What Small Firm Solos Think How Much New Attorneys Should Be Paid.

A reader showed me a discussion among a group of solo practitioners over how much a newly minted attorney with no experience should be paid. The discussion should be required reading for people who are STILL stupid enough to ask “should I go to law school”. It provides an insight into how bad the legal job market is and how cheap and entitled some solo and small firm attorneys are.

The original poster said that he trolled Cragislist offering an associate position at $2,000 per month claiming that he was only trying to gauge the market. He received a few responses, including one who told him to go fuck himself.

The responses from his solo colleagues were varied. I’ll condense some of the common and interesting responses with my thoughts.

Paying $24,000 per year may violate labor laws. This is possible. It’s true that lawyers are exempt from the 40 hour overtime rule. But a good employment litigation attorney will look into just exactly what the associate was doing. Was the employee actually doing exempt lawyer work? Or was he just fetching coffee or looking for keywords from a stack of documents? A young employment attorney with an axe to grind against cheapskates will be glad to take a case like this either on principle or at least with a minimum up front payment. Even if the lawsuit ultimately fails, the lawyer’s fees will make the employer think twice about pulling this shit again. Also, the effect on his reputation will make it harder to get good employees in the future. It’s funny how stories like this quickly end up at legal gossip websites like Above the Law and the local legal newspaper – like that doc reviewer class action suit.

You are barely paying above the poverty line; young attorneys have student loans and living expenses to pay. The ability to pay student loans and living expenses is not the employer’s problem. And there is no moral obligation for an employer to break the iron laws of supply and demand. But living in poverty will have an effect of how motivated and loyal your associate will be. See high turnover below.

You’re going to have high turnover. If you are going to pay poverty level salaries without clear incentives, do not expect a loyal employee. Your new employee has student loans to pay, a family to support and dreams of being a good lawyer. Once your employee realizes that he has no future with you with no opportunities for career growth and raises, he will lose respect for you (assuming he has had any in the first place) and start looking for a new job. Don’t even get me started on how a disgruntled associate can disrupt your practice – particularly if he has been planning an exit strategy for some time.

Offer bonuses for bringing in business. Some commenters suggest that solos offer a base salary but sweeten the pot for bringing in business. I see in many lawyer job advertisements a bullshit line saying something like “potential for advancement and raises” which usually means “you’ll get a raise whenever I feel like giving it”.

This is a common deal with most small firms. It’s also also something most associates cannot or don’t want to do. They wanted to become lawyers because they did not want to be salesmen. Apparently, for some, this is considered laziness.

Government jobs pay $24,000 to start so the private sector can too. A government job offers at least seven things that a small solo can’t: 1) A clear and decent salary increase schedule; 2) Much better chance of job security; 3) A better working environment and practical learning experience; 4) A better likelihood of being a competitive candidate for private firms seeking attorneys with inside government information and experience; 5) The prestige of working for a respectable – and sometimes feared – organization; 6) Better benefits; and 7) PSLF – look it up. Can Ms. Small Solo offer something similar? Good luck finding that unicorn.

Most attorneys are not worth $24,000 per year and it’s more than what I’m willing to pay. I would rather pay that to a paralegal. One commenter went on a harangue about how even experienced attorneys cannot do simple discovery motions, were entitled, and how they should get out of the law if they can’t handle a routine case.

People like her think that because they have the power of the paycheck, their employees should do nothing less than walk on water and take a bullet for them. I guess this must be their idea of “work ethic”. They also think that employees should be paid no more than minimum wage until they prove themselves.

I wonder who these people think they are with their enormous egos. She is a solo practitioner. She doesn’t have the brand recognition of a Biglaw, Midlaw or even some respected small firms. I’m willing to bet that her employees do not brag to their family and friends that they work for her. If it wasn’t for this shitty economy and the moral bankruptcy of law schools, most people would tell her to take her insulting salary offer and shove it.

But there are many like her and I should give her credit for saying what some didn’t want to say.

I’ve hired several attorneys that cost me more than they were worth. This happens. But a subsequent commenter said it best: If you had constant turnover in your office, have you taken a good look in the mirror and considered whether you are a bad manager/teacher?

I have heard tons of stories from solos who left firms with insane, psychotic bosses. Also, some firms are known for hiring new associates every three to four months. Most of these assholes defend their actions by saying that they will get the same kind of abuse from judges and demanding clients. If they can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen. Others just don’t give a fuck about churning and burning associates – it’s all about the Benjamins. 

People like these don’t need associates. They should probably hire a contract attorney for the unusual shit and hire a full time legal assistant or paralegal for the drudgery.

The associate can turn to IBR to lower their student loan payment. Looks like some of the smarter attorneys are catching on to my idea. Why pay associates a large salary if their money will go to paying student loans? Once student loans exceed $200,000, some will be inclined to pay the least as possible and will take a job that will allow that.

Most know that there is an oversupply of new lawyers and thus employers are entitled to feel entitled. But after reading the responses, it is nice to know that there are some people who understand young lawyers’ problems. Yet there are others who see this as an opportunity to exploit the vulnerable with vague promises of “experience” and “possibility of career advancement” while projecting to others about how great they are. I can only hope that the collective will reward those who do the right thing and shame those who do not.

One commenter aptly stated that this shows how hard times are: Attorneys can’t pay for competent help and new attorneys can’t find work that pays enough to put a decent roof over their head and to eat.

So as far as I’m concerned, a firm that offers $24,000 to start with vague promises of raises and advancement is most likely fucking with you. Proceed accordingly.


3 thoughts on “What Small Firm Solos Think How Much New Attorneys Should Be Paid.

  1. Nando

    The lemmings hear what they want to hear, when it comes to their brilliant futures. They aced undergrad, with no problem. Then again, this is not exactly a huge accomplishment when you major in Political “Science” from State U.

    I am glad to see that others are starting to speak out. Educated, unconnected, non-privileged idiots need to know that they will essentially be required to incur an additional $120K-$195K in non-dischargeable debt – for *a chance* to practice law. If they are lucky, then they may earn $35K-$55K per year. Good luck starting a family or purchasing a home with that debt to income ratio!

  2. Daley Center Veteran

    This is a great post. I practiced for over ten years in Chicago, and small P.I,/I.D, firms have been churning through associates at sub-par salaries for a long time. My wife worked at a firm like that (that would pick up new associates every couple of months). Before she met me, she and her co-workers moonlighted at retail jobs and focus groups to make ends meet.

    There were (at least) two results of this. First, the associates grinding out in this kind of law were incredibly demoralized. They also (my wife excluded, but she ditched the lawyer gig as soon as she could) were strange, strange people, on the par with the types you run into on the Document Review circuit.

    Bottom line, anyone with any social capital will not end up in positions like this.

  3. lawmrh

    Two comments:
    1) Firms willing to hose new lawyers this shamelessly are even more exploitive of administrative support staffs;
    2) Do your due diligence, the high turnover firms that burn and churn associates are always well known in a given legal community. And the reasons are usually the same ones: low pay, no training/mentoring, and the partner(s) is a jerk.
    – Mo


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