A while back we posted a poll asking readers to weigh in on their preferred work/life/salary balance. We started with the classic BigLaw bargain, $160,000 for 60 hours of work per week, and gave options of working longer hours for more pay, or working few hours for less pay. We asked readers to pick what they would want long term and if they did not have student loans to pay off to avoid having the numbers reflect people who would pick long hours just for a couple years and then try to find their real preferred balance.
There was a little bit of a twist to the choices though. It wasn't a linear progression of just more hours for more dollars and fewer hours for fewer dollars. Instead, the fewer hours you worked the less your pay per hour would be, and the more hours worked the greater your pay per hour. Assuming a 50 week work year (2 weeks for vacation, and to keep the numbers a little cleaner), here's what the options looked like, and the percent that picked it:
30 hrs/wk at $26.67/hr, $40,000 annually - 6.5%
40 hrs/wk at $45.00/hr, $90,000 annually - 27.7%
50 hrs/wk at $52.00/hr, $130,000 annually - 45.2%
60 hrs/wk at $53.33/hr, $160,000 annually - 13.3%
70 hrs/wk at $57.14/hr, $200,000 annually - 2.6%
80 hrs/wk at $62.50/hr, $250,000 annually - 4.7%
The vast majority, 79.4%, would take a significant pay cut from BigLaw to get some more time for themselves. Law schools that send few graduates to BigLaw might pat themselves on the back upon hearing this. Doesn't matter that our grads don't go to BigLaw because they really don't want that anyways.
Trouble is that while the BigLaw bargain does exist in the real world, the balance most people would prefer doesn't. Here's what it looks like if we plot preferences against actual starting salaries:
Notice the inverse relationship between jobs people want and jobs they get. Of course, these are just starting salaries, not long term numbers. But, outside of BigLaw, your growth potential can be pretty flat. In BigLaw your hourly rate can start at $300 and climb to $700-1000, and as you move up the ladder you end up with an increasing number of subordinates feeding your pay. In SmallLaw, you'll start billing at $125/hr, work your way up to $200/hr, and keep charging the same flat rate for a simple will. Rather than 3 associates per partner inflating the pay at the top, you're more likely to have 3 partners each splitting the narrow profit margin on their 1 associate.
48% of attorneys work as solo practitioners and another 22% are in shops of 2-10 attorneys. The median salary for 8th year associates at firms with 2-25 attorneys was only $111,250. For that salary, most people would want to work about 45 hours a week. But, as anyone working at a small firm knows, less pay does not translate to fewer hours worked. Maybe you're only working 50-60 hour weeks instead of 60-70, but you're taking home half the pay (the median 8th year associate pay at firms with 700 or more attorneys was $225,000).