- Many law students want to help the little guy. But few of them end up going into this line of work.
- Big Law pays a lot. Public service pays little. Many plaintiffs’ firms pay somewhere in between.
- We asked these firms and sources what young lawyers make. Answers were all over the map.
After getting her law degree in 2019, Lauren James went to work for Alabama-based law firm Beasley Allen as a staff attorney.
Her starting salary: $48,000 a year.
But she took the job because it allowed her to continue the important work she had started as a part-time student clerk at the firm: Holding companies responsible for talcum powder-linked cancers.
“Once I got to Beasley, I really fell in love with the work they did. Our motto was ‘helping people who need it most,'” said James, who is now an assistant professor at Faulkner and still does some work for the firm on the side.
Despite more law firms increasingly paying their top earners like professional athletes, many law school grads only make between $50,000 and $80,000 a year. This is especially true for those who choose to work for law firms that represent Main Street plaintiffs instead of corporate America.
A first-year associate representing deep-pocketed corporate clients at firms like DLA Piper, Cooley, and Covington & Burling can expect to make a base of $215,000. But compensation for entry-level roles at law firms that represent injured people, deceived consumers, and other plaintiffs is often much lower — and the pay scales are opaque, which can frustrate law students trying to figure out their options.
“It’s kind of a wild west when it comes to compensation and trying to figure out what a career path looks like,” said Allen Howell, who helps students at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law find jobs. He surveys students after their summer jobs to learn what they made, and finds little consistency among what are known as plaintiffs law firms.
Things do appear to be changing as more plaintiffs firms seek to compete with Big Law firm talent. The Chicago law firm Edelson PC, known for filing class actions against big tech companies, recently raised its base salaries for first-year lawyers to $225,000, which is above what most Big Law firms pay.
But firms like Edelson that pay as much as Big Law firms are the exception. What’s more, there’s a secretiveness around pay at law firms that fight on behalf of the injured and defrauded that can frustrate people trying to break into this field.
Students, as well as young lawyers at plaintiffs’ firms who fear they’re underpaid, have reacted in some cases by compiling their own compensation databases using information they’ve gathered from interviews or friends at other firms. But these databases tend to be shared among small circles, and they can become outdated quickly.
A litigator at a defense-side law firm with more than 2,000 lawyers told Insider that he’s begun making inquiries about going to work for a plaintiffs’ firm and was concerned about how much he might be paid.
“It seems like a great option, but it may not be realistic for me to actually do this,” said the litigator, who has begun meeting with lawyers at plaintiffs’ firms he respects. Asked what kind of compensation numbers he was hearing, he said, “I didn’t ask. I thought that would be crass.”
In an effort to shed light on the matter, Insider reached out to more than two dozen firms. Most of the firms declined to comment or didn’t get back, but some did. Insider collected pay data in other ways, too, including directly from lawyers, law students, career advisers, job postings, and pay data provided by firms to sites like Firsthand.co. Here’s what we learned:
Many plaintiffs’ firms pay lawyers over $100,000 a year
Some firms that bring cases in the so-called “mass torts” field (where hundreds or thousands of individual lawsuits are filed) pay their junior lawyers more. Burg Simpson, a firm based in Colorado, advertises jobs for attorneys two to five years in their careers at $90,000 to $115,000 a year. The firm’s marketing head didn’t respond to a request for a call.
Other high-end class actions firms also offer six-figure base salaries. Block & Leviton pays its first-years $150,000, according to Joel Fleming, a partner there, as does Berger Montague, a plaintiffs’ firm active in several areas of law, a person familiar with the matter told Insider. (A spokeswoman for Berger Montague CC’d this reporter on an exchange with the firm’s chairman where they decided to ignore Insider’s request for comment.)
Two firms known for representing labor unions pay recent grads a bit less; Bredhoff & Kaiser told Insider that it pays fellows $126,000, and Altshuler Berzon pays entry-level lawyers a salary of $90,000 to $100,000, according to a person familiar with the matter. Altschuler’s hiring partner Michael Rubin didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Summer associate pay was also all over the map. Big Law firms, which recruit heavily at law schools, almost all pay their summer associates about $3,900 a week, and a few plaintiffs’ law firms, like the commercial litigation firm Ahmad Zavitsanos in Texas, meet or exceed that threshold, according to data from the National Association for Law Placement.
Some firms pay student workers hourly. Bryan Morgan, a career adviser at Faulkner University’s law school, said plaintiffs’ firms in his area typically pay $15 to $20 an hour. At the New York employment law firm Outten & Golden, summer associates make $30 an hour, per a job listing. At Wigdor Law, known for its #MeToo litigation, they make $35 an hour, a person familiar with the matter told Insider.
Doug Wigdor, the firm’s founding partner, said in an email that what summer associates make is comparable to what first-year associates make once overtime is taken into account. The base salary for first-year associates is “six figures,” he said. Partners at Outten & Golden didn’t reply to an email with questions about pay.
Some firms have unique models. At Goldstein & Russell, a small law firm in Washington, DC that is often consulted by harmed investors and whistleblowers for appeals, summer associates make 100% of what they bill, according to partner Tom Goldstein, and have made $20,000 to $40,000 over the course of the summer, depending on how much pro bono work they do.
For more information on how these law firms pay, see our table below:
Do you have more information on how plaintiffs’ firms pay their lawyers? Keep reading, then contact reporter Jack Newsham at 314-971-1627.
* As of January 1, 2023
** Pay is for a fellow.
Sources: Insider reporting, NALP, FirstHand.co