Legal careers: From solo practice to BigLaw

A lot of attention in the mainstream media (and popular culture) gets focused on lawyers working in large firms (often referred to as “BigLaw”).  But less than  15% of law grads—roughly 4,900 out of the 34,000 who graduated law school in 2019—enter jobs in the very large law firms (those with 500 or more attorneys), and an even smaller percentage work there long term. About 42% of law grads going into private practice start their careers in either small firms (2-25 attorneys) or as solo practitioners.

Firm size can have a dramatic effect on the salary and working conditions for individual lawyers In the very large law firms, new associates can expect to earn upwards of $190,000 per year, but also to work 80-90 hours per week. Associates in such firms can be required to bill on the order of 2100 hours/year, or more than 40 hours a week for 52 weeks. Depending on the type of practice a single “billable” hour can require 2-3 hours of actual time spent on a case. They also tend to be beholden to their supervising attorney’s demands.

Lawyers in small and midsize firms can expect to earn as little as a third as much (the median salary for all new attorneys is $75,000), but generally to also work fewer hours and to have substantially more autonomy. Solo and very small firm practitioners need an entrepreneurial spirit and basic small business management skills, in addition to lawyering skills.