Monday, January 23, 2006

Are Lawyers Underpaid?

It's the spring recruiting season at law schools, and that means it's time for students to start comparison shopping among law firms. There are many factors that should be considered when comparing law firms, and I have discussed some of these in a previous post. But of all the factors that students look at, the most popular one is what?

Money, of course.

Beware of the bottom line, however. It can be horribly deceiving. Instead, try to figure out how much you will be making per hour. That's a rough but useful indicator of whether the job is worth it to you.

So let's do some math. First, it's common at many firms to be expected to bill 40 hours per week. And even in nonbilling legal jobs (such as working for the government in many capacities), the workload is similar (or sometimes higher), so we'll use 40 hours billed as a good proxy for a "productive week."

So far, so good. But again, beware: in order to bill 40 hours a week (i.e., get 40 hours of client work done), you have to work about 60! Think about it: client promotion (bringing in new clients), giving speeches, bar work, CLE, pro bono work--all of these things are important, but none of them gets the client work done. So you have to add them on top of the client work. (As an aside, any firm that does not give significant credit to lawyers who do pro bono work should be ashamed.)

What that means, gentle reader, is that to bill 8 hours a day you need to put in a lot of 12 hour work days, and some that are even longer. That is, unless you are unnaturally efficient--don't use the bathroom or stop to eat all day--or are not billing ethically.

And that means that in order to bill 2000 hours a year (40 hours x 50 weeks per year) you need to work 3000 hours, at least. That's a lot of hours.

So what do you get for all that work? The payoff isn't bad, but when put in hourly terms it's not the endless source of wealth you might think.

  • Big firm associates in big cities (NYC, DC, and so on): If you make $125,000 per year, that's $41.67 per hour.
  • Big firm associates in midsized cities: $90,000 means $30 per hour.
  • Smaller firms: $65,000 equals $21.67 per hour.
  • Smaller firms and other legal jobs in government: These often pay a lot less, but are no less demanding in terms of the hours or skills required. A salary of $45,000 means $15 per hour.
And here's the best part: my plumber bills at $80 per hour. Both lawyers and plumbers put up with a lot of crap, but the plumber gets paid more on an hourly basis, and even gets to charge time and a half for work on the weekends.

Am I suggesting that everyone should quit law school and be a plumber? Of course not. But I am suggesting that before you sell your soul for the big firm job, you'd better make sure it's what you want to do.

Practicing law in a firm or with the government is a wonderful way to carve a career path, but it has its shortcomings. And based on the number of hours you'll be working, you'd better make sure that the benefits exceed the costs before you take the plunge(r).


Anonymous said...

No, obviously lawyers are not underpaid. But the current gilded age is not going to last much longer.

Another lawyer posted the comments below on a blog that focuses on what the end of cheap energy is going to do to the world and, in particular, to America. What caught my eye is that he also recognizes that the problem is that the excess salaries that lawyers get drains talent from productive fields, leaving America net worse off and unprepared for the reality check that the end of cheap energy is going to provide.

[See for a well-written, concise intro to the problem if you, like most Americans, have no idea what I'm talking about.]

Anyway, here's the post:
German Mike: I agree that the US became complacent in its power and adept in creating a system that recompensed its workers with a standard of living way beyond most of the world. That arrangement worked unimpeded for approximately 30 years after WWII. The vast infrastructure of the nation was molded to this reality. When the curve moves down, there will not be enough money to pay the piper. Of course, we can try to export our macroeconomic problems through inflation of our monetary supply and pay devaluated dollars for goods bought abroad (have been doing that for some time, otherwise called the Imperial tax or extortion). That will tide us over for only so long.

The solution, of course, would be for the US to look for the next best thing and embark on it with a vengeance. But that's were something that JJ said yesteday comes into play: I don't think we have the critical mass of real entrepreneurs in this country inclined to do so anymore. Too much energy is devoted to financial assets trade, too much intellect goes into plying the legal trade, too many good brains are invested in designing the next accounting shenanigan that will tide the company's balance sheet over the next quarter. Invention and creation demands risk: the US of A has lost its critical mass of risk takers. We have become a nation of rentiers and pensioners. That's the prevailing ethos. Don't believe me? Take a peek at the boob tube any time of day, and you will see that the prevailing TV commercial is devoted to pension planning and retirement.

The Baby Boom generation is about to say adieu en masse over the next few years. They've had theirs, and expect to go into the golden years with a goodly chunk to keep the bon temps rolling. Not precisely the material for a crash program into new technologies that could put the US on the forefront. Not precisely the cadre of people that would lead the world in innovation on all fronts, including green technologies, conservation, and improved industrial processes. Nope: it's T. Roe Price time, baby.

Anonymous said...

You completely missed the point of the article. The current gilded age? Yeah, don't even bother reading the article - you probably wouldn't understand it anyway. The point is that to be a lawyer, you have to accumulate 7 years of debt (often amounting to around 200k) and then only get paid $40/hour best-case scenario. Given that you can get paid $40/hour in many professions that don't require 7 years of debt, a strong argument can be made that lawyers are underpaid, or at least that they're not as overpaid as some other professions (read: plumbers).