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.
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).