What Is Big Law? Average Salaries and Comparisons to Corporate Law


Big Law associates face long hours, but the financial rewards and path to partnership make it all worthwhile. While there is no specific GPA minimum, a stellar academic record certainly enhances your chances. It’s a world where competition is fierce but for those willing to embrace the challenges, a successful career in Big Law can be immensely rewarding both professionally and financially.

Welcome to the world of Big Law, where coveted positions and hefty paychecks go hand in hand with grueling challenges and demanding workloads. This moniker is bestowed upon the biggest deep-pocketed law firms that dominate major U.S. cities, like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. But their influence stretches far and wide, with multiple branches dotting the legal landscape, even in smaller cities, and extending their reach across international borders.

What sets Big Law apart?

It’s the allure of hefty paychecks for lawyers. Compared to their counterparts in other private-sector law jobs, those who join the ranks of Big Law firms can expect to see their earnings skyrocket. In this article, we unveil the enigma surrounding Big Law, delving into its definition, compensation, work-life balance, and notable firms.

What does the term Big Law mean?

Big Law is a legal industry term used to describe the largest and most successful law firms with thousands of partners spanning the globe. While boutique firms can be part of “Big Law,” typically, these powerhouses employ over a hundred lawyers and offer the best wages in the industry.

Law students from top schools vie for a chance to become summer associates, paving the way to partnership. A successful summer associate experience often leads to a lucrative full-time position — first-year Big Law associates were greeted with an astounding average starting salary of $190,000 in 2019!

Big Law firms excel in corporate law, providing comprehensive services to corporate clients, wealthy individuals, and investment entities. Their reputation and one-stop-shop approach make them the go-to choice. As associates climb the ladder of success, they are rewarded handsomely with large salaries. But there are also immense demands and pressures that come with the career.

What is it like to work as a Big Law associate?

The allure of high salaries in Big Law comes with a cost — associates face grueling hours and high turnover. Meeting a minimum billable hour requirement of around 2,000 hours per year means dedicating an average of 38 hours per week to client work alone, excluding vacations. It’s no surprise that ambitious lawyers put in at least 60 hours a week.

Junior and senior associates are essentially on call 24/7, equipped with firm-provided cell phones to be available round the clock. They must be ready to respond during vacations, family dinners, or even trips to the grocery store.

Being on call means never fully disconnecting from the firm, as transactions or cases can demand evening, weekend, or holiday work. It’s all part of the journey to making partner at a Big Law firm.

This level of demand arises from Big Law’s commitment to unparalleled excellence, delivering legal services with integrity, timeliness, and adherence to the law. This level of service allows Big Law firms to demand a much higher fee from clients. But it’s a demanding path that associates must tread to succeed in this competitive environment.

Big Law associate attorney salaries

Associate attorneys are early-career legal professionals with prestigious educational backgrounds. They usually graduate from law schools with high standards (as well as high tuition fees). While their lack of hands-on experience may draw criticism from some in-house counsel, they play a crucial role as grinders, handling research, writing, and other support tasks in the legal field. With promising futures ahead, they are on track for successful and lucrative careers.

New associates at Big Law firms often earn a base salary of $215,000, plus bonuses. This competitive compensation serves as a powerful incentive for attracting the brightest legal talent across the nation. According to the National Association of Law Placement, approximately thirty percent of first-year associates earn a starting salary of $215,000, which increases based on their graduation year. For instance, a second-year associate may earn $225,000, and so forth. Starting salaries also depend on the size of the firm.

How Big Law firms determine salaries

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, and especially once they have at least five or more years of experience.

Big Law firms commonly adhere to a salary scale linked to the law school class of their attorneys. This scale remains relatively consistent among firms as they vie for the top talent from prestigious schools. When one firm offers a higher salary, others often follow suit to stay competitive.


Is Big Law the same as Corporate Law?

Big Law and Corporate Law are related but not exactly the same. Big Law refers to large, high-revenue law firms that typically operate in major cities and tackle a vast array of legal matters, including corporate law. With their multiple branches and global reach, they leave an indelible mark on the legal landscape.

On the other hand, Corporate Law is a specific practice area within the legal field. It is dedicated to guiding corporations, businesses, and other entities through the intricate web of legal matters related to their operations, transactions, governance, and compliance. Corporate lawyers handle issues such as mergers and acquisitions, contracts, securities regulations, corporate governance, and commercial transactions.

So while Big Law and Corporate Law dance in harmony, they maintain their distinct identities. Big Law casts its net wide, encompassing an array of legal practices, while Corporate Law specializes in a specific type of practice.

Why do people go into Big Law?

Big Law is an enticing option for ambitious legal professionals. Here are some reasons why people are drawn to this challenging and esteemed realm:

  • Prestige and reputation: Big Law firms offer validation, enhancing professional standing and opening doors to future opportunities.
  • Challenging work: Tackling high-profile cases and complex legal matters allows attorneys to grow their skills and expand their knowledge.
  • Professional growth: Big Law provides unparalleled opportunities to become well-rounded attorneys through exposure to various legal areas.
  • Networking: Working with accomplished attorneys and influential clients facilitates valuable connections for future prospects.
  • Financial rewards: Big Law associates are generously compensated, reflecting their expertise and dedication.
  • Path to partnership: Ambitious lawyers can climb the ladder, aiming for equity partnership and reaping financial gains and increased autonomy.

Is it hard to make it in Big Law?

Embarking on a journey in Big Law is not for the faint of heart. It’s a world where the competition is cutthroat, the workload can feel like an avalanche, and the pressure to outshine is ever-present. Big Law firms demand nothing short of excellence from their attorneys, who must possess exceptional skills, an unwavering work ethic, and unwavering commitment.

As an associate in Big Law, you’ll navigate a whirlwind of demanding schedules, striving to meet billable hour targets while tackling intricate legal matters. Success in Big Law requires grit, perseverance, and the ability to thrive in a fast-paced, high-pressure environment. It’s a path that demands your absolute dedication, but for those willing to embrace the challenges head-on, the rewards can be extraordinary.

What is the GPA minimum for Big Law?

When it comes to landing a spot in the coveted world of Big Law, there’s no hard-and-fast GPA rule. Each firm dances to its own beat, setting its unique hiring criteria. However, you shouldn’t downplay the importance of a stellar GPA. It can be a game-changer, boosting your chances of securing a position at a prestigious law firm.

Big Law firms aren’t just fixated on your grades. They’re on the lookout for a well-rounded candidate. Think about the reputation of your law school, relevant work experience, extracurricular activities, and those special personal qualities that make you shine.

Keep in mind, though, that different firms have their own preferences. That’s why it’s crucial to do your homework, dig deep into each firm’s requirements, and tailor your approach accordingly. Show them that you’ve got what it takes to thrive in their distinct universe!

Key takeaways

  • Big Law refers to large, prestigious law firms specializing in various fields, including corporate law, with high wages and prestige.
  • First-year associates in Big Law earned an average starting salary of $190,000 in 2019. New associates typically earn a base salary of $215,000 plus bonuses based on their law school class.
  • Working as a Big Law associate involves grueling challenges and demanding workloads, with a minimum billable hour requirement of over 2,000 hours per year. Associates are on call 24/7, leading to high stress and limited personal time.
  • Big Law firms cover areas beyond corporate law, including litigation, intellectual property, real estate, and regulatory compliance. Corporate law focuses on guiding corporations through legal matters related to their operations, transactions, and governance.
  • Motivations for pursuing a career in Big Law include prestige, challenging work, professional growth, networking opportunities, and high financial rewards.
View Article Sources
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  2. Big Law and Legal Aid — Legal Services Corporation
  3. What Is The Average Tax Attorney Salary? – SuperMoney
  4. What Is the Average Law School Debt in 2023? – SuperMoney
  5. How Much Does a Lawyer Cost? Average Lawyer Fees Explained – SuperMoney