Monday, October 5, 2009

How Much Will You Make As a Lawyer? Part 4

In Part 1 we noted how a potential law student may by misled about their career prospects by law school materials.  In Part 2 we noted the more realistic NALP numbers.  In Part 3 we discussed why even the NALP numbers may be a little high.

Here, in Part 4, we discuss a student who recognizes that the highly-compensated jobs represent 23% of law school graduates.  Thus, the law student figures that if she can be in the top 23% in terms of GPA, then a highly-compensated job will be hers!  However, the law student may still be in for a disappointment.

Why?  Well, to be quite blunt, the top jobs are not dished out on the basis of GPA alone - at least that's not the case for the overwhelming majority of them.  In this section, I am going to highlight the situations that I see again and again in dealing with law schools and law students, but I don't have a lot of official data to back it up.  I also recognize that the composition of a law school class can vary, but I see the same factors at all law schools that I have dealt with.

Although the hypothetical student believes that there are highly-paid jobs to be distributed to the top 23% of the class, a substantial fraction of those jobs (in many cases a majority) may not be available to a specific student due to qualifications that the student may not have.  Here are some qualifications that impact the distribution of the highly-paid jobs.

First, the highly-paid job may require a specific background.  For example, Patent Law requires an undergraduate degree in science or technology and Corporate Law has a strong preference for an undergraduate degree in business, finance, or economics.  These two specialties usually make up a large number of the available high-paid jobs.

For example, considering a hypothetical law school of 200 students, the highly-paid jobs go to 23% of the students, or about 46 students.  However, in an average school, about 5-10% of the class will be students with and undergrad degree in science or technology that want to go into patent law.  The patent law jobs are almost invariably highly-paid.  Consequently, about 15 of those 46 available highly-paid jobs will be going to patent lawyers.  Similarly, about 10-15% of the class with be students interested in Corporate Law and having the strongly preferred background - there go about 20 of the available 46 jobs.  Consequently, between patent law and corporate law, about 35 of the 46 available high-paying jobs are typically taken.  That leaves only about 11 jobs, available for those without the degrees. 

Thus, for our hypothethical law student who lacks the science or corporate background, this means that he needs to be in the top 5%, not the top 23% like he assumed.  That's a big difference.  As I mentioned above, the percentages can vary from law school to law school, but are typically always felt.
Conversely, if the student does have a science or corporate background, his or her odds of getting a highly-paid job are dramatically better.  Before the recent upset in the legal market, if a student was joing to law school with a science background, their odds of getting a highly-paid job were typically about 80% (based on my experience).  Those that did not get a highly-paid job typically had a low GPA to blame.  The statistics were similar, but less profound for those with a corporate law background, say 60% would get a highly-paid job.  Of course, stronger science and corporate credentials (like a science Master's or a MBA) improved the odds.

Second, a factor that may also impact the distribution of highly-paid jobs is whether the applicant has previous experience at a law firm  - such as being a paralegal.  Experience as a paralegal is often highly valued by a law firm because it means that the student is familiar with the law firm environment.  The student "knows what they are getting into" and thus will be cheaper to train, be able to produce faster, and are less likely to leave the firm to "find themselves" or do anything goofy.  Additionally, the student may also be more of a "known commodity" if they were a paralegal long enough to establish a good reputation that was known outside their firm, or if they are interviewing with the firm that they previously worked at.

Work experience as a paralegal at a large firm is typically worth several tenths of a point of GPA.  This is because reliability is at a premium when a hire is made.  Consequently, most law firms when faced with a choice between the unknown 4.0 and the experienced 3.5 will go with the 3.5.

Amazingly, typically only a few of the students in any law school class have experience as a paralegal.  For example, in the typical 200-person law school class, only about 5-7 students may have had paralegal experience.  Having such experience is often more common in lower-ranked schools and evening programs and is less common in higher-ranked schools.

As an aside, if you are considering law school but are not sure, then I highly recommend getting a job as a paralegal.  Instead of having to spend 60K/year and not knowing whether there will be a job for you, you will be earning 40-60K/year.  Further, you will get the opportunity to evaluate the legal environment and see if you will be comfortable working at a law firm.  Quite frankly, most law students would not be happy working at a law firm.  For example, working at a law firm can be very intense, hectic, and emotionally draining.

By spending a year or two as a paralegal, you could be evaluating whether you really want to work in such an environment while at the same time 1) saving up for law school to reduce your eventual debt load, and 3) acquiring experience that will help you get a high-paying job.

Third, the distribution of highly-paid jobs may be impacted by whether the law student has relationship connections with the lawyers offering the job.  Yes, there are people in law school who have fathers, brothers, or other relatives as lawyers and those relatives work at firms without an anti-nepotism policy.  However, this is typically the least iimportant of the three factors that I mention here.  In the hypothetical 200-person law school class, only about 2-3 of the high-paying jobs will be taken this way.  Often the highest-paying jobs are at top firms that have anti-nepotism policies.  Also, there are only so many relatives of people at high-paying firms.

However, a considerably number of lesser paying (but still good paying) jobs will be taken at least in part on a family connection.  I am constantly amazed at the number of people in law school who have relatives that are lawyers.  On average, I would say that about 20% have a law firm as a "family business."  These are typically not the high-paying firms, but they are solid, second rank firms.  Consequently, this type of competition is more likely to have a greater impact outside of the top 23% of jobs.

In summary, even though 23% of jobs are highly compensated, a hypothetical law student's chances of getting a high-paying job may be considerable worse than 23%.  This is because a large fraction of the jobs will be determined in large part on factors other than GPA, such as 1) whether the law student has a specific undergraduate degree, 2) whether the law student has experience as a paralegal, and 3) whether the law student has family connections.


  1. You also forget that minorities have a much better chance of landing a BigLaw job.

  2. So what is the magic number to expect for an average law student? $72K?

  3. 7:35 - BigLaw is sensitive of its clients demands to increase diversity (to do otherwise would be suicidal). Consequently, minority lawyers are attractive in that regard. However, they still need to be able to bill and do the work. So, yes - diversity is a factor, but how much of a factor is probably firm dependent.

  4. 7:55 - Although $72K is the average number reported to NALP. You may want to check out Part 3 of this series where I point out a few factors that may be influencing the number. In general, for an average student at the average law school, who has none of the bonus characteristics that I point out above, I would put their most likely starting salary between $60K and $70K.

    I would be happy to hear from other law school graduates as to whether that agrees with their experience!

  5. Wow! This is so helpful. I think everyone who practices or is thinking about practicing should read this. I, too, was duped by a figure that was intentionally there to deceive me. I'm in my 3rd year of practice. I make about $84k. But I was making $60k until I answered the right ad. I know first-year lawyers who make $4k/month (yes, we talk salary). So be ready to get screwed for a few years, youngsters!

  6. A friend of mine was duped into moving to a different state based on promises that they would be a "partner in the business" from day one. I tried my best to explain that this was a very suspect business model. Ignoring my advice, my friend still went for the job. One year later, my friend ended up with less than $36K in salary based on her "partnership interest" and had worked over 2200 hours.

  7. 9:37 - Thanks for the insight - and I am glad that the website was informative. One additional issue that I sometimes have in communicating with potential law students is a tremendous bias that they think that they will be better than everyone else in the law school. They have a high GPA in undergrad and think that it guarantees that they will be in the top of their class in law school. Would you be willing to share your approximate undergrad and law GPAs and approximate class and shool rank?

  8. 11:38 - Ouch! Your message highlights another important aspect - that making "partner" does not necessarily mean that you automatically get great wealth. However, it often DOES mean that you are now financially liable in case something goes wrong!

  9. At my small firm (which isn't hiring and hasn't advertised), we get numerous unsolicited resumes from recent grads with very impressive backgrounds.

    I'm pretty sure we could hire a T20 grad with respectable grades for less than 50k.

    Being a newly-minted lawyer in this job market is not something I would wish on my worst enemy.