Why Chasing Big Law Salaries Could Be the Worst Career Move for Attorneys | BCGSearch.com

Why Chasing Big Law Salaries Could Be the Worst Career Move for Attorneys


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Negotiating your salary can be a make-or-break moment in landing a position with a law firm. Let's explore the variables involved and why it's crucial to consider more than just the salary figure.
Why Chasing Big Law Salaries Could Be the Worst Career Move for Attorneys

Billable Hours and Career Longevity

A story I often share illustrates the benefits of being with a firm that doesn't demand high billable hours and also does not pay that much. Early in my career, while clerking for a federal judge in Bay City, Michigan, I met attorneys from small firms around my age at young attorney mixers. Most of these attorneys, largely from regional law schools like the University of Detroit and Wayne State, are at the same firms they were at today than when I met them over two decades ago. They became partners and led stable careers, unlike many of my peers from the University of Virginia, who cycled through big firms, went in-house, or left the law altogether due to the high demands and burnout from large law firms.

In my own experience, I saw the dark side of high salaries: extreme stress, substance abuse, divorces, and even criminal behavior. The high billable hour requirements took a toll on health and personal lives. Many attorneys I knew either left the practice or struggled to find stability and business development opportunities after years of intense work. The career trajectory of attorneys from small firms reflected stability compared to attorneys chasing high salaries early in their careers.
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Evaluating Salary Beyond the Numbers

When considering a new firm, it's vital to understand the implications of billable hour requirements. These hours affect your health, relationships, mental state, and career control. Smaller firms often have more reasonable work hours, whereas larger firms may expect constant availability, impacting your quality of life.

If you're moving to a firm with lower billable hour requirements or salary, you might actually make more money in terms of time saved and improved quality of life. Being the highest biller at a smaller firm can make you stand out, boost your self-esteem, job security, and partnership prospects, making you better of in the long run.

Bonuses and Employment Stability

Before negotiating salary, understand the bonus structure at the new firm. Sometimes, firms with lower base salaries offer bonuses that can match or exceed your current earnings. Also, assess the firm’s employment stability. How long do attorneys typically stay? Is there a path to advancement?

Culture and Career Development

The culture of a firm is critical. Feeling connected with your colleagues and sharing similar values can make your work life much more enjoyable. A good cultural fit often leads to better career opportunities and support from your peers and partners.

For junior associates, prioritize training over salary. The first few years should be about gaining skills and experience. Additionally, consider the firm's stance on business development. Firms that encourage bringing in clients provide better long-term career stability.

Responding to Salary Requirements

When asked about salary expectations, the best response is, "I would like to be paid the same amount that others in my class year are being paid." This shows you are reasonable and aligned with industry standards. If pressed, explain that your current salary reflects more than just the base pay and that other factors are important to you.

Ideally, get an offer first and then negotiate. Once a firm makes an offer, you have leverage and can discuss other aspects like work culture, advancement potential, and bonus structures.
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Money is important, but it's not the only factor in choosing a law firm. Consider the long-term impacts on your health, relationships, and career stability. Avoid firms that pay poorly and offer no opportunities for growth. Protect yourself from being taken advantage of and seek a balance that ensures a fulfilling career.


1. Why might pursuing a high salary in a Big Law firm be detrimental to an attorney's career and personal life?

Pursuing high salaries in Big Law firms often comes with extreme stress, high billable hour requirements, and demanding work environments. These factors can lead to burnout, substance abuse, health issues, and strained personal relationships. Many attorneys find it challenging to sustain long-term careers in such settings, often cycling through firms or leaving the legal profession altogether.

2. How can smaller law firms offer a more stable career compared to larger firms?

Smaller law firms typically have more reasonable billable hour requirements, leading to better work-life balance and less stress. Attorneys in smaller firms often have longer tenures, more opportunities for partnership, and stable career progression. The supportive environment and manageable workload contribute to a more fulfilling and sustainable career.

3. What should attorneys consider beyond salary when evaluating a new law firm?

Attorneys should consider several factors beyond salary, including billable hour requirements, firm culture, career development opportunities, bonus structures, and employment stability. Understanding how these aspects affect their health, relationships, mental well-being, and long-term career prospects is crucial for making a well-rounded decision.

4. Why is the culture of a law firm important for an attorney's career?

The culture of a law firm significantly impacts an attorney's job satisfaction and career development. A positive cultural fit can lead to a more enjoyable work environment, better support from colleagues, and increased opportunities for career advancement. Shared values and a collaborative atmosphere enhance overall job satisfaction and long-term career success.

5. How should attorneys respond when asked about their salary expectations during negotiations?

Attorneys should respond by stating, "I would like to be paid the same amount that others in my class year are being paid." This response shows that they are reasonable and aligned with industry standards. If pressed further, they should explain that their current salary reflects more than just the base pay and that other factors such as work culture, advancement potential, and bonus structures are also important to them. Ideally, attorneys should aim to get an offer first before negotiating specifics to have better leverage.

About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is a prominent figure in the legal placement industry, known for his expertise in attorney placements and his extensive knowledge of the legal profession.

With over 25 years of experience, he has established himself as a leading voice in the field and has helped thousands of lawyers and law students find their ideal career paths.

Barnes is a former federal law clerk and associate at Quinn Emanuel and a graduate of the University of Chicago College and the University of Virginia Law School. He was a Rhodes Scholar Finalist at the University of Chicago and a member of the University of Virginia Law Review. Early in his legal career, he enrolled in Stanford Business School but dropped out because he missed legal recruiting too much.

Barnes' approach to the legal industry is rooted in his commitment to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. He believes that the key to success in the legal profession is to be proactive, persistent, and disciplined in one's approach to work and life. He encourages lawyers to take ownership of their careers and to focus on developing their skills and expertise in a way that aligns with their passions and interests.

One of how Barnes provides support to lawyers is through his writing. On his blog, HarrisonBarnes.com, and BCGSearch.com, he regularly shares his insights and advice on a range of topics related to the legal profession. Through his writing, he aims to empower lawyers to control their careers and make informed decisions about their professional development.

One of Barnes's fundamental philosophies in his writing is the importance of networking. He believes that networking is a critical component of career success and that it is essential for lawyers to establish relationships with others in their field. He encourages lawyers to attend events, join organizations, and connect with others in the legal community to build their professional networks.

Another central theme in Barnes' writing is the importance of personal and professional development. He believes that lawyers should continuously strive to improve themselves and develop their skills to succeed in their careers. He encourages lawyers to pursue ongoing education and training actively, read widely, and seek new opportunities for growth and development.

In addition to his work in the legal industry, Barnes is also a fitness and lifestyle enthusiast. He sees fitness and wellness as integral to his personal and professional development and encourages others to adopt a similar mindset. He starts his day at 4:00 am and dedicates several daily hours to running, weightlifting, and pursuing spiritual disciplines.

Finally, Barnes is a strong advocate for community service and giving back. He volunteers for the University of Chicago, where he is the former area chair of Los Angeles for the University of Chicago Admissions Office. He also serves as the President of the Young Presidents Organization's Century City Los Angeles Chapter, where he works to support and connect young business leaders.

In conclusion, Harrison Barnes is a visionary legal industry leader committed to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. Through his work at BCG Attorney Search, writing, and community involvement, he empowers lawyers to take control of their careers, develop their skills continuously, and lead fulfilling and successful lives. His philosophy of being proactive, persistent, and disciplined, combined with his focus on personal and professional development, makes him a valuable resource for anyone looking to succeed in the legal profession.

About BCG Attorney Search

BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit www.BCGSearch.com.

Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays

You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts

You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives

Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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