Income

I think we’ve long known that law is a refuge for people who are afraid of numbers. People who are good at math don’t borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars for a shot at winning the bi-modal salary distribution lottery and a job that they’ll most likely hate. I don’t think we needed a longitudinal survey to show that.

But the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth also found that lawyers are more likely to come from relatively rich families, which does surprise me.

Studying law is hard, and your financial success is somewhat directly tied to the amount of hours you work. A banker can earn money in his sleep. A lawyer has only 24 hours in a day to bill. If your family makes a lot of money, aren’t you supposed to get an anthropology degree and work for an NGO? Why would you slum it with the social climbers trying to get into the upper middle class, one deal sheet at a time?

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Regular readers of Above the Law are well aware of the bimodal salary distribution curve of starting salaries for new lawyers. Lawyers understand why the curve looks the way it does: there are a few “elite” firms that essentially engage in salary collusion at the very top (don’t everybody start thanking Above the Law at once), while most lawyers will struggle to find a job in the $40K – $60K range.

When non-lawyers see this curve, they are surprised. The curve popped up on Mother Jones the other day, and author Kevin Drum called the $160K spike “pretty weird.” Then the commenters on his post — actually HELPFUL commenters who managed to weigh in without personal attacks on the author — explained to Drum why it was so.

But that’s kind of the problem: people only become aware of the bimodal salary distribution curve after they’ve been to law school (and done things like become a regular reader of Above the Law). They don’t get the information before they commit to law school, when the information could be useful. In a world without time machines, hindsight is blind.

Still, even people who have already committed to their dread fate can benefit from an understanding of history. Do you know what the salary distribution curve looked like in 1991, during the last “great” lawyer recession? Do you think the people who are charging you money to go to law school have seen it?

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Tom Wallerstein

Starting a new firm is daunting. Many lawyers focus on their expenses, and are pleasantly surprised that the overhead and other necessary expenses are less than they expected. But the real difficulty arises on the other side of the ledger because accurately projecting income can be so elusive.

If you’re starting with guaranteed clients, then making projections is easier. But otherwise, you really can’t project your income unless you know the extent to which your business plan in general (and your business development plan in particular) will succeed.

Even if you can accurately project how much potential business you will have, it’s still easy to slip by overestimating your expected income…

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