The $160K-Plus Club: Which Law Firms Pay the Biggest Starting Salaries?

Law gavel on a stack of American money.

Of course, it’s much easier to take a relaxed attitude towards money if you have a good amount of it. It’s easy for well-paidpartners to tell young associates not to worry about money, when the partners enjoy seven-figure paychecks while the associates struggle under six-figure student loans.

If you’re a young lawyer dealing with educational debt, you know that every extra dollar counts. Every dollar earned means you’re one buck closer to liberation from loans.

Which leads us to today’s question: which law firms pay the largest starting salaries to their associates?


Here’s another way of framing the question. The going rate for first-year associates at major law firms is $160,000 a year. Which law firms pay their first-year associates more than $160,000 a year?

We started thinking about this after reading the following news from the Tex Parte blog:

Litigation firm Bickel & Brewer is offering its 2013 first-year associate class a base annual salary of $185,000, an increase of $10,000 over the firm’s current first-year associate base salary of $175,000, says William Brewer (pictured), a founding partner of the Dallas-based firm. The 43-lawyer firm is also giving each of its 32 associates a base salary increase of $10,000, effective Jan. 1, 2013, Brewer says.

“The goal here is always to be ahead of the curve,” Brewer says.

Ahead of the curve? Paying $185K to first-years — in Texas, where the cost of living is reasonable and there’s no state income tax — puts Bickel & Brewer on a whole different racetrack.

According to a study by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), when you take into account the cost of living, the equivalent of a $160,000 income in New York is $67,870 in Dallas. So what does that make $185,000 in Dallas? Are first-years at Bickel & Brewer in Dallas living as well as, say, counsel or even junior partners in Manhattan?

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And Bickel & Brewer isn’t alone in the Lone Star State in terms of paying its people well. From a Texas tipster:

[Please cover] Bickel & Brewer raising starting salaries to $185K in Texas. Also, McKool Smithshould be on your radar. They pay New York base salaries in Texas and rumor is that last years’ bonuses were about 20 percent above Cravath scale. These firms aren’t huge (though McKool is getting that way) but we need more positive salary news to keep managing partners from thinking all associates are just happy to have a job, no matter how hard they’re being worked.

Actually, McKool Smith pays a base salary that’s above the New York market rate, plus various bonuses. We’ve added McKool to the updated list of high-paying firms that appears below.

In the spirit of positive salary news, here are a few firms we know of that pay starting salaries in excess of $160,000. Call them members of “The $160K-Plus Club”:

  • Bickel & Brewer: The firm just raised first-year salaries from $175,000 to $185,000.
  • Boies Schiller & Flexner: Another litigation powerhouse, BSF has an unusual compensation system that typically results in mega-bonuses for associates (especially hard-working ones). In terms of starting salaries, the firm pays a robust $174,000 a year. Read more about BSF in its ATL Career Center profile.
  • Desmarais LLP: We recently covered the IP litigation boutique’s decision to raise starting salaries from $160,000 to $180,000 per annum.
  • McKool Smith: The firm pays a total compensation package of $177,500 to first-year associates: a $165,000 base salary, a $10,000 signing bonus, and a $2,500 year-end bonus.
  • Susman & Godfrey: Another elite litigation boutique, Susman just squeaks on to the list. The firm pays a $160,000 salary, which is market, but it also pays a $5,000 signing bonus and $5,000 vacation bonus (plus generous merit bonuses for lawyers who have been with the firm more than a year). So Susman associates get $170,000 in guaranteed comp in their first year at the firm.
  • Wachtell Lipton: In addition to its super-sized year-end bonuses, the renowned M&A firm pays a starting salary of $165,000. Read more about WLRK in its ATL Career Center profile.
  • Williams & Connolly: The legendary litigation shop doesn’t pay associate bonuses, but it makes up for that with above-market base salaries. Associates at W&C start at $180,000.
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Is anything above inaccurate? And which firms have we missed (because we know this isn’t all of them)? Please let us know, by email or by text message (646-820-8477), and we will update accordingly. If we receive enough new submissions, we’ll do a follow-up post.

Money isn’t everything, but it certainly is a nice thing. And while you shouldn’t make your career decisions based entirely on monetary considerations, it would be foolish to ignore them.

The past few years have been challenging ones for many major law firms. But some firms are flourishing — and willing to share the fruits of such flourishing with even their most-junior lawyers. We congratulate the members of the $160K-Plus Club on their success, and we commend them for respecting the talented attorneys who make their success possible.


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