Key takeaways

  • “Big Law” is a term used in the legal field when referring to large law firms in major cities.
  • A career in Big Law can set you on track for a high-paying salary. However, the field is highly competitive and careers tend to be demanding.
  • Big Law and the associated income can be a quick way of offsetting law school student debt. Working between your law school semesters can be one way of earning an income while you study.

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 $245,000 or more. Here’s what to know if you’re considering law school.

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 and what field of law you choose to pursue. Further, lawyers tend to earn more as they progress in their careers, 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 2023, here’s how median starting lawyer salaries stack up based on law firm size:

Law firm size Median starting lawyer salaries in 2023
100 or fewer lawyers $155,000
101 to 250 lawyers $160,000
251 to 500 lawyers $190,000
501 to 700 lawyers $200,000
701+ lawyers $215,000

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 2023 for eighth-year lawyers
100 or fewer lawyers $213,950
101 to 250 lawyers $217,775
251 to 500 lawyers $235,000
501 to 700 lawyers $300,000
701 to 1,000 lawyers $310,000
1,000+ lawyers $395,000

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 2022:

  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $267,840.
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA: $239,330.
  • Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV: $211,850.
  • Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT: $209,770.
  • Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA: $207,970.

Is it hard to get into Big Law?

Getting into Big Law is difficult, but not impossible. Typically, you will have to attend a prestigious law school, as these are the institutions that Big Law firms most often look to when making employment offers. According to media site Above The Law, Columbia, Cornell, and Northwestern are the top three schools for getting into Big Law, as they have the highest percentage of their graduating classes landing in the field.

Even more important is landing in a Big Law summer program. According to the National Association for Law Placement, 97 percent of second-year law students in these programs receive offers for full-time employment as associates after graduation.

Why does Big Law pay so well?

Big Law firms pay well in part because of the extremely competitive market, in which firms are raising salaries to keep up with each other and capture top talent. That competition is creating a wider divide between the largest firms and the midlevel and small firms. Big Law firms also typically represent clients capable of paying higher fees, generating more money for the firm, and allowing salaries to rise.

Why do clients turn to Big Law firms?

Big Law firms bring a level of prestige to their work. Because the job market is high-paying and highly competitive, attorneys with these firms tend to be some of the best in the field.

Professionals at these firms also benefit from vast professional networks, which can be especially handy for cases requiring specialized knowledge. Clients who hire Big Law firms to represent them can benefit from the reputation of a firm working on their case, as well as the long hours that attorneys and staff dedicate to their work.

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 median pay in May of 2022:

  • Oral and maxillofacial surgeons: $239,200

  • Surgeons, all other: $239,200
  • Pediatric surgeons: $239,200
  • Orthopedic surgeons: $239,200
  • Radiologists: $239,200

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’s 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.