How many years does it take for your salary to be in the $80-100K range if you work for a small firm or the government?
You won't be able to make good money working for a small firm unless you own that firm.
As small firms age, they take natural steps. First, the firm has more business than the founder(s) can handle. It adds associates (usually one or two) purely to handle the extra work and to allow the partners to make more money. Then the natural thing happens. The partners start enjoying their property and their investment. They begin to have the time and money to enjoy the pursuits money can bring. For the partners to maintain that income, and still have time to enjoy it, someone must do the work and get paid less than they are earning. It is the same in all levels of law firms. When you read of some senior partners working 500 hours a year, billing $200.00 an hour and averaging $650,000.00 a year you can bet it isn't coming from the hours they are working. (It isn't that common either!).
In a small law firm the financial loop is tighter. The associates in a small firm are not trading training and potential partnership against income. All the associate has to trade is work against losing the job. As time passes, associates find that they can't progress financially without the money coming out of the partners. It is a zero sum game where the hours worked, and the dollars in the firm, remain the same. It is only a question of who will be getting the money. The partners feel that they deserve what they have. They have worked hard, taken hard risks, and have built a practice that is theirs. They fought to get it and they will fight to keep it. And, all partners remember that 50% of small firms began when overworked associates left with a chunk of the client base. Which means that even the best founding partners are going to be protective of their clients and their contacts.
Sounds too familiar doesn't it? When you think about the complaints you've heard from friends in small offices, you can place almost every complaint as being caused by the pattern I'm talking about. So what should you do? That is the question facing the 75% of law school grads who end up in the kind of practice that law school ignores. Well, you can drop out of the practice of law. Between 40% and 50% of all law school graduates drop out. There are very real options to the practice of law. You can sue your law school for taking your money and not preparing you at all for the kind of practice of law that any idiot knows that you (and most of your friends) have to go in to. You will lose, but it might be cathartic, even if embarrassing. Or, you can take a rational approach. Be realistic. Be patient. Just because not a single professor in your law school has a clue as to how the real world works does not mean that there is not a solution.
The real question is what to do when you are trapped as an associate in a firm where no one makes partner and you get fired for pushing for raises. That is the real question most associates in small firms eventually ask. Just because you understand why your current situation seems like a dead end, doesn't mean you like it. No associate has to like the way small law firms naturally develop. No associate ever has. There are several rational things to do. The first thing to do is to take the long view. You put in 4 years in college and 3 in law school. Now is not the time to take the short term view. After 7 years you ought to be able to take the long view. In saying "take the long view" I'm not suggesting that you go back to school and start over. While you can take 2 more years of school and get an LLM you'll have the same problems all over again when you get out. Getting an MBA is just an invitation to grief as are many other career changes.
Begin by realizing that your current position is not permanent. There are changes in the status of associates that occur between 3-4 years into practice that are similar to the change in status that occurred between your 1st and 2d year of law school. You can either be prepared for those changes and succeed or not be prepared and end up perpetually frustrated. The first part of being prepared is knowing about where partners and senior associates at small and medium sized law firms come from. Contrary to popular opinion, the stork does not bring them. And most firms do not grow their own like cabbages behind the barn. Partners and senior associates get recruited -- not by law school grades and good looks, but on the basis of need and experience. Believe it or not, it is easy for other attorneys to see your work even if you are hidden in a closet. You start work at a small firm. The quality of work goes up, the quality goes down or stays the same. Given that hiring you is the only change, it doesn't matter if your name goes on the briefs or if you sign the pleadings. The change (or lack of change) reflects you. This means that attention to quality is important. Every time you feel cheated or upset, take some extra time and do a better job. It may be your bosses' money (they are paying you) but it is your reputation and skill that is getting better. Every time you have a choice between being ethical and being a slime, be ethical. It may be the firm's loss but it is your reputation for honesty that is being built. Every time you have the chance to do some court appointed work or to get involved with the bar, take the opportunity to meet people and to become involved.
Take a moment and think. You are in a situation where you deserve to be a partner. Unfortunately, all the partners in the firm graduated from law school together 6 years earlier than you did. You've got what it takes, but they are firmly in control of "their" property and don't see any reason to share. The feelings can get intense. As the news notes, in Texas they shoot each other. But who knows? You can become a partner with someone else in a firm who could not see making one of his associates a partner (or even giving them a decent raise). The attorney who offers you a job has lost, say, 10 associates. He could never see sharing either his firm with them or sharing his clients. But he could see it with someone who comes in from the outside, like you do. The trick to surviving the depressing, unforeseen and bleak times in a deadend job is to realize that the deadend is the firm's problem and not your problem. You've got a future and good hope for the long run if you don't ruin yourself. As long as you do not get a reputation for sloppy work, bad ethics or a bad attitude, nothing that happens to you while working for a small firm is going to hurt more than money and a partnership in a better firm won't heal. If you take the long view, more money and a partnership is exactly what you'll get. Everyone else has.
The majority of people who find employment with a small firm find only "temporary" employment. Most small firms turnover somewhere between 6 months to 6 years. In a lawyer's words, 6 years after he had accepted a job, none of the firms he had interviewed at that time were still listed in Martindale-Hubble. Small firm attrition is no worse than large firm attrition. Usually turnover in large firms is from 20 - 25% of the associates each year. Stability in the practice of law comes from three things -- all of which you control. The three things are: competent legal work, sociability with other lawyers and client satisfaction. If your legal work is competent, if you get along well with other lawyers and if your clients like you and remember your name, then in the long run you will have as much stability in your legal practice as anyone else has (which may or may not be much).
Many of the concerns that apply to large firms do not apply to smaller ones. Training programs -- a prime factor in large firm decisions -- don't exist. Partnership tracks and qualifications -- crucially important in large firms -- are irrelevant, associates don't become partners in small firms (assuming the firm lasts that long). Other concerns are much more important. First is the quality of work -- a given for large firms. Next is sociality -- completely unimportant to large firms. Then is client contact and satisfaction -- generally an area alien to large firm associates. Finally, is the reasonableness of the number of hours worked -- a consideration completely foreign to large firm thinking and crucial to your ability to succeed in a small firm setting.
Many attorneys, given both the experience of large and small firms will choose small firm culture and life. There are strong economic reasons for this choice. Partners in small plaintiff's firms earn an average a little bit more than the partners at the large defense firms that oppose them. They also work fewer hours, take more vacations and have greater flexibility in who they have for clients and the type of work they do. Outside of money, there are rewards and freedoms to practicing in a small firm that are not fully disclosed in law school.