Understanding the Biglaw Salary Scale
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While there is still no official definition of Biglaw, the industry-specific nickname loosely refers to the high-revenue law firms with large headcounts, smaller firms that pay their attorneys a market rate salary, or mid-sized firms with international reach and notoriety.

Typically headquartered in major U.S. cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, Biglaw firms have multiple branches in smaller markets and strong international presence. 

Biglaw lawyers earn higher salaries than those working in private-sector law jobs. According to the National Association of Law, the most common starting salary for first-year Biglaw associates is $190,000.


How Biglaw firms determine salaries & “The Cravath Scale

Biglaw firms use a scale that bases the salary on the law school class, commonly known as “The Cravath Scale”—an offshoot of the industry-famous Cravath system named after Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, generally considered the trendsetter when it comes to associate salaries.

Cravath scale is a system of lockstep associate salary based on the number of years out of law school and paid to lawyers working at Cravath. All attorneys on this pay scale are paid the same and can expect to receive the same annual market bonus. Given the lockstep nature of the system, law students and associates carefully follow any changes to the Biglaw salary scale. 

As Biglaw firms are always competing to get a hold on top of the class law students from top-tier law schools, the Cravath scale has virtually stayed the same across all white-shoe law firms. If one firm offers higher compensation, other firms tend to follow suit and announce salary increases.

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While the scale is mostly based on a platform of consistency, changes have been noted throughout the years. 

First-Year Candidates

While fresh out of law school, fortunate first-year associates have much to prove to the law firm that hires them. Despite long hours, limited time-off, and tiresome doc-reviews, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is well worth it. 

In 2006, a year before the Great Recession, first-year candidates in Biglaw firms earned an average salary of $145,000. With an additional $35,000 in bonuses and adjusted for inflation, this number is around $227,780 in today’s dollars. 

First-year associates in 2019 earned a $190,000 base salary and $15,000 in bonuses, for a total of $205,000. This shows pre-recession first-years received higher bonuses, which have since waned despite an increase in base salary.

By comparison, at the end of the Great Recession, in 2009, fresh-faced lawyers were paid $160,000 base salary, plus $7,500 in bonuses––for a total of $199,136 adjusted for inflation. Ergo, in post-recession America, first-year candidates earned $5,000 less than what the same grade of lawyers would earn in 2019. Moreover, a first-year attorney in 2006 earned $22,000 more than a first-year associate in 2019. 

Mid-Tier Associates

Using the same dates, let’s consider the salaries of mid-level associates. In pre-recession America, in 2006, a fifth-year attorney working at a Biglaw firm received a $200,000 salary and $55,000 in bonuses for a total of $322,689 when adjusted for inflation.

By comparison, a fifth-year associate in 2019 received a $280,000 base salary with an additional $80,000 in bonuses, for a total of $360,000. If we revisit a post-recession America, the numbers continue to show a drastic shift. In 2009, fifth-year lawyers received $230,000 in base salary, with an additional $25,000 in bonuses, for a total of $255,000. (or, $303,162 when adjusted for inflation).

The Senior Associate

There is one last tier to consider: the senior associate. In 2007, eighth-year lawyers at Biglaw firms took home $280,000 in base salary and $110,000 in bonuses, for a total of $390,000. Adjusted for inflation: $480,292. In post-recession America, in 2009, the lawyers earned the same salary as their peers in 2007 (at $280,000) and drastically reduced bonuses of $30,000 (for a total of $310,000––$368,550 with inflation).

In 2019, lawyers in their eighth year of practice earned $345,000 in salary, plus around $100,000 in bonuses, for a total annual take-home pay of $445,000. 

The Top Tier Firms

So, while seemingly there are fluctuations within the Biglaw pay scale, there are tons of benefits to joining a top-tier firm. Even though high salaries are in the spotlight, Biglaw associates receive additional perks, including reimbursement for travel, as well as entertaining clients, free meals for working late, and the all-important bar expenses. 



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