billable hours go well beyond the stated "official" number.
Occasionally, a law firm will say it has an environment that respects work-life balance and encourages associates to enjoy family time. Apparently, though, this never works. These firms either go out of business or drop their work-life balance ideals. Clients want their work done yesterday, and if their lawyers are home playing with the kids, they'll find a law firm that is more dedicated to their work.
Corporate and Government Law
A way around billable hours is working in an environment that doesn't have this requirement. Corporate and government jobs don't use the billable hours system. If you're the in-house counsel for a company, or a prosecutor or public defender for a government, you won't have the stress of making sure you're billing enough hours. That doesn't mean you'll be clocking out at 5 p.m. every day, because you'll still need to make sure the work gets done in a timely manner. But you could expect to achieve more of a work-life balance. You'll face steep competition getting one of these jobs, though.
The Lawyer Job Outlook
The need for lawyers is expected to grow 8 percent from 2016 to 2026, which is about average for most jobs. Because there are already more law-school graduates than there are jobs for lawyers, most new grads will spend months looking for a job, and many will take non-legal jobs. Due to the oversupply of lawyers, law schools are beginning to cut back too, accepting fewer students and laying off professors or encouraging their early retirement.
Don't expect law-school tuition to decrease, however. The sad fact is that law students are graduating with huge debt and, without a job as a lawyer, little opportunity to repay it.
If you're still set on a legal career, shadow several lawyers first, and get their input about the profession. Then seek out a variety of internships, not only to learn, but also to make connections that may be able to help you land a job as a lawyer.