Associate Salaries, Bonuses, Boutique Law Firms, Job Survey, Money, Small Law Firms

A Small Firm Salary Survey: The Results (Part 1)

Over 650 of you responded to last week’s salary survey. In poring over the results, I learned several lessons:

(1) Don’t make salary questions fill-in-the-blank. It creates a host of problems, including the inadvertent omitting/adding of zeroes, and makes data compilation and analysis unnecessarily difficult.

(2) Do include open-ended “anything else” questions; people write all sorts of amusing things given the chance.

(3) Don’t misspell “where” on question number seven.

So, let’s get to the $64,000 question: How much money are small firm lawyers making?

Sorry. Before I get to the results, I need to offer the standard lawyerly caveats and methodological explanations.

Some of you answered the salary question with a range (e.g., $70k-$80k). In those cases, I made my calculations based on the low end of the range, for two reasons: (1) If you’re like me, you tend to err on the high side of things when it comes to reporting your salary, especially in the world of surveys, where the bright lights can be quite harsh. (2) I wanted the outcome to err on the conservative side, so as not to inadvertently play a role in misleading law students about their prospects — there’s already plenty of that going on.

Also, for purposes of this survey, I threw out the numbers for those of you admitting to work for a firm with 50+ lawyers. In addition to my rambling definition of “small law,” I’ve arbitrarily adopted fifty as a cutoff, a view at least one other small firm guru supports.

With that said, over 80% of the survey responses were from people working in firms with 20 lawyers or less. Also, roughly 80% of respondents have been practicing for five years or less, and almost 70% were in their first two years at a small firm.

Enough talk. Onto the results….

So, what are people making in the world of small firms? The aggregate numbers (chart below) are encouraging for aspiring small firm lawyers, with an average salary of $108,000 and a median of $82,000. The highest reported salary was $4 million, which I assume was a fictitious response, an assumption I base mostly on the practice description (“everywhere global”) and the open-ended response (“show me some results please time is money”). It, along with four other responses of $500k and higher, were the clear outliers.

The booby prize goes to the poor first-year making a mere $24,000. Of course there’s no actual prize, but I would encourage you to ask for your money back from wherever you went to school.

Even if we take out the five outliers (those in the $500k+ category), the overall average only drops to about $95,000, which is still pretty good in my opinion. It’s also more than I was making as a fourth-year associate in my former life.

If we dig a bit deeper, however, the numbers get a bit less enticing.

Sixty percent of all the salaries reported are under six figures. Of those, the average was a paralegal-esque $67,000, which is still more than I make disheartening if you’re still towing a student loan anchor. Many of you are getting pulled under and expressed your displeasure as part of the open-ended questions, with responses ranging from “Why has God forsaken me??? LOL… sort of” to the more simple “FML.”

My favorite was the person describing his practice area with two words: “Kill me.” But let’s not get overly discouraged. After all, $67k is still within striking range of being as happy as you’ll ever get, at least if this report is to be believed. More depressed? Don’t be — we’ve still got other factors to consider.

While cash is king, we’ve previously discussed that what makes a king is often found less in the amount of gold he has and more in the kingdom in which he counts it. In other words, where (not “wehre,” which still appears in the stupid graphic that I couldn’t figure out how to edit without deleting responses) do our respondents work?

Based on the numbers (chart above), roughly half of our respondents are working in a small firm in a big city. (Note that the location question was designed to see where your office is — which is a relative constant and more likely to affect your salary – as opposed to where you live, which is a personal choice and can vary based on your needs.)

What do the salaries look like when broken down by office location? The chart below shows the distribution of salaries as reported for each population range:

As you might have expected, the salaries in less populous areas (0 – 250,000 residents) skew toward the lower end. As one moves into larger populated areas, the salaries show upward movement, with the big cities having their concentration of salaries in the $50,000 to $150,000.

I know, I know, how does the fact that my small firm/big city salary could be anywhere from $50k — $150k help me make career decisions? Well, it may not, but it does confirm what many of you expected: small firm salaries vary widely, regardless of the locale in which they’re paid. Let’s instead look at the average for each population range:

The high value in the sub-50,000 population range is explainable by the presence of two outliers within that data set. Removing the outliers, we get a newly computed average of roughly $70,000, which results in a direct correlation between salary and locale and makes more intuitive sense.

Am I right? Are the results what you expected? More analysis next week (including a more qualitiative discussion of your comments). Let me know what I missed or what else you’re hoping to see from the data.

Email me with your questions and discussion. You can also follow me on Twitter.

POLICY NOTE: Consistent with general Above the Law policy, all comments, emails, etc. are assumed to be usable on the site, on an anonymous basis (unless you specify otherwise).

Earlier: Prior ATL coverage of small law firms

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