The Law School Graduate’s Complete Guide to Choosing a Career

Today there are over 1,245,000 licensed lawyers in the United States.[1] With more and more attorneys graduating from law school each year, competition has become brutal for jobs in both the private and public sector. As a result, many recent law school graduates have begun to “think outside the box,” pursuing non-traditional legal careers.

In this guide we’ll discuss traditional and non-traditional career paths for recent law school graduates. We’ll address career requirements, pros and cons of different careers, personality traits that fit best with certain jobs, average salaries, and more. Continue reading to determine which legal career is best suited to you.

Working in a Large Law Firm

A large law firm is generally defined as a firm employing over 100 lawyers. Here’s a list of the largest 350 law firms in the United States. Working for a large firm has unique advantages and disadvantages:


Substantial Salary
You can expect to receive a substantial paycheck within a couple of weeks of starting. First-year associate salaries at large law firms earn between $70,250 – $125,000, and sometimes higher.[3][4]

No Overhead
Staring your own practice right out of law school has substantial costs. Renting an office, hiring a secretary, paying for access to legal research, and other costs can be oppressive. In a large law firm, you’ll have access to office support and other tools of the trade, and you won’t have to worry about paying for them.

Having experienced lawyers a few feet away can be a great benefit to a new associate. Relying on colleagues’ advice and counsel will speed up your learning curve. To learn about mentoring programs in some large law firms visit the National Legal Mentoring Consortium.

Advancement Opportunity
As a newly hired lawyer you will likely begin your career as an “junior associate.” From there you can advance to a senior associate position, junior partner, and eventually a partner. Of course, along with advancement comes increasing income.[5]


Long Hours
Working 50 to 80 (or more) hours per week is common for new associates. If you don’t plan to work incredibly long and hard hours, a large firm may not be the best spot for you.[6]

High Billable Hours
According to a study at Yale University, firms “average” stated annual billables typically range between 1700 and 2300, although informal networks often quote much higher numbers.[7][8]

Harsh Treatment
While your family and friends may consider your new Juris Doctorate degree a major achievement, the partners, associates, and even the secretarial staff may see you as nothing more than a green employee, whose first duty is to make coffee each morning.

Competitive Environment
When looking to hire new associates, large firms have hundreds of recent law school graduates to choose from. Those hired are mostly competitive Type A personalities who will do anything necessary to move up the food chain, even if it means climbing over you along the way.[9]

Long Partnership Track
The road to partnership in a law firm, especially a large one, can take many years. Different law firms have their own requirements for advancement, including bringing in new clients, consistently working longer hours and billing more hours than other associates, being creative in legal applications, or just gaining the favor of one or more partners.[10]

Never Speaking Directly with Clients
It’s rare in large firms for a new associate to have direct contact with a client. As an associate, the only contact you’ll likely have with an existing client is sitting behind senior associates and partners at depositions. It can take months, and in some cases, years before you will be trusted to deal directly with an existing client.

Mundane Tasks
As a new associate you can expect to do everything, including proofing other lawyers’ work, writing briefs in their names, preparing memorandums of law (which won’t be part of your billable hours), and other tasks for which you will receive little credit or recognition.


The average salary for first-year associates in large law firms can range from $70,250 – $132,000, and sometimes higher.[3][13]

Working in a Mid-size Law Firm

Mid-sized law firms consist of anywhere from 10 to 50 lawyers.[11] Mid-size firms often emerge when junior partners or even partners at a large law firm decide to break away and form their own practice.

In many cases, these firms act as “Boutique” firms. These firms normally specialize in one or two areas of the law. The big attraction to working at a boutique firm is greater personal attention to clients.[12]


No Overhead
Staring your own practice right out of law school has substantial costs. Similar to large law firms, in a mid-size or boutique firm you will have access to office support staff and other tools you’ll need to do your job.

Having experienced lawyers to review your work and show you the ropes is a huge benefit. In mid-size firms, it’s easier for new associates to have contact with partners and more experienced associates. Getting coached by senior associates and partners will make you a better lawyer, quicker.

Client Contact
Because there are less staff, new associates are often given more responsibilities, which will help expand your knowledge base. Moreover, due to the smaller size of the firm, associates can expect to have greater client contact.

Fast Track Advancement Opportunity
With fewer available lawyers in the firm, depending on the number of clients, newly hired associates have a better chance of moving up the chain faster than at a large law firm.

Less Billable Hours
As a new associate at a mid-size firm, you may not have to bill as many hours to clients. But despite billing fewer hours, because there are fewer lawyers, you may still have greater access to clients, albeit only at the behest of a partner.[14]


The average salary for first-year associates in mid-sized law firms is between $73,500 – $102,000.[13]

Interested in finding out more about working in law? Continue reading the Law School Graduate’s Complete Guide to Choosing a Career.

  1. American Bar Association – Lawyer Demographics
  2. Internet Legal Research Group
  3. National Association of Legal Professionals (NALP)
  4. Internet Legal Research Group
  5. Matt Shinners, “How to Become a Law Firm Partner”
  6. Above the Law, “Law Firm Hours – The Real Story”
  7. Yale Law School, “The Truth about the Billable Hour”
  8. NALP Directory
  9. Noam Scheiber, “The Last Days of Big Law”
  10. Matt Shinners, “How to Become a Law Firm Partner”
  11. Georgetown Law, “Small and Medium Law Firms”
  12. American Bar Association, “General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division”
  13. Internet Legal Research Group
  14. National Association of Legal Professionals (NALP)

Author: SmartStudent

SmartStudent is an educational portal that provides information & advice to aspiring students. regarding applying to university, choosing a course, what to take to university, finding student accommodation and much more.

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