Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lawyers Aren't Rich

I've heard that many people have the impression that lawyers are rich. It is difficult for me to assess this generally, since my dad has been a lawyer for 30 years (his second career, after being an engineer) and my family was far from being rich. In actual fact, my non-lawyer mother made more money teaching than my father did as a lawyer at times.

Now, it is true that some lawyers are rich. But then it is also true that some computer programmers are rich, some grocery store owners are rich, and so on. I do know that Lawyer is listed as the second most lucrative profession (behind doctor). But I think that must be mostly because a handful of well-paid lawyers pull up the average. Speaking of averages, I recall that when I was in law school, I looked at the stats for graduating lawyers and the median starting salary was between 35-45K, depending on which area you went into. Sure, there were some jobs at big firms where you could start at 90K+ as an associate, but those are only a tiny part of the job market. They also tend to involve working 120 hours a week until you burn out, get backstabbed, and then dumped. Well, okay, maybe that isn't exactly what happens, but working in a big firm has a lot of politics, a lot of hours, and surprisingly, very little actual lawyering for those first years. Going to work for a small firm you may actually get to work on real casework and go to court almost immediately. At a big firm you may be reading through millions of pages of documents to see if any are relevant as part of some large lawsuit that ultimately ends up being settled, so all of your work goes nowehere (and was not legal work anyway).

But I digress. My main point is that most lawyers don't make big money. Particularly if they work for the government. Many lawyers have their own small firms and have trouble just making ends meet. Even the well paid lawyers can work ridiculously long hours.

On top of that, it takes going to school undergrad, then three years of law school, to even get the chance to become a lawyer, and unless you have good money (or scholarships, as I had), you will start out as a lawyer with a mountain of debt. My cousin graduated recently and he had over 120K in debt from law school. Plus he had debt left over from undergrad as well. And he had decent income before he went into law school (also a second profession). To a great degree, that level of debt limits what new lawyers can do. It is hard to take a 30K a year job when you own four times that in debt and when the debt payments are over 1,000 dollars a month.

My job doesn't pay a huge amount, though it is certainly adequate. My wife makes over twice what I make (she's an auditor). We are fortunate in that we have no debt because I got my law school paid for on scholarship. And I had no undergrad debt because my parents saved money for college, I worked, and I also got some scholarships. We still have huge expenses now - with two children - but at least it is more joyful to spend money on them than to write a check to remove a teaspoon full of money from an ocean of debt each month.

This brings to mind recent posts I've seen elsewhere about why it doesn't make sense for everyone to go to college. In my prior profession, I actually made more than I make now as a lawyer, and it was something I did not have a degree for (though there are degrees offered for it).

Bottom line - generally speaking, lawyers aren't rich. Many make a decent, middle-class living. Like me. Not that I'd mind being rich. I just don't think it is ever likely. I despise the notion of working at a large firm. And even with a smaller one, to really make a lot of money you need to work so many hours and I simply would rather spend time with my family than sacrifice that for extra cash. It rather limits my options for employment, but I'd rather stay home than work a lot of hours and miss seeing my kids grow up.


Tammy said...

Despite what everyone thinks, State employees aren't rich either.

Oh wait. That's right. Nobody thinks that.

My bad.

DBB said...

Though State Employees do generally have one advantage - relatively secure jobs (most of the time) with good amounts of holidays and good hours. Which I think really does make the lower pay a lot more palatable.

Erin said...

Our state employees don't pay social security, and (if it doesn't tank before I get that old) we're offered really good retirement benefits. So, hooray! (As long as I work in this state forever and ever. If I move, it's a waste of time and retirement money.)

On the downside, our superintendent made a statement to taxpayers this week that, rather than denying teachers the 4% cost-of-living pay increase that our union negotiated two years ago, he'd be cutting valuable programs for our children instead.

Because funding both would take a tax increase, and nobody wants that.

Erin said...

But, as everyone reminds us when we start demanding appropriate compensation, we work seven-hour days and get holidays and summers off.

Tammy said...

You ARE correct, DBB. The flexible work schedule, additional holidays off that nobody else in Texas gets (Emancipation Day? LBJ's Birthday? San Jacinto Day? I mean, WOOT!), decent medical coverage, and solid retirement benefits really DO make up for the lower pay scale. Although, honestly, I really don't do that badly. At least I'm a governmental-type state employee and not, ya know, a SHAPER OF YOUNG MINDS or something.

GRRRRRRR... don't even get me STARTED on the unjust travesty that passes for "appropriate teacher compensation" in this country. Erin, Tyson, Elaine... if dollars were a true indicator of intelligence, passion, creativity, and skill there would not be enough banks in Switzerland to house your well-deserved fortunes.