The BS-Free Zone: Are You Worth $192.30 A Week…Before Taxes?

Has the legal market become so bad that lawyers are actually considering taking a ‘full-time associates’ position which pays $192.30 a week….before taxes?

I once heard someone say that most people are not afraid of failure so much as they are afraid of success.  At first blush I’m sure many of you are shaking your head and saying, ‘hell no.  I want to be successful.  No doubt in mind.  I just need the opportunity and I’m there.’

That’s really what we do think.  We want to be successful.  We also fantasize about everything we will do with that success (which usually means having a certain amount of money to buy those things symbolizing our success – whatever that is.  Maybe food?)

But most people are not trained on how to achieve success.  We are trained to want and we are trained to be employees and travel a well-worn path to get ‘somewhere’ known and seemingly safe.  And for some this is exactly what is wanted, to follow a well-worn path with guideposts and guaranteed results.  It’s also why in practically every industry and profession people are panicked because the well-worn paths are no longer leading to success but to no place even resembling the mythical land of promised success.

That is why I had to comment on the latest buzz which is about a legal job posting on Boston College of Law’s job site for full-time law associates paying $10,000 per year.  That’s right.  $10,000 per year.  That’s less than minimum wage to be an associate at law firm.  How low can you go to say you are ‘employed’ as a lawyer?

We are so ingrained to believe employment by another is the answer that we don’t realize (nor are we told)  there are other ways!  Yes, the job market is bad.  But has this type of associate’s position now become an acceptable alternative instead of trying to make it on your own? Or is this law firm just a fluke capitalizing on desperation?

Workers working full-time with four weeks’ vacation at Massachusetts’ minimum wage of $8 would be paid more than $15,000. At the federal minimum wage of $7.25, a worker would earn nearly $14,000 in a year.

The job post reads: “Compensation is mainly based on percentage of work billed and collected … We expect an associate to earn $10,000 in compensation in the first year.”

To be fair, while you might not be able to put food on your table at this wage, make a car payment or pay your rent, and certainly not your student loans, the law firm does offer the following:

In addition to $10K per year, the Gilbert & O’Bryan job posting also notes: “This is an excellent position for a new lawyer or someone returning to a legal career, and a good place to learn how to practice law with real clients. … Benefits include malpractice insurance, health insurance, employer paid clothing allowance and an MBTA pass. Former employees have gone on to prominence in other firms, government and private practice.”

I’m not one to discount honest work.  Maybe this is an ‘incubator’ in disguise. But when I see a job offer like this in a profession such as ours, I’m deeply offended by the law firm who doesn’t respect fellow lawyers enough to offer a living wage.  They may be permitted an exemption from minimum wage because it’s a profession but I find this repugnant.  And if they’re keeping track of their former employees it begs the question – is this a ‘factory’?  How many lawyers have they churned?

I know I’ve have counseled solo/small firms who want to bring on rainmaking associates to offer a smaller salary and then a percentage of the work the new associate generates as well as any benefits they may offer to separate those associates who want to simply work for a paycheck from those associates who want to learn how to not only practice law but be a rainmaker and be their own profit-center.  But I don’t think, at least not the way this job description reads, that this is even remotely like what I have suggested.

On the flip side, some may see this as a welcome drop of water in the desert and a better opportunity than an unpaid internship.  Some may even say, ‘I’ll get experience’.  You might.  But is this the ‘experience’ you really want?  Do you want to work full time for $10,000. And is it the only way to get experience? No.  You might be better getting a full-time non-legal job which pays a living wage and building your own practice - solo as a side dish.

Yes, solo practice is the other road – a rocky road, filled with land mines, few guideposts or assurances, some helpful sherpas and lots of bogeymen. Yet surprisingly, there are quite a few who opt for this path regardless the pitfalls because they truly want it. There are others who feel they have no choice so they go solo. But for cryin’ out loud. For what amounts to $5.00 an hour as an ‘employee’, can’t you at least give it a shot on your own?  I’ll wager you’ll earn more than $192.30 per week before taxes.  And you’ll certainly get a lot more ‘experience’ putting your degree to use on your terms without losing your dignity. 

So, excuse me.  That job posting just makes me a little grumpy.

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8 comments on “The BS-Free Zone: Are You Worth $192.30 A Week…Before Taxes?

  • I graduated during the boom, but the business model of 2001 is an obsolete as the biplane. So long as Uncle Sam annually increases the maximum amount of loans you can carry, the universities will raise tuition and build empires rather than learning communities and able lawyers. The student loan is the devil’s bargain. What cannot continue… won’t.

  • I definitely support the solo path, but why not work in a low pay position for a few months before hitting the road on your own? Starting solo is tough and I believe that a few months, even six months, in a position that provides hands on experience is a great way to prepare for solo practice. It’s better than an unpaid internship and although there are resources out there such as SPU and CLE, the opportunity to work for a practicing attorney (a good attorney) provides a small jump start on the solo career.

    • Dennis, I don’t disagree with the principle of working for a ‘low’ paying position for a few months if it makes sense for someone. I object to a full time associates position in a law firm being below minimum wage. It’s not an internship. There doesn’t appear to be any subsidies. I don’t get the impression they are serving a low-income clientele. It comes across as if they are simply looking to hire bodies knowing full well they will leave and taking advantage of the depressed market…but to such a degree it boggles the mind. My post is about how lawyers are unfortunately trained to seek employment rather than employ themselves so much so they are even willing to do this to say they have a legal job instead of being more self-reliant and trust they don’t necesarily need this type of experience to launch their careers. This is my big issue.

      • I had a very interesting conversation with an experienced family law solo when I was considering leaving my firm job (doing something totally unrelated) and starting a family law practice. When I said I’d have to go work for someone else for a year or two to learn the ropes, she just laughed. Her point was that the kind of work I’d do in a solo practice was qualitatively different from what I’d be doing for someone else, and that it made more sense just to go for it, and learn as I went.

        In the end, I didn’t go that route, obviously, but I think the advice is pretty solid.

        • Allison, that’s why this ‘old chestnut’ doesn’t crack. Yet, everyone keeps believing this is what they need to do. And in believing this they place themselves in a professional bind because of the job market. Your solo friend is quite wise.

    • Dennis. If you intend to go the solo route you might be surprised at how fast you will start needing money. The job you are talking about may or may not exist, so while you are waiting for that to happen you will need to think about keeping the lights turned on, etc. Some people can afford to practice law at their leisure. Good for them. I can’t.

    • I think that doing contract work, even very low-paying contract work, while trying to establish your solo practice makes much more sense than taking a ridiculous job like the one Susan was describing. You’re not locked in to full-time hours unless you want to be, you probably make more money, and you will meet people who can and are more likely to refer you business.

      Working in a low-paying job before starting your own practice makes little sense to me. It just delays things, doesn’t necessarily give you any useful experience, and doesn’t allow you to accumulate a rainy day fund. If it’s a higher paying job, that’s another situation altogether.

  • Very interesting, albeit discouraging, item.

    Why pay a separate “clothing allowance” instead of adding to this sub-minimum wage?

    I started in 1964 at $250.00 per month, about 125% of minimum wage except I worked many more hours, and thought that was awful, considering that the secretaries were getting $375.00, but the top guys were getting $500.00 per month in Dallas then. I was in reasonably tall cotton at $9,000.00 a year in 1967 but left and went solo in 1969. In 1984, after the latest real estate bust wiped out my practice again and all the banks went broke, an established lawyer offered me $12,000.00 in Dallas, to which I responded that I hadn’t actually collected that much the year before as my key clients had gone under owing me a lot of money, and would seriously consider baby-sitting for $12,000.00, but I was ——- if I would practice law for that.

    I worked for awhile as house counsel to a crazy Chapter 11 in Dallas in 1985. The good law student working with me, who was pulling $20.00 an hour (we could log all kinds of overtime at our flat rates) had expected to move to outside counsel’s office after admission but he’s still stuck there and I’d bet he isn’t making much more.

    During the Clinton Administration, the U. S. Attorney in Dallas was quoted in Texas Lawyer saying that any lawyer reporting less than (I think) $50,000.00 was both a tax criminal and a lousy lawyer, while the state was offering somewhat less, prosecutors out here (I left Dallas in 1985 when lawyers were “going in the hat” hoping to be one of the lucky ones to get $50.00 for an appointment that might or might not be completed that day).

    Several of the hitherto more profitable lawyers here went through Chapter 11 or 7 bankruptcy in the 80s and 90s, and several who had been living high on the hog were disbarred for trust fund theft, felony bad checks, etc. after income streams dried up. When I came here, the established lawyers avoided court appointments and took “as few as permitted,” and I started with a lot of those; by the time I was forced to shut down, several of those same lawyers had changed from “as few” to asking for “all I can get.” Some I considered good went broke and left the area or the practice of law, some took low-paying government law jobs. J. Harris Morgan, the ABA and State Bar’s long-time guru lecturer on Practicing Law Profitably, told me this county no longer had its former high rank for lawyer earnings, the mode was in the forties, and he couldn’t figure out a way some others and I could make any real money practicing law.

    The senior name partner of a major firm in Dallas had told me earlier of having been made a partner in the thirties because the firm could no longer afford his $100.00 a month salary, but the radical deterioration in the economics of the practice of law today is something new. For one thing, it costs too much to do most of the litigation and the office practice on which we honed our skills. For another, a huge part of the small businesses and middle class who were our clientele have been liquidated as effectively, if less bloodily, than the Communists ever liquidated their middle class, and this continues. Obama is finishing the process, but it was about the time the world we knew ended with the Arab oil shock in 1973-74 that Chase [Bank] Econometrics put out a report, covered in the general media, saying that, contrary to the expectations of many, “there actually [would] be a very small middle class in this [upcoming young] generation.” The real incomes of college graduates have been stagnant or falling ever since. I live across from a second-tier state university and even those with nearly completed doctorates in math and science are ending up teaching English in China, roofing for years, driving a truck, or clinging to their food-service jobs because the demand in most fields has collapsed. A lot of recent college grads, and a lot of people who went broke or got laid off after 40 much less 50, are out of work, and the real unemployment and under-employment rates, and the rate of inflation for everything poor and middle class people buy, are several orders above the official figures.

    Mandatory sham arbitration under most contracts—I have just paid off a computer with Dell Financial at an outrageously usurious interest rate under which the deposit required just to raise an affirmative defense or counterclaim was three times the amount of the original financed deal, and ten times the several hundred dollar amounts actually in controversy, and the rules are more complex than the Federal Rules and they get to pick the location outside this county as the buyer would in court, for example, and their kept arbitrator is part of the collection industry, leave us with little or nothing we can do for the poor or middle-class consumer client. I very unexpectedly found myself representing an awful lot of child and adult survivors of childhood incest—some of whom were daughters, sisters, and nieces of politicians and offices palmed off on us by both parties, and other prominent and influential perpetrators—and just the expenses to win a child custody case are prohibitive and such cases cost a year or more of the average woman’s income out here. I did a lot of Chapter 7 bankruptcies but the new “reform” law, bought and paid for by the credit industry, was designed to make that a lot more expensive and difficult for both the clients and their attorneys.

    The amended Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct force you to have huge amounts of capital to practice because you now have to leave 100% of the fees paid in trust not only until the work is all done but until a second round of negotiations at that point over how satisfied the client may decide he is, rather than letting you draw any of your money at the beginning or as the work is done. It reminds me, an old construction lawyer, of the old joke in which the Texan and the Kentuckian get to bragging and the Kentuckian says “We have enough gold in Fort Knox to build a fence clear around Texas,” to which the Texan responds “Go ahead and build it. If I like it, I’ll buy it.” Beyond the surface joke, of course, is that by that point you have your money buried in the ground in the client’s matter and then he gets to decide whether or not he likes, or admits to subjectively liking, the work, and the whole negotiation over money starts over again and the price can only go down.

    The new rules also require advance written consent, including the name of anyone you might ask, before a solo attorney can ask the presenter at a CLE program, or a colleague in another office, including other lawyers in a legal suite who used to be encouraged, in articles by professors and other experts published by the State Bar, to cross-consult, a question or for some help in a case. We used to include a broad consent to consultation or affiliation in retainer contracts subject to our retaining active responsibility and limitations on additional cost to the client. This is allegedly aimed at trafficking in clients, the only marketable commodity—the managing partner of a leading mid-size firm told me “There is no market for the ability to do legal work, only for clients.”—but, like some other so-called ethical rules, it is designed and calculated to hurt plaintiffs, plaintiffs’ trial lawyers, and solo and small firm lawyers. In Dallas, I had a number of more or less regular “Jack Spratt” relationships in which, preferring the research, writing, etc. that many general practitioners avoid, I did a lot of that for them, was brought in to lay the groundwork for, and handle, a possible appeal in some of their cases, etc. The clients usually were specifically aware that I was involved if it was more than a quick consultation, etc. I had served three active terms, one as subcommittee chair, on the Dallas Bar Association’s Committee on Advisory Legal Ethics Opinions and was later often consulted about such issues—we were appalled at how many lawyers didn’t even know where to find the Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, etc.—and some of these rules are so arcane that the committee took a year to answer and then the State Bar handed down a ruling different from ours and different from that of the ABA even when the text was identical.

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