What is Big Law and what are the average salaries?

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Big Law is the term used to describe large law firms in big cities like New York and Chicago. Becoming a lawyer requires a significant investment of time and money, though it might pay off if you get into Big Law; your starting salary at a big firm could be $130,000 or more. Here’s what to know if you’re considering law school.

What is Big Law?

Big Law, sometimes styled as BigLaw or biglaw, is a term that describes work with the biggest and most prestigious law firms in the United States. Generally speaking, these law firms tend to have a large presence in Washington, D.C., and larger cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Dallas. However, it’s not uncommon for Big Law offices to also have a major presence overseas.

By and large, Big Law firms tend to charge clients incredibly high fees, and lawyers who work with these firms are able to earn higher salaries as a result.

Big Law salary scale

Lawyer salaries can vary widely depending on where you decide to practice. Further, lawyers tend to earn more as they progress in their careers, and especially once they have at least five or more years of experience.

Recent figures from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) also show that the size of the law firm plays a huge role in how much lawyers earn. Based on salary figures from 2021, here’s how median starting lawyer salaries stack up based on law firm size:

Law firm size Median starting lawyer salaries in 2021 
50 or fewer lawyers $85,000
51 to 100 lawyers $127,500
101 to 250 lawyers $130,000
251 to 500 lawyers $170,000
501 to 700 lawyers $155,000
700+ lawyers $190,000

Also note that more experienced lawyers tend to earn considerably more. Here’s how law salaries compare for lawyers in their eighth year across law firms of different sizes.

Law firm size Median salary in 2021 for eighth-year lawyers
50 or fewer lawyers $160,000
51 to 100 lawyers $130,000
101 to 250 lawyers $175,000
251 to 500 lawyers $210,000
501 to 700 lawyers $218,175
700+ lawyers $260,000

Where you live in the country can also dictate your ability to earn a high salary, and because Big Law firms tend to be based out of large cities, the potential earnings are much greater. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that lawyers in the following metropolitan areas earned the highest annual mean wages in May of 2020:

  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $231,610.
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA: $201,920.
  • Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV: $186,070.
  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA: $180,220.
  • New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA: $180,160.

What type of lawyer makes the most money?

While where you live and the size of your law firm can dictate how much you might earn as a lawyer, the industry you work in also comes into play. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the following industries paid the highest annual mean wages in May of 2020:

  • Specialized design services: $233,400.
  • Computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing: $221,000.
  • Motion picture and video industries: $218,360.
  • Cable and other subscription programming: $216,860.
  • Navigational, measuring, electromedical and control instruments manufacturing: $208,460.

Paying for law school

Becoming a lawyer requires a significant financial investment; not only do you have to earn an undergraduate degree, but you have to pay for law school on top of that. You’ll also spend a significant amount of extra time in college instead of in the working world, which can leave you struggling to catch up in terms of your lifetime earnings.

With that being said, the average lawyer salary can more than make up for the extra time and money you spend. The key is making sure that you pay for law school in a responsible manner and that you choose a college option that makes sense for your needs and goals.

When it comes to paying for law school, there are a few ways to find funding:

  • Federal loans: Law students can borrow up to $20,500 each academic year in Direct Unsubsidized Loans. From there, Direct PLUS Loans let you borrow up to the cost of attendance, minus any other financial aid you receive. With these types of loans, lawyers maybe able to find student loan forgiveness through Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
  • Private law school loans: After you max out federal student loans, you can also apply for private student loans. These loans can help you fill in the gaps in funding so you can finish law school, and they often come with low rates and flexible repayment plans.
  • Scholarships and grants: Scholarships and grants don’t have to be repaid. Law school students may be able to find scholarships through local organizations, schools or scholarship search engines.

The bottom line

If you’re after a Big Law career and a corresponding salary, going to law school is a must. However, you should still put thought into the costs involved in going to law school, as well as the time you’ll need to spend. If you can keep law school debt at a minimum while working your way toward a Big Law career, you’ll have the best shot at getting a return on your investment.

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Written by
Holly D. Johnson
Author, Award-Winning Writer
Holly Johnson began her career working in the funeral industry, which may make you wonder why she works in personal finance now. Yet, the funeral industry taught the author everything she needs to know about the value of one's money and time. Johnson left the mortuary business a decade ago in order to explore her passion for personal finance and travel the world, and since then, she and her husband have built a debt-free lifestyle that has them on the path to retire very wealthy in their 40s. Holly's love of budgeting also led to the creation of her debt payoff book, “Zero Down Your Debt: Reclaim Your Income and Build a Life You’ll Love."
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