http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/headline/biz/5000104.html Salary reality: Many lawyers don’t earn big bucks
July 25, 2007, 11:25PM
By MARY FLOOD
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
People have a false impression about lawyers — that they all make six-figure salaries.
With at least three big law firms in Houston announcing this month that they’re raising starting pay to $160,000, there’s reason for the confusion.
But the reality is that first-year graduates from the three Houston law schools make as little as $30,000 a year and have a median salary of around $70,000.
Those outside the profession aren’t the only ones with unrealistic impressions of lawyer pay.
A lot of law students, seduced by publicity about high-end salaries and some wishful thinking, aren’t grounded about legal salaries either.
“Every student thinks they are going to be in the top 5 percent of the class and make $150,000. The reality is they are not. If the grades are not there, the money does not follow,” said Andreaus Boise, career service coordinator for the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University. Students get upset about this often enough that Boise keeps Rolaids on her desk for them. Another law school career adviser says she keeps tissues on her desk for the inevitable tears.
Feeling the curve
The top salaries go to law students from the prestige schools or those who have the very best grades at other schools.
Others, even some who have enjoyed earlier academic success, might need to lower their expectations.
“These students have done well their whole life. This is the first time for a lot of them that they feel a forced curve,” said Rhonda Beassie, assistant dean of career development at the University of Houston Law Center. “A healthy percentage of the students don’t get the message until they go bid for a job.”
The law students who go to the top-tier firms will make $120,000 to $165,000 annually, but that will be the top 10 percent or less, according to the local law school career offices. Those in midsize firms will make roughly $55,000 to $80,000. At small firms or government jobs, they get $40,000 to $60,000. Solo practitioners may make $30,000 or even live off loans when they start out.
Certainly with experience, these lawyers should increase their income and eventually most of them will get past $100,000, but not that far past it. The median income or 50th percentile, for all attorneys in Texas was $113,300 in 2005, the last time the State Bar of Texas conducted its survey.
In the Houston area, the Bar found the median income for probate and estate attorneys was $78,333, for real estate lawyers it was $88,750, and for civil trial lawyers it was $187,500.
The price of going solo
“Students who go out and get a first-year salary of $45,000 are blown away. Their expectations were glamorized,” said Reginald Green, the assistant dean of career resources at South Texas College of Law.
The median income for members of the South Texas class of 2006 is $70,000, and the average is $82,000, he said their survey shows.
Green said expectations may be inflated because law schools market themselves in the brightest light and the media cover the highest salaries.
Boise said the TSU law school produces many solo practitioners.
“A lot of students hang out their own shingle. They go to the courthouse to get court appointments. They start at $35,000, sometimes more, sometimes less,” she said.
A fresh start
Melissa Lanier and her law partner, Elizabeth Pagel, graduated from TSU law school in May 2006 and they set up a partnership in Humble — Lanier & Pagel. Their first-year income will probably be about $30,000 each, tops.
“We think we are doing well. We thought there might be no money in our own pocket for a year or two,” said Lanier, who practices bankruptcy law, while Pagel focuses on family law.
The partners have hustled business by networking, distributing fliers, attending seminars and placing phone books ads.
“We sent out announcement cards to everyone we had ever met in our lives,” Lanier said.
“It is funny, even my husband thought he’d have a wife making big bucks. That’s not automatic,” said Lanier, 40, who is making the law a second career after working in marketing. She is delighted with her progress.
Living a little
So is Amber Lanvin, a May 2005 UH law school grad, making about $53,000 at the small bankruptcy law firm Swindell & Associates. She tried a couple of other small firms before she found the right fit.
“The people at the top of the class were really driven to be there. But I work about 50 hours a week. I’m not working their 80 hours a week,” said Lanvin, 27. “I get to hang with my fiance, have a nice dinner, live a little.”
Ryan Peterson, a May 2006 graduate of South Texas, makes about $50,000 doing mostly traffic court work for the Citizen Law Firm.
“No question that there are some people who go to law school thinking they’ll get $100,000 at their first job even though they can’t argue their way out of a paper bag,” said Peterson, 28, who would like to move to more serious criminal cases.
‘It’s worth it…’
Amy Allen, a May 2006 UH law school grad, is practicing family law at Myres, Dale & Associates.
She didn’t have the grades to make the big bucks and earns less than $60,000, but says she likes getting hands-on experience with clients and in court.
“I’m literally learning something new every day,” Allen said.
“Every day it seems some friend thinks I’m making more than I do. They say, ‘Come see me in Florida.’ I say I can’t afford it, and they are surprised,” said Allen, 35. “I’m living paycheck to paycheck. I don’t have a new BMW. But I love my job. It’s worth it to me.”