A Starting Salary of $190K?!

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A short time ago, a so-called “biglaw” firm in New York created a stir in the legal community by announcing starting salaries of $190K. Over the last week, a growing number of firms has matched the new salary scale, which is sure to catch the eye of many prospective law students. This post is going to cover (1) how to get a job offer from these types of firms and (2) what those jobs entail for new associates.

So, first, how do you get an offer in biglaw? The short answer: perform exceptionally well at a lower-ranked school and work your connections or perform reasonably-well at one of the higher-ranked schools. At strong regional schools, students in the top quarter of the class have a solid chance at getting an offer from a large firm in the regional market. At the top-14 schools, students performing above median are similarly well-situated for attaining an offer of employment at a large firm in either a regional or national market.

However, students at bad or middling regional schools, good but not great students at strong regional schools, and students below median at top-14 schools — i.e., the vast majority of all law students — are unlikely to receive an offer, absent some other factor (e.g., personal connections, previous work experience, or the like). On top of these general categories, you also have to interview reasonably well to get an offer. In sum, getting a job in biglaw is not guaranteed and should never be the expectation when you go to law school. Most students end up in another form of employment, be it at a small firm, in the government, or in some other field. The allure of a six-figure salary is real, but you need to be realistic about both your chances of getting a job offer and your interest in the actual work you’ll be performing.

Speaking of the actual work, what does a job in biglaw actually entail for young associates? Obviously, the answer varies depending on whether you do corporate work or go into litigation. The one constant is that the work entails long hours and being constantly on-call. Young associates tend to work double-digit hours and are expected to be ready to work at any given moment. Life at a biglaw firm is neither easy nor relaxing. After all, young associates are vastly overpaid for their level of knowledge and expertise. The eye-popping salaries come at a price that should not be underestimated. Not only are the hours long and unpredictable, but the work itself tends to be fairly uninspiring. Most biglaw firms are intensely hierarchical, and young associates have a hard time getting substantive experience. What trickles down the chain of command tends to be less than thrilling.

Working at a biglaw firm is generally considered an important step in a young attorney’s career and it provides an opportunity to work on the most high-profile corporate matters (and to pay off student loans). The salaries are substantial and it can be a fulfilling experience for people wired a certain way. However, the turnover rate is extremely high for a reason. I would highly recommend against going to law school simply because of the high entry-level salaries or because you think you’ll get rich. All in all, the news of a raise is obviously positive (even though it essentially only accounts for inflation), but it should be taken with a grain of salt.

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