We are pleased to confirm reports that several New York law firms will be raising first year salaries to $190,000 per year. A spokesperson for one of the firms reports “the move is necessary to draw top law students to this expensive city.” We expect, however, that this change in salary will eventually permeate all major legal markets. It’s time for law students nationwide to rejoice. Take out a few more grand in student loans. Buy yourself some expensive clothes. Book an exotic vacation. Times are good!
Unless you’re drinking the (spiked) kool-aid, you know the preceding paragraph was entirely facetious; I apologize for toying with your emotions. The bottom line is this wouldn’t have seemed so far fetched a year or two ago. In fact, such news was even expected within our legal bubble. Try telling a first year today that firms are raising salaries and they’ll have you committed to a mental asylum faster than the next batch of associates are laid off.
Sure enough, while cleaning out my e-mail’s in-box, I came across a message that a friend and fellow law student sent me during my first semester of law school. He wrote, “Just so you know, we’re not doing this for naught,” and then linked to an article. Ah, to be a 1L again...it feels like a lifetime ago. I mean, I really had no recollection of this e-mail at all. And then I clicked the link: surprise, surprise! Optimism abounds! The article matter-of-factly asserts that “the question isn’t so much whether some New York City firms will up the ante again, but when” and explains that “[a]nother round of raises is inevitable.” Perhaps first semester of law school was another lifetime, metaphorically speaking, anyway.
I find it rather humorous (and a bit embarrassing) that the legal community legitimately believed that BigLaw salaries were going to rise to $190,000; that it was, in essence, a fait accompli. The economic recession that our nation is currently steeped in didn’t come out of nowhere. Granted, it wasn’t reasonable to expect a financial collapse of such epic proportions, but the market wasn’t exactly stable either.
What triggered this unrealistic assumption that salaries would rise (and rise, and rise, and rise….)? Perhaps the belief that salaries would increase stems from a sense of entitlement. Maybe the belief was caused by the insurmountable debt of law students. I can’t say for sure one way or another, but I have a hunch. In the sage words of Billy Joel, I—like everyone else in the legal world—“go to extremes.” Maybe it’s part of the law school mentality.
When times are good, the legal community basks in its greatness and expects there to be a never ending pool of wealth. Our unwarranted optimism is surpassed by only Wall Street. But, when things take a turn for the worst, the legal community is also only surpassed by Wall Street with the pessimism and panic that ensues. There just “ain’t no in between.”
So what can we learn from this? I think that, just as the contention that firms would raise salaries to 190K was unnecessarily optimistic, the word on the street that BigLaw is dying is unnecessarily pessimistic. Let’s face it: the legal community doesn’t handle highs and lows very well. Make sure to remember this before making any drastic decisions about your future in the profession.