February 28, 2002
9:25 AM   Subscribe

It's easy to think of lawyers as greedy, overpaid blood-sucking pigs. But do we have any clue what lawyers earn? Yes we do, thanks to American Lawyer Media's (via law.com) annual roundup of lawyer compensation. Not all of which is surprising. For example, partners at the top corporate firms like Wachtell Lipton, or Cravath, Swaine & Moore or Davis Polk each averaged millions in 2001 ($3,285,000, $2,245,000 and $1,740,000, respectively). Even piddly little first year associates at those firms got $125,000 to start. (We're talking 24-year-old law school grads with precisely zero professional experience and know-how. Zero.) But most newbie lawyers don't win those jobs. Also difficult to land are entry-level positions at district attorneys' offices, but they're not nearly as lucrative. A junior Manhattan D.A. earned $45,000 last year (up from $42,000 in 2000). But locking up criminals beats toiling for civil rights at a not-for-profit like the New York Civil Liberties Union, which paid entry-level lawyers only $35,000 last year. Over all, best off are lawyers who work for big companies. Top counsel at IBM last year earned a measly $506,000 in cash (salary & bonus), but throw in stocks & options and his compensation totaled $7,795,613. Compared to that, you have to worry about the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court whose family in 2001 had to struggle along on $192,600.
posted by jellybuzz (36 comments total)
is this a new idea? i thought it was pretty common knowledge that working in the private sector was more lucrative than being a public servant. also, being a justice on the supreme court gives you a job for life. the others do not.
posted by chrisroberts at 9:31 AM on February 28, 2002

You have to remember that the top lawyer in a large corporation -- usually called the General Counsel -- is almost always an Executive Vice President, as well. Those corporations usually have numerous other attorneys below the General Counsel, and those attorneys stand to make less than their counterparts in large law firms (but the quality of life is generally better).

Also remember that this survey is based on salaries in the rare air of New York City (and environs). Doesn't give a very accurate picture of the rest of the country.
posted by pardonyou? at 9:37 AM on February 28, 2002

in defense of lawyers (and for some this automatically paints me as a true devil's advocate), they work some hellish hours. your job can easily become your life, despite all the good money you make. (and if you can work for a distinguished firm, you could make a lot even just out of law school.)
posted by moz at 9:43 AM on February 28, 2002

bingo, moz -- my partner, a federal lawyer near the top of the pay scale, doesn't make nearly as much as a first or second year associate in private practice. But on average, he works 40 hour weeks and enjoys his job a lot more than he liked private practice.

That said, it's still obscene what these kids make.
posted by jburka at 9:48 AM on February 28, 2002

yes, those kids fresh out of law school are earning $125K in nyc. decrease that amount by a cost of living adjustment for the rest of the country and then divide what is left by the 100+ hours they will work each week. i did the math once and if they were living in a normal city with a cost of living close to average and working a normal 40 hour week they'd be earning about 40K.

regular corporate counsel - the drones, not the vp's, make about $60K - $80K.

plus, these people usually can have in excess of $100,000 in student loans they're paying off to the tune of $1K/mo.

law is not a field to get into for the sole purpose of becoming wealthy. that only works if you can pay cash for school, are in the top 10% of your class after first semester, and are particularly lucky.
posted by centrs at 9:53 AM on February 28, 2002 [1 favorite]

One point worth mentioning: defense lawyers at large firms can't touch the amounts earned by the elite plaintiffs' lawyers. Case-in-point is Peter Angelos, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles, who made billions off of asbsestos and tobacco litigation (for the latter he and his firm recently sought compensation that averaged to $30,000 per hour).
posted by pardonyou? at 9:53 AM on February 28, 2002

A big part of the justification for the insane salaries is that it is predicated on the associate sticking it out and billing insane hours on their way to a partnership track. If they fall off the track, which many of them necessarily do, then they will probably not be with that firm for much longer and have to go out on their own or look elsewhere.
posted by rks404 at 10:02 AM on February 28, 2002

If you do the math, most lawyers at big firms make about $35 - $40 an hour before taxes and loans. And not only is corporate work pretty boring for most people, but many big companies won't even consider you until you've had a couple of years at a law big firm.

There are exceptions to everything, of course, but here's my sense of the general rule: public interest lawyers have massive debt and make virtually nothing, but love their jobs. Private lawyers make the big bucks, but often hate their jobs.

One out of every three Mlawyers suffers from clinical depression, alcoholism, or drug abuse.

If, like me, you know all this but decide to go to law school anyway, it's not for the money. It's because the law is in your blood.
posted by gd779 at 10:04 AM on February 28, 2002

I'd like to read the article, but don't want to register for a "risk-free" trial subscription.
posted by uftheory at 10:09 AM on February 28, 2002

Do Supreme Court justices do the lecture circuit? If you're famous or important, apparently it can pay very well.
posted by panopticon at 10:13 AM on February 28, 2002

Supreme Court justices seem since the last election to have prehaps some off the books takerhome. Scalia managed to get his son appointed to a court of appeals evenm though the bar association said he did not qualify.
posted by Postroad at 10:28 AM on February 28, 2002

Actually, Postroad, Antonin Scalia's son, Eugene Scalia, was appointed to be Solicitor of Labor (the top lawyer in the Department of Labor), not an appellate judge.

And I'm not trying to be snarky, but what does your first sentence mean?
posted by pardonyou? at 10:49 AM on February 28, 2002

I suspect that perception of the legal profession is biased by the fact that the lawyers that make the news are grossly paid, while no one recognizes cousin Fred who nickles and dimes his way through powers of attorney, living wills, zoning changes and no-fault divorces. On the other hand, lawyers do seem to do more with their money because they can understand the complex legal environment involved in keeping your money better than most folks.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:20 AM on February 28, 2002

I've read that the average income for an attorney is something around $40k, which when you consider how much it can get skewed by the few partners making millions a year, is not a great reward for the time in hours and the cost (financial and otherwise) of education.
posted by rks404 at 11:55 AM on February 28, 2002

Ah yes, the good old ALM annual survey. True, the people working in the top firms in New York make big bucks. But so do the top plumbers, actors, and real-estate salespeople. The top 1% of any profession is likely to have a high salary.
Only about half the people who graduate law school end up ever finding any type of job in the legal field. Here in Dallas, those that do can expect to earn $35 to $40 K. If you have an engineering degree and go into patent law, you can do a bit better. The sterotype that "all lawyers are rich" serves only to exasperate friends and family, who wonder why after all that school we aren't driving Mercedes and wearing $3000 suits, "like them TV lawyers do." People unfamiliar with the realities of the profession often react as if you're not trying hard enough or as if something must be wrong with you if you're not pulling down 100K a year and living large. I'm actually considering transitioning to a job outside of law altogether - because the pay scales are actually keeping me earning less than I could with my other skills.
posted by sixdifferentways at 12:54 PM on February 28, 2002

good points here. but i have to wonder, if lawyers are no different than most folks -- middle class, overworked and underpaid schnooks -- why are they singled out for so much scorn? there are lawyer joke sites all over the web. you don't hear too many plumber jokes.

despite how lovable ally mcbeal is, and how swell of a guy atticus finch was, people are intrigued by lawyers in fiction, but in reality they hate 'em.

(we're just now getting that most of the world hates americans, but we already knew most americans hate lawyers. seems that just like america, something is seriously wrong with the legal profession's PR...)
posted by jellybuzz at 1:49 PM on February 28, 2002

jellybuzz, people hate lawyers because they're obnoxious bastards. The money is just icing on the cake.
posted by pardonyou? at 2:07 PM on February 28, 2002

Part of it, I think, is a matter of class distinction. Lawyers are perceived as being much richer than average (very often an accurate perception). People naturally tend to label anyone in a different socioeconomic class as being morally flawed (if it's a higher class, it's because they're greedy, overly driven, arrogant, scheming; if it's a lower class, it's because they're ignorant, uneducated, lazy, undisciplined). For lawyers it's even worse because their profession is thought of as being based on tricky rhetorical arguments that are designed to cheat the little guy (when everyone could have just somehow "seen" the right resolution to whatever the situation is without the lawyers' presence).

In reality, of course, lawyers do have a positive effect because without them it would be impossible for a capitalist society to function, but that effect is harder to see for some people than the result of a guy fixing a toilet. If you really want to do away with all lawyers, you must be advocating a very different societal structure than what we have now.

I think you have to be wary of the kind of thinking that says, "the lifestyle I and my friends and family have is right, and what everyone is doing is wrong and they're probably on the road to hell", because just about everyone thinks that to some degree, and usually it's based on a pretty inaccurate picture of the other guy's situation. Personally I don't think moral character is correlated very strongly with income.
posted by mcguirk at 2:25 PM on February 28, 2002 [1 favorite]

In defense of lawyers... they're only doing what the law allows them to do!

In the UK we've recently been barraged by TV ads from companies who say they can get you compensation for accidents you've had at work/outside etc.. and if they don't win, you pay no fee.

Many have said this is extremely immoral, and that the UK is turning into a US style 'sue everyone' environment. However, the lawyers and these companies can't be blamed.. it's our stupid laws that actually ALLOW people to sue other people when they burned themselves on a cup of McDonald's coffee, etc.. so fix the laws, not the lawyers.. they're just doing their job.
posted by wackybrit at 2:34 PM on February 28, 2002

I don't like being a lawyer. I want to stop being a lawyer, and not merely because I'm not making six figures. What is the point of this post: that lawyers are overpaid? Trust me. On average, lawyers are underpaid for the hours they work and the stress. But it is true that most attorneys are somewhat soul-deficient and not very warm people.
posted by ParisParamus at 2:38 PM on February 28, 2002

many have said this is extremely immoral, and that the uk is turning into a us 'sue everyone' environment...

BS. BS. BS. This is right-wing propaganda. THANK GOD for the American contingency system, where you don't have to be affluent to hire a lawyer to get compensated for accidents (generally, the lawyer gets 1/3rd of a settlement or verdict if the client wins; NOTHING, if s/he loses). Having lived in France, spoken to injured people and worked in a law firm there, I can't imagine what a hell it would be to no have contingency fees. Even you in Europe should be thankful for the improvements in the safety of cars and countless other items due to the pressure exerted by the American legal system.

Most frivilous law suits don't get past the summary judgment stage; and those that do, and actually result in a settlement are very rare.

Yes, there are sleezy attorneys and clients, and distasteful attorneys and clients, but that's because society has sleezy people: a small price to pay for a safer society. And don't buy that Republican shale about "the cost of litigation." It's very low, monetarily and otherwise.
posted by ParisParamus at 4:14 PM on February 28, 2002

Yes, let us all thank God that the Americans have introduced aspects of their legal system into other countries. What would we do without you and your lawyers. You've saved us all again! (You know, most people wouldn't consider that to be something to brag about.)
posted by Jubey at 5:05 PM on February 28, 2002

Jubey: You need only compare automobiles and highways circa 1980 in France and the United States to know how right I am.
posted by ParisParamus at 5:43 PM on February 28, 2002

I honestly thought that I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up...and I read "Do you REALLY Want To Be A Lawyer" which is a slender paperback produced by the junior members or such of the ABA. It was quite insightful -- and demonstrated that lawyers really do come in all shapes, sizes, specialties, and incomes. After finishing the book, and doing some additional research, I gave up the idea (for now) because no matter what field you choose (tort, defense, causes, corporate, etc), there is almost no way that you are NOT going to work 100+ hours per week. I admitted that I didn't have the strength to do what most lawyers do: scut work, sifting through hundreds/thousands of pages of law books and text daily, etc. The stuff we see on "Ally McBeal" is the 5% -- the "unglamorous" 95% simply wouldn't command the ratings that the courtroom dramas show.
posted by davidmsc at 5:49 PM on February 28, 2002

there is almost no way that you are NOT going to work 100+ hours per week.

Um. Even in New York, it's relatively easy to work 60-70 hours/week and earn in the high five, to low six figures. At least some of what you fear is bravado/exaggeration. Which doesn't mean you should be a lawyer. Personally, law is more like accounting than the myth has it: accounting with words, and I'm no accountant. The field attracts a lot of uncreative, linear thinking types, because you don't have to be creative, innovative to succeed in law.
posted by ParisParamus at 6:31 PM on February 28, 2002

Latest news from the best law site on the web:

March 1-3 -- Should have arrested him faster. "A convicted sex offender wanted in Florida who fled into the Maine woods from police is complaining that he got frostbite and lost a few toes because he wasn't arrested fast enough. Harvey Taylor, 48, who spent at least three nights in the woods in Mattawamkeag after running from a Penobscot County Sheriff's detective a few weeks ago, is threatening to sue the detective for not arresting him promptly."
posted by RobertLoch at 8:06 PM on February 28, 2002

I'm a lawyer, working for a big private firm, in New York City no less ... and I humbly suggest that I earn a salary which is not a nickel more than fair for the work I do.

Fair (argument 1): In addition to sweating out four years at a competitive college and eight weeks to prep for the LSAT, plus three more years at an insanely competitive and rigorous law school (while earning no money and living in a miserable Chicago neighborhood), followed by twelve weeks of agonized Bar studying ... I emerged at 26 with well over $100K in debts. For the four years since, I've worked to whittle down that debt, and all of that time in a job that requires extraordinary attention and care and significant knowledge to be applied sometimes for 18 hour stretches of time.

Fair (argument 2): as numerous other posters have suggested, there are tens of thousands of underemployed lawyers out there. Yet, my time is now marketed and sold at a figure, which, annualized, is four times higher than my salary. This is a significantly greater multiple than in almost any other service industry that one can think of.
posted by MattD at 8:12 PM on February 28, 2002

(However, I also think that lawyers are not entitled to pity, either -- any reasonably cautious person should be well aware of the nature of the profession: the extreme demands, and rewards which are not particularly great in comparison to those demands, on the more elite and/or luckier end of the profession, and the very tough row to hoe that one faces in even landing a job with decent compensation on the less elite / lucky end of the profession.)
posted by MattD at 8:15 PM on February 28, 2002

Sorry, one last thing: to see how the young big-firm lawyers talk amongst themselves -- "Greedy Associates" bulletin boards. An odd mix of valuable gossip (lots of layoff talk these days), strident (and amazingly effective) agitation for pay raises and bonuses, and idle chatter.
posted by MattD at 8:23 PM on February 28, 2002

Not to stray from the topic, but jellybuzz, there's a reason you link to the actual article in your post.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 8:32 PM on February 28, 2002

I just got my acceptance letter to law school, and I'm not going. No one wants to hear my personal blabber why (mostly I never wound up very attracted to the idea), but after doing job shadows with many lawyers and reading up on the career guides and personal accounts, I'd say the legal profession is in sad shape.

Most people in law seem to agree that collegiality is way down; the dirty tricks and blatant malfeasance that lawyers practice on each other during litigation is ridiculous.

Judges are harried with the massive caseload that the war on drugs has engendered, so arguing a case in depth is a fantasy (here in Seattle, appellate courts have limited oral arguments to ten minutes).

Lawyers almost never hear from clients who want them to develop long-term legal strategies or consider issues ahead of time. People hire laywers to go get money from someone else's pocket. That feeling of moving money almost arbitrarily from one corporate fund to another is not the stuff of lifelong satisfaction.

Even worse is that lawyers perform these money-gathering tasks at the order of their clients. The feeling most lawyers have of selling their intelligence and skills to the highest bidder is, I think, something that eats at their psyches whether they recognize it or not.

Law school trains would-be lawyers to be ready to argue any position, no matter its intrinsic worth. This turns out to be training for private practice, in which the client orders you to get money and says I'm sure you'll figure out a way. It's ugly.

Again, this is just what I've gleaned. You can download Deborah Arron's book Running from the Law for free from her website. It's a good glimpse into the legal system's tormented psyche.
posted by argybarg at 8:51 PM on February 28, 2002

I can no longer remember what I imagined practicing law would be like before starting law school. I think the trap I fell into was disliking law school from Day One (with the exception of, three or four courses), yet discounting that impression because law school is famous for being unenjoyable. Oy.
posted by ParisParamus at 9:03 PM on February 28, 2002

$125,000 a year to start in New York City seems a bit paltry when you consider that in a number of Chicago law firms (including the one I work at) start first-year associates at $125,000 a year.
posted by zedzebedia at 4:23 AM on March 1, 2002

What's annoying is that the $125,000 starter is not worth that amount, except to keep a corporate client virtuous/vicious cycle of billing and revenue. But, alas, everyone volunteers from law school, so it's not the end of the world.
posted by ParisParamus at 4:27 AM on March 1, 2002

(for law school)
posted by ParisParamus at 4:27 AM on March 1, 2002

zed - the NYC folks get bigger bonuses.

Paris -- what do you mean 125k is not "worth that amount?" 125k is worth 125k, no? And your billing/revenue "cycle" is just supply and demand -- same as in every other field.
posted by Mid at 6:46 AM on March 1, 2002

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