The Seventeen Percent

June 23rd, 2016 / By

In a recent column, Professor Stephen Davidoff Solomon observes that the legal job market “is a world of haves and have-nots.” With BigLaw firms raising entry-level salaries from $160,000 to $180,000, he concludes, “[t]op law graduates are doing better than ever.” Conversely, “it is clear that it is harder out there for the lower-tier law schools and their graduates.”

I agree with Professor Solomon about the divided nature of our profession; that reality has haunted American lawyers for decades. Solomon, however, significantly overstates the percentage of law graduates who fall within his world of “haves” (those whose salaries recently climbed from $160,000 to $180,000).


, View Comment (1)


June 20th, 2016 / By

BigLaw firms gave 2016 graduates a sweet gift earlier this month: new associates at many of those firms will earn $180,000 (rather than $160,000) when they start work in the fall. That’s the first salary increase in BigLaw since 2007.

What should we make of this increase? It shows, certainly, that many BigLaw firms continue to prosper. But we already knew that from the firms’ reports of profits per partner. We also knew that associates are the most productive workers at those firms. This raise reflects rather belated recognition of that fact.

One could argue, in fact, that BigLaw partners are still undervaluing their associates. As Bruce MacEwen notes, the increase doesn’t match inflation since the last increase in BigLaw salaries. $180,000 in 2016 has less buying power than $160,000 did in 2007.

But those kids are going to be alright. I want to focus here on a shadow side of the BigLaw salary increase, one that the press and blogs haven’t discussed. BigLaw firms are paying more money–but to many fewer associates. This trend, which concentrates higher salaries in a smaller number of workers, has important implications for the legal job market.


, View Comments (2)

Is BigLaw Reviving?

April 29th, 2013 / By

The American Lawyer has published the Am Law 100, its annual list of America’s highest revenue generating law firms. The accompanying article, titled “Spring Awakening,” suggests that BigLaw may have turned the tide to better times. The subtitle, in fact, states: “The Am Law 100’s modest gains hint that a fundamental recovery is taking root.”

BigLaw may be stabilizing, but the numbers don’t suggest any recovery in hiring levels for new associates. Revenue increases are modest, and headcount rose a miserly 0.8% over the last year. A detailed analysis of firm billing, meanwhile, declares that “[t]he most endangered species in The Am Law 100 appears to be the junior associate.”


Gross revenue among the Am Law 100 increased 3.4% in 2012. Inflation, however, was 1.7%, which accounts for half of the increase. Average revenue per lawyer, meanwhile, increased just 2.6%, not much faster than inflation.

Profits per partner, notably, rose more than any other indicator. Those profits increased an average of 4.2%. Those increases make partners happy but, when partners take more than their share of gross revenue, there’s less money for hiring or compensating new lawyers.

Junior Associates

The day after publishing its Am Law 100 list, The American Lawyer released details of a study underscoring the decline of junior lawyers at those firms. The study analyzed a sample of bills submitted to BigLaw clients over the last three years. In 2010, those bills included hours billed by 3,322 junior lawyers (those with less than three years of experience). In 2012, the number of timekeepers in that category was just 2,327–a thirty percent decline.

The report notes that BigLaw clients have resisted paying for junior lawyers’ time, but finds that fact an unlikely explanation for a decline of this size. An associate would appear in this study even if the firm billed just a single hour of her time. It’s unlikely that any firm wrote off an entire year of work by a junior associate. The junior associates who did appear in the billing records, moreover, billed more time than midlevel or senior associates.

Instead, the most likely explanation for the decline is that firms have not been replacing entry-level lawyers. They are shifting work to staff attorneys, contract attorneys, and outsourcing firms. Or, when they hire new associates, they may be seeking ones who already have three years of experience.

Client Demand

The analysis of billing records reveals another grim fact: The large clients represented in the study hired BigLaw firms for fewer hours in 2012 than in 2011. In 2011 these clients bought 4.4 million hours from the studied firms; in 2012, they purchased just 4.3 million. That’s still significantly higher than the 3.7 million hours billed in 2010, but a dip between 2011 and 2012 does not bode well–especially for law students seeking associate positions at these firms. BigLaw clients may be handling more work in-house, solving problems through other means, hiring smaller firms, and turning directly to legal process outsourcers.


Most BigLaw firms are still vibrant, handling large amounts of work, and increasing profits for their partners. Business may have stabilized somewhat since the worst days of the recession. For law schools and new lawyers, however, any BigLaw recovery seems modest at best. At worst, in the words of The American Lawyer‘s columnist, junior associates are an “endangered species” in BigLaw.

, No Comments Yet

Patton Boggs and BigLaw

March 2nd, 2013 / By

The BigLaw firm Patton Boggs announced yesterday that it was laying off 30 attorneys and 35 other staff members. The laid off lawyers were all associates or staff attorneys, but about eighteen partners have been notified that they should improve performance or find other work. With 485 lawyers on board, the lay-offs amounted to 6.2% of the firm’s legal talent. If the eighteen partners also depart, that would be a cutback of 9.9%.

According to the firm’s managing partner, Edward Newberry, the staff gave him a standing ovation after he announced the cuts. Those staff agreed that the firm was taking the right steps to make it “a great competitor in a very difficult legal market place.” Indeed, even as it cuts some attorneys and staff, the firm will move forward in other ways. It is opening an office in Dubai, moving support functions to a less expensive office in Northern Virginia, refurbishing the DC office, and looking to open an office in Houston.

The Patton Boggs announcement seems to mirror predictions published in a January report from Georgetown’s Center for the Study of the Legal Profession. The report was written by James W. Jones, a Senior Fellow at Georgetown who previously served as managing partner at Arnold & Porter, Vice President and General Counsel of APCO Worldwide, and Managing Director of Hildebrandt International. Georgetown’s Mitt Regan, the McDevitt Professor of Jurisprudence and well known expert on the legal profession, contributed. Jones, Regan, and the rest of their team know a lot about the legal profession–and they built this report on real data collected from firms.

The sobering conclusion of this report, presented in the opening lines, is: “At this point, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the market for legal services in the United States and throughout the world has changed in fundamental ways and that, even as we work our way out of the economic doldrums, the practice of law going forward is likely to be starkly different than in the pre-2008 era.” The authors are so confident of these differences that they urge law firms to “burn the ships,” to force themselves to adopt new, more profitable ways of doing business. (p. 1)

Does “burning the ships” mean laying off lawyers and staff, as Patton Boggs did? Indeed it does. The Georgetown report warns that, despite “several rounds of lay-offs” since 2008, many firms still suffer from “overcapacity in terms of the number of lawyers available to perform the work at hand.” Indeed, “the overcapacity problem has become even more serious” over the last four years. (p. 16) The solution, for firms that want to maintain high levels of profitability, is to continue cutting both associates and partners.

In addition to trimming lawyers, law firms are learning to hire new lawyers in lower-paid and more contingent positions. As the Georgetown report recognizes: “Firms have . . . begun to move toward more flexible staffing models, expanding their use of non-partner track associates, staff attorneys, and contract lawyers. Going forward, it is likely that firms will remain conservative in their hiring policies, even as demand begins to grow. As a result, firms probably will be relatively smaller in terms of the number of partners and traditional partner-track associates and relatively larger in terms of the number of other lawyers and non-lawyer professionals.” (p. 16)

Firms have been able to pursue this course because the legal market is flooded with law school graduates eager to work on almost any terms. The Georgetown report is quite candid on this point: “While excess capacity in the [legal] market is certainly not good news for young lawyers or, for that matter, law schools, it provides an environment in which law firms should have the flexibility to redesign their staffing models to respond to client demands. By embracing alternative approaches to staffing–including increased use of staff attorneys and non-partner track associates, contract lawyers, and part-time attorneys–firms can create more efficient and cost effective ways to deliver legal services.” (p. 17)

The Patton Boggs layoffs, in other words, are likely to be the first of many further contractions in BigLaw. Other firms may not lay off lawyers; they may reduce further the number of associates they hire, or quietly shift toward hiring staff attorneys and contract lawyers rather than partner-track associates. One way or another, however, firms will remedy the “overcapacity” identified in the Georgetown report.

For those who have been waiting for the golden days of BigLaw to return, the wait is over. There will still be golden times for some lawyers in BigLaw, but the opportunities are narrowing. Four years after the recession hit the legal market, structural changes continue to reduce BigLaw prospects for lawyers of all ages.

, No Comments Yet

About Law School Cafe

Cafe Manager & Co-Moderator
Deborah J. Merritt

Cafe Designer & Co-Moderator
Kyle McEntee

ABA Journal Blawg 100 HonoreeLaw School Cafe is a resource for anyone interested in changes in legal education and the legal profession.

Around the Cafe


Enter your email address to receive notifications of new posts by email.


Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Monthly Archives


Have something you think our audience would like to hear about? Interested in writing one or more guest posts? Send an email to the cafe manager at We are interested in publishing posts from practitioners, students, faculty, and industry professionals.

Past and Present Guests