A lot of attention in the mainstream media (and popular culture) gets focused on lawyers working in large firms (often referred to as “BigLaw”). But the percentage of attorneys working in the largest firms – those with 300 or more attorneys – is around 16% of practicing attorneys. More than half of all attorneys are either solo or small-firm (2-25) practitioners.
Firm size can have a dramatic effect on the salary and working conditions for individual lawyers. In the very large law firms, new associates can expect to earn upwards of $150,000 per year, but also to work 80-90 hours per week. Associates in such firms will be required to bill on the order of 2100 hours/year, or more than 40 hours a week for 52 weeks. Depending on the type of practice a single “billable” hour can require 2-3 hours of actual time spent on a case. They also tend to be beholden to their supervising attorney’s demands.
Lawyers in small and midsize firms can expect to earn as little as a third as much, but generally to also work fewer hours and to have substantially more autonomy. Solo and very small firm practitioners need an entrepreneurial spirit and basic small business management skills, in addition to lawyering skills.