Biglaw is the term used in the legal industry to describe the country’s largest and most successful law firms, which are usually headquartered in major U.S. cities, such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago or Los Angeles.
The reality of working in Biglaw and securing a well-paying job is challenging and requires new associates—or early-career lawyers—to hit the ground running.
A position at a Biglaw firm is desirable since they tend to pay the market rate for a person’s services as an attorney with a starting salary of $215,000 that comes with long, demanding hours. There are many conflicting sentiments regarding Biglaw since the environment has its opportunities and challenges.
In this blog post, we explore the definition of Biglaw, how much associates get paid, how much they work, a few examples of some well-known Biglaw firms, as well the pros and cons of Biglaw culture and whether law students should be clamoring to get a Biglaw job.
The definition of Biglaw
Biglaw is the term that the legal industry uses to describe the most successful and largest law firms, and the attorneys that work there are typically called Biglaw attorneys. Some of these large law firms have more than one thousand partners and span across the United States and globe.
Not all Biglaw firms operate at this massive level, as there are many boutique law firms that count as part of Biglaw due to the prestige of the firm, equity partners or revenue they generate. Typically though, a Biglaw firm will employ over a hundred lawyers and offer the industry’s best legal wages.
Law students from the best law schools around the country clamor for an interview with the goal of becoming a summer associate on the career path of eventually making partner. In general, a summer associate’s experience with the firm may lead to a full-time, paid position as a new associate.
Biglaw firms tend to offer comprehensive legal services in corporate law practice areas, rather than focusing on a specific niche, like personal injury or criminal law. Clients are large corporations, investment vehicles, family officers or wealthy individuals. They appreciate the clout and one-stop-shop approach that these major firms provide.
The amount of responsibility and pressure that these firms espouse give rise to the understanding as to why associates tend to make very high salaries. However, with great responsibility comes a tremendous personal demand.
In the next section, we examine the average starting salary of Biglaw associates and why these firms are willing to pay so much for talent.
Biglaw associate salaries and bonuses
An associate attorney is an early-career licensed legal professional. They tend to lack hands-on experience but come from the most desirable educational backgrounds. While many in-house counsel are critical of the inexperience of a typical first-year associate, they perform tasks as grinders, which is a term used to describe the attorneys who conduct the research, writing and other support work associated with the legal practice. Ultimately, they are on track to have very successful, lucrative careers in the legal field.
As previously stated in this article, new Biglaw associates generally earn $215,000 plus bonus. If this number sounds encouraging or shocking, it is a strategy that Biglaw firms use to attract the nation’s top legal talent.
How Biglaw firms determine salaries depends on a graduate’s law school class. In general, Biglaw wages offered to new associates tend to be nearly identical since they are vying for the best and brightest up-and-comers in the industry.
The National Association of Law Placement indicates that nearly thirty percent of first-year associates earn a starting at $215,000 and move up based on the year he or she graduated. For example, a second-year associate may earn $225,000, and so on.
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The expected workload of a Biglaw associate
If the above-referenced salaries sound cushy, they are, but it does not come without a price to the Biglaw associate, and high-turnover is well understood in the legal profession. Biglaw associates at all levels work incredibly long hours, and partners task them with meeting a minimum billable hour requirement of typically at least two thousand hours or more every year.
This number means that an average week requires them to spend thirty-eight hours dedicated to working on client accounts, not counting vacation time or other work tasks. It makes sense that ambitious young lawyers spend at least sixty hours a week at work.
Junior and senior associates are typically on call 24/7, and firms issue or pay for a cell phone so that they can always stay in contact with them regularly. That means that they must be available to field inquiries while taking a vacation, at family dinners, and even routine trips to the grocery store.
On-call means that an associate’s life can never actually disconnect from the firm without making arrangements beforehand. Even then, it is never guaranteed, as a transaction or case may require you to work evenings, weekends or holidays. It’s all part of the deal if you want to make partner at a Biglaw firm.
The reason for this demand is that Biglaw firms make a promise of above-and-beyond excellence to their clients and never compromise on their integrity to deliver legal services in a timely, lawful manner.
Four examples of Biglaw Firms
Every year, Vault releases a list named the Vault Law 100. It is a ranking of the United State’s most prestigious law firms. Based on revenues, employee size, and peer ratings, Vault’s list is a well-respected measurement of Biglaw firms.
Here are the top 4 Biglaw firms and a little more information about how they operate:
- Cravath, Swaine, & Moore LLP: Headquartered in New York City, Cravath has two offices. In addition to their NYC location, they also have an office located in London. They have more than 500 attorneys on their roster and focus their primary practice areas on industry-specific corporate law.
- Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz: Headquartered in New York City, Wachtell, they are the only firm on this list that has a single office. They focus on general corporate practice matters and employ more than 250 lawyers. Their website also boasts that they have a low associate-to-partner ratio.
- Sullivan & Cromwell LLP: Headquartered in New York City, Sullivan & Cromwell, LLP have four U.S.-based offices, four European offices, three in Asia, and two in Australia. They have more than 875 attorneys, who work in corporate business matters and complex transactions.
- Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, and Affiliates: A Biglaw firm headquartered in New York City, Skadden has ten offices in North and South America, six offices in Asia, and six located in Europe. They employ more than 1,700 attorneys across fifty practice areas, including corporate and international business matters.
For more examples of Biglaw firms, be sure to check out other names on the Vault Law 100 list for more information. Individuals and hopeful legal professionals alike can examine peer reviews and why Vault believes that they are excellent firms for whom to work.
While researching law firms may be helpful, it does not always paint an accurate picture regarding the reality of working as a Biglaw associate. In the next section, we describe some of the elements of working in this environment may require.
The typical culture of a Biglaw firm
The culture of a Biglaw firm is different from a small- or medium-sized legal environment. In short, attorneys tend to work long hours and bring their work home with them more so than the average.
Although the top Biglaw firms, like the ones listed in the preceding section, focus on providing a work-life balance, not all of them adopt this culture since it is a very competitive environment. Generally, a firm isn’t interested in having an associate quit Biglaw given the high replacement cost of finding a new associate.
The reality is that attorneys at Biglaw firms have little control over the type of cases or transactions that they work on. New associates are often the individuals who shuffle papers and perform the manual work that goes into managing and litigating cases. Communication tends to feel inefficient in a way that overburdens the lower-level players.
If it sounds like the Biglaw culture is stressful, there is something to that assertion. It is for this reason that the more work-life balance-friendly firms attempt to make the process as easy as possible on their team members.
For example, they may pay for relocation expenses and annual bonuses. Some even offer on-site gyms and childcare facilities. Some receive dinner allowances for working long hours.
Final thoughts on working in Biglaw
Receiving an offer to work for a Biglaw firm is a crowning achievement for new and seasoned attorneys alike. The allure of wealth, popularity, and recognition are the obvious big draws to Biglaw and the reason legal recruiters are working hard to bring the best law students into certain firms.
However, there is also the need to pay off massive student loans, garner relevant experience, and develop a sense of integrity and prestige. Attorneys who stay with Biglaw firms over the long-run tend to work long hours but they also have the opportunity to control the type of work they take, which directly affects their schedule.
Stress management, setting expectations, and self-care are requirements of working in this field. Failing to do so may lead to cognitive burnout. It is not a field for everyone, especially those prone to chronic stress.
However, there are Biglaw firms that value a work-life balance and offer support to those who are brave and talented enough to face this type of legal practice. Just like law school, Biglaw is a significant commitment and one that hopefuls cannot take lightly.
Instead, making an informed decision alongside a careful vetting process is the most advantageous way to ensure that one is making the best choice for his or her legal career.
Joshua Holt is a practicing private equity M&A lawyer and the creator of Biglaw Investor. Josh couldn’t find a place where lawyers were talking about money, so he created it himself. He spends 10 minutes a month on Personal Capital keeping track of his money and is currently fascinated by the JD Mortgage service connecting lawyers with lenders offering no to low down payment options.
Three thoughts on What Is Biglaw and Is It Worth It?
Overall I never really considered going into law, though it did cross my mind when I first went to college. But I knew my family would never have the money for it, and I also knew what the work would be like, which you explained here. Then again, when I decided to work for myself I was putting in 16-18 hours a day the first few years, so I might have gotten some rest as a lawyer during a period of my life when I was better able to handle little sleep.
There’s something extremely satisfying about working for yourself vs. being on call 24/7 to solve other people’s problems. That’s just me though! 🙂
All the hours work for that paycheck (which is not much considering the debt from law school) and “prestige” is just not worth it. Young impressionable people are caught up with the allure of Big Law when they could be doing something more fulfilling, satisfying, AND allow them to pursue other things on the side is just sad to me. Not to mention, the elitism with T14 and Big Law firms is so sickening. Tech is better in this regard since Google will hire you even without a degree if you show strong programming and problem solving skills. Tech has its own ugliness, but it’s more of a meritocracy than Big Law where you first have to earn an “elite” degree.