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The $190,000 per Year Myth

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Summary: Sure, every attorney wants to make $190,000 a year. However, not every attorney has the capacity to be worth the salary.
 
The $190,000 per Year Myth
 
  • Many attorneys get into the business of law for the money.
  • And who can blame them? Practicing law can be a very lucrative endeavor.
  • But not everyone makes the big bucks the mystique of law touts, and here’s why.
  • And for those who do make that sort of money, they pay a very dear price.

In Downtown Los Angeles, there’s a much talked about bar called Perch. Perch sits atop the 14th floor an early 20th-century art-deco styled office building deep within the concrete bowels of the downtown historic core district. Perch is a place to see and be seen. It is a chic rooftop enclave which much as a real bird’s perch would, commands one of the most gorgeous 360-degree views available of the LA skyline.



Needless to say, the Perch clientele have, for a lack of better words, deep pockets. They also have deep pockets of youth. In fact, most who patronize Perch are in their mid to late 20s and 30s. The young men hug one another upon meeting, smoke cigars and high five the bartender as they pick up their double Dewar’s, while the young women alternate between excited conversation and high-pitched laughter, all while miraculously avoiding the spillage of their black or white Russians.

In other less affluent downtown bars, these “kids” would be at the very least carded, or worse yet not even served. But not at Perch; here, they are the bar.

Of course, this clientele is well dressed. They have to be to work in the nearby skyscrapers on Hill, Grand, Flower, and Figueroa. And by their Brooks Brothers and/or Anne Taylor garb you’d guess their gig is either finance or law.

Actually, more than likely their work involves practicing law. Finance, particularly for those starting out in the field, pays significantly lower than law.

How significant is that? Try $190,000, which only recently ticked off a new all-time high for first-year legal associates. In finance, a newbie makes maybe half of that – if they’re lucky.

No wonder “Another?” or “Make it a double,” spills out of these new associates’ mouths as easily as “What’s up dude?”

They’re lawyers, they’re happy (at least for the time being), and they’re making one hell of a good salary!
 
Don’t be jealous, bro! (Because you shouldn’t be)

Punks, brats, rich kids, privileged millennials – call them whatever you want. Coin them as spoiled show-offs, they won’t care one way or the other. Why should they when these kids reside firmly in the very topmost tier of highly-paid Big Law associates, knowing that amongst themselves, they truly work for their pay. That’s right; while working in these top-tier law firms, new associates literally earn every penny they make.

For example, new associates are continually on call. They toil long days that stretch into long evenings, weekends, and holidays, until their work obliterates birthdays and anniversaries, never hesitant to mow down those special calendar dates as well.

But most trying to a new associate – at least more so than the long hours and continuous workload – is the mounting urge to say “no” or to balk against a certain aspect of a case or a case in general. Needless to say, to do this can lead to a lack of confidence from more senior associates as well as partners, which in the end can irreparably damage a legal career.

In short, it’s not easy to be a top-tier legal associate in a top-tier law firm after having already gone to a top-tier law school. And that’s the one part of the $190,000 myth; the law-oriented work entailed for an associate to make $190,000 a year is anything but easy.

Now do you know why they need a drink complimented by a pretty view?

So where did this $190,000 figure come from?

If you’re a top-paid associate, you need to thank Boston-based Ropes and Goodwin for raising the starting salary of their incoming lawyers from the previous record of $180,000 to what is now $190,000. Sure, it’s only $10K, but these days $10K goes a long way to Big Law bragging rights.

Of course, it’s well known in the legal field that when one prestigious law firm increases the pay of its incoming associates, other prestigious firms find they must follow to also stay atop or near the top of the legal pay scale game.

Soon after Ropes and Goodwin announced its new incoming associate pay, others such as legal giant Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCoy LLP, Proskauer Rose LLP and Kirkland & Ellis LLP immediately parroted with their own pay rate hike for incoming associates.

Needless to say, the elation of being at the top of the pay scale as far as Big Law firms are concerned can create understandable consternation within the budgetary bowels of a law firm manager or managing partner, particularly if their firm is on a finance plan or simply does not have the resources to pay their incoming associates the prestigious fees that attract the best of the best in first years.

After all, $190,000 is a good chunk of change, right? And for a firm that does not have deep-pocketed clients, that sort of first-year pay is simply untenable.
Goodwin Procters Changing Pay For Associate

With that said, new attorneys and veteran law firm managers alike may wonder what the bidding war is really about in which big prestigious law firms continually increase their associates’ salaries.

Well, think of it this way. Increasing the salaries of incoming associates to the highest of any law firm in the country can establish a firm as:
 
  1. The big legal dog on the block with the big bucks to spend on the topmost new attorneys who graduate from the topmost schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford etc. Paying them “high” now will attract future generations of dedicated, intelligent and prolifically well-educated attorneys. 
  2. The $190,000 myth also verifies the law firm’s commitment to being the most powerful firm possible, and will pay more-per-head to retain that power. Think of a baseball team trading for a couple of pitchers to strengthen its bullpen before playoffs, and you’ll understand why being the firm who pays their incoming associates the most puts them in a position of strength for upcoming cases, particularly if they are high profile cases. In short, these kids have talent and are one day expected to utilize that talent for the firm that hires them.
  3. Being the highest paying law firm among incoming associates impresses clients. When clients, whether or not they are new or existing realize a law firm pays its incoming associates the highest rates of any other law firm, that undeniably says something about the quality of the firm’s legal work, which in this case must be quite high and quite thorough. In the end, the client is reassured that the law firm must offer something quite special in legal representation if they are compensating their first years with such high wages.
 
Forbes suggests we not blame the lawyers or law schools. According to their article on lawyer salaries, just like everything else, attorney compensations are driven by supply and demand. According to data from CEB, the average hourly rate charged by major law firm partners nearly doubled since 2000, while average hourly wages for both blue-collar and white-collar workers have increased less than 20%. Lawyer pay has also outpaced economic growth, which has averaged less than 1% per year in real terms over this period.
 
How to reach $190,000 before you reach 25

If your lifelong career hope begins with being hired at a law firm that pays its associates the topmost salaries of anywhere on the planet, then you need a plan. Another part of the $190,000 myth in Big Law is you that you reach that level of salary in your mid-twenties by luck, a nice face or pleasant personality. It doesn't happen by luck. More likely you did/should do/should have done the following:
 
  • Plan early: Top-notch associates don’t frivolously come to their decision to pursue legal careers. Most successful associates begin planning for their jobs as lawyers as undergraduates at the very least. Some begin their future attorney plans as early as high school. 
  • Select the “right” type of law school: There’s law school, and then there’s law school. Law schools and how they vary in notoriety can have an enormous impact on a young lawyer’s career. To reach the mythical $190,000 mark, it is imperative that budding legal purveyors attend the best law school possible, and once there, work hard toward receiving the highest grades they can along with extracurricular activities such as:
     
  • Writing or editing for the law school’s legal review publication.
  • Endeavoring upon a formidable clerkship.
  • Engaging in any other supplementary activity that can elevate one’s desirability to Big Law firms. 
  • Ace the bar: The bar exam is a large piece with an almost unfair amount of leverage over a new associate’s legal career. Yes, it’s just a test – a test that some have even said has very little bearing as to whether or not a lawyer will be an asset or detriment to the practice of law. Nevertheless, the bar exam has its calling, and law firms do consider one’s score on the bar when hiring new associates. With that said, it’s a very good practice to take the exam seriously despite what accolades you earned while in law school. Having a high bar exam score can only help a new associate’s efforts to be hired by a formidable law firm.
  • Create allies before, during and after your job search: Be as professional as possible as you go through the interview process. While interviewing for a legal job may not be a formally taught subject in law school, young law students should be aware that the interview process requires a strong and tough personality coupled with honesty and integrity. Be frank, avoid deviation and excess information. Knowing what and what not to do during an interview can work as much in your favor as against your favor.
 
Location, location, location

Unless you plan to settle in Chicago where there are some prestigious law firms, you will be confined to either the East or West coast if you plan to make $190,000.

In short, firms that pay their associates the highest rate tend to be located on the coasts. Few, if any are situated in the Midwest, the Rocky Mountain States, the Desert Southwest or the South itself.

And why are these prestigious firms which pay so high located only on the coasts? Easy. The coasts are where all the big monies are. On the East coast lies old money, deep politics, and formidable finances – all of which a young successful associate can become part of once they join an old school prestigious law firm in either Boston; New York; or Washington, DC.

The same goes for the West coast, where the big legal money revolves around high tech in the northern reaches of California and entertainment (sports, movies, television, and internet) as well as real estate, environmental and farming needs that make up much of the big money industries in the central southern portions of the state.

So it’s simple; to make the big bucks as an associate, you have to go to where big bucks are located. And in the case of Big Law, those two most notable locales are the large coastal cities of Boston, New York, DC, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
 
Don’t Be Jealous, Bro! (Part Two)

A lot has to be sacrificed for a first-year attorney to make it within the hallowed halls of any prestigious Big Law firm. Lawyers of this caliber miss out on much of their lives in order to become successes at the top law firms in the nation. They work hard long hours, and in doing so miss out on marriage, starting families, or in more extreme cases, fail to see later years in their professions and sometimes lose their lives.

With that said, the main part of the $190,000 per year myth is these new attorneys should not be discounted.

These young attorneys who went to the best law schools in the nation, maintained top grades and were rewarded for that with very healthy salaries should instead be admired, not disparaged or thought ill of.

So with that, the next time you’re at a rooftop bar in Downtown L.A. and you see a kid who seems too young to be wearing a $3,500 Hugo Boss suit over a $5,000 Omega watch, before you grow critical, first ask what it might’ve taken for that person to get to the place he or she is now. You might be more appreciative if you only knew.

For more information, look into these articles:
 



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