What America's Lawyers Earn
10 Surprising Legal Markets
Here are smaller legal markets that pay big-city bucks
Posted Mar 1, 2011 5:59 AM CST
By Rachel M. Zahorsky, Janan Hanna
AUGUSTA, RICHMOND COUNTY, GA.
Median salary: $132,820
Average salary: $153,000
Population growth since 2000: 7.9 percent
"Those numbers don't shock me," says partner George Hall of Southeast regional firm Hull Barrett. "Augusta is the second-largest metropolitan area in the state. It's a sophisticated legal market. And, quite frankly, this area has done a lot better than the national average [during the recession]."
The Augusta-Richmond legal community includes 17 counties in the central Savannah River area, and it has weathered the recession with lower unemployment rates than Atlanta or Savannah.
And, although Atlanta's median salary for employed lawyers topped that for Augusta-Richmond County at $135,620, "you see more Atlanta lawyers trying to come here because the Atlanta market is so saturated," Hall says.
"What the numbers probably reflect," says Augusta Bar Association Vice President Mark Williamson, "is that while our hourly rates do not reflect those paid in Atlanta, we do get corporate work and defense work, and clients are shopping around more. Augusta rates aren't as high and there's plenty of work, even in this environment."
The stable workflow is encouraging for lawyers who might consider practicing in Augusta.
"There's no doubt you can make more money the first few years in a bigger firm in a bigger market. However, after the first seven to 10 years, salaries taper off," says Williamson, a partner at the firm of Burnside Wall.
"In the meantime the quality of life and ability to do meaningful work can't be compared," he says. "Some people think you have to be in a big market to get good legal work. That is simply not the case."
Median salary: $108,000
Average salary: $131,380
Population growth since 2000: 7.5 percent
"Historically, Birmingham, until Charlotte [N.C.] came along, was the largest banking center in the Southeast," says Gregory H. Hawley, immediate-past president of the Birmingham Bar Association. "Also, it was a major industrial center. ... And it was a significant insurance center as well. Many of those businesses were buying and selling facilities elsewhere, so they had mergers and acquisitions people. ... And you had a lot of lawyers and firms devoted to those banks."
Heavy industry has declined in the area, but "because there's been a history of sophisticated legal work here, there are a number of high-powered and important law firms here. Those big firms continue to grow and broaden their practice," says Hawley, a shareholder at White Arnold & Dowd.
"Starting salaries at the big firms here I believe are competitive with salaries in Atlanta and Houston for law school grads. They want the top law school grads just as much as Atlanta and Houston do."
"It's not complicated," says Redding Pitt, a name partner with Farris, Riley & Pitt and of counsel on criminal matters at Jaffe & Strickland. "The South is known to have an underclass of very poor people. ... But not all people are disadvantaged. Corporations here, for example—they're not just local, they're national. People who move in circles where they're able to earn a good living don't live differently than their peers in other parts of the country.
"If you're a plaintiffs lawyer, you're going to get the big lick no matter where you live."
As for those who might consider a move there, "I think it's a great place to practice," Hawley says. "There are firms here that have practices that are every bit as sophisticated as most firms in the country. In general, litigators here get into court much more quickly, earlier in their practice than litigators in larger cities."
BLOOMINGTON & NORMAL, ILL.
Median salary: $129,840
Average salary: $144,230
Population growth since 2000: 11.5 percent
While it's no surprise that employed lawyers in Chicago fared well with median salaries that topped $131,000, those in the Bloomington-Normal area earned nearly as much.
Roughly two hours southwest of Chicago, the neighboring cities of Bloomington and Normal in McLean County make up one of Illinois' fastest-growing metropolises. State Farm Insurance's headquarters there host one of the largest corporate legal departments in the U.S. And insurer Country Financial and agricultural equipment supplier Gromark make the area home to a disproportionate number of experienced corporate attorneys, says McLean County Bar Association President Dan Deneen.
While the average age of the bar's 275 members has increased as veteran lawyers join Bloomington's in-house legal departments, Deneen says there are still opportunities for younger lawyers willing to relocate.
"We are seeing fewer associates for firms," he says, "and it would also track what I've heard from large city firms that clients aren't paying for training, so more bar members are the people who have been up there, pulling in their own funds and know-how to run a practice."
McLean County has "a high number of trial attorneys—asbestos, personal injury, med-mal," he says, "and some highly successful defense firms who do quality work and do an efficient structure and organization.
"A key factor for young attorneys is to get as much trial experience as possible to help ascertain what areas of the law they want to spend their careers in," says Deneen. "A city like Bloomington gives them the opportunity to try cases right out of law school as well as try different areas."
—Rachel M. Zahorsky
CHATTANOOGA, TENN., & CATOOSA COUNTY, GA.
Median salary: $137,440
Average salary: $148,350
Population growth since 2000: 10 percent
"Wow, that is really hard to believe," says John Phillips, general counsel for CraftWorks Restaurants& Breweries Inc., of his region's lofty ranking in the survey. "We in Chattanooga have always thought that Nashville would be quite a bit above us, Memphis as well." But employed lawyers in metropolitan Chattanooga topped the median salaries of their colleagues in both larger cities by more than $37,000.
The advent of the income partner, a law firm hierarchy trend common in many big-city firms, has intensified locally over the past decade and could be a factor in the skewed salaries, Phillips says. Even more significant is the mounting number of equity partners pushed back into salaried positions by the recession. "De-equitization is occurring and it's a humongous change for the Chattanooga bar," he says.
Despite the squeeze at law firms, Chattanooga is an emergent community, well-poised on the cutting edge of technological advancement, says J. Wayne Cropp, president and CEO of the Enterprise Center. The city sits in the heart of the Tennessee Valley Technology Corridor near Oak Ridge National Laboratory, NASA and Arnold Engineering Development Center.
"If anything, salaries are comparable to top-level communities because of the growth we're experiencing," says Phillips, who adds that the historical presence of major manufacturers with well-paid in-house departments shouldn't be overlooked either.
"The selling point of Chattanooga, to compare to Memphis and Nashville, is the riverfront has been completely revitalized," Phillips says. "There is a nightlife now, so for a young person there is more to offer. It's not a huge city, but it's a beautiful area."
EL PASO, TEXAS
Median salary: $112,030
Average salary: $132,240
Population growth since 2000: 10.6 percent
Situated just across the Rio Grande from Juarez, Mexico, El Paso County's employed lawyers out-earned their peers in Baltimore, Cincinnati and Salt Lake City.
The absence of a nearby law school and a relatively small bar of roughly 1,800 lawyers may account for the stats, says El Paso Bar Association President Chantel Crews. To encourage locals to return as attorneys, the University of Texas at El Paso developed a law school prep institute to prepare its students for admission to the nation's top law schools—a tactic that is paying off, Crews says.
"We've got a small bar comparatively to the size of the city," says Crews, of counsel at probate and estate boutique Ryan & Sanders, "[and we're] situated on two borders, New Mexico and Juarez, Mexico, so maybe that juxtaposition has something to do with it. There's really not a huge influx of new attorneys."
Crews says El Paso firms have avoided the drastic associate, staff and compensation cuts that have plagued other cities the past two years.
The Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at El Paso, which houses schools of medicine and nursing, has also brought in professionals with needs for sophisticated legal services. And this trend will continue with the expansion of the Medical Center of the Americas and El Paso Children's Hospital.
"A lot of doctors are moving here as well," Crews says, "a lot of specialists, so there are things going on that are under the radar for some of the bigger cities."
Crews adds about the desert metropolis: "El Paso is a well-kept secret. We'd love to have more people here, but we really enjoy the quality of life."
GREENSBORO & HIGH POINT, N.C.
Median salary: $113,410
Average salary: $136,070
Population growth since 2000: 11.1 percent
Although initially surprised at the results, two Greensboro lawyers say North Carolina's strong prerecession economy and financial markets—and a long-term population influx, have driven the region's bump in median salaries.
"Both Charlotte and Raleigh had booming economies that attracted law firms from outside the region, so there's been a growing demand for attorneys and legal services," says Greensboro Bar Association President Ed Winslow III, managing partner at Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey & Leonard.
As Chicago, New York City and Richmond, Va., firms competed for top local talent to operate branch offices throughout North Carolina, those in Greensboro and High Point also upped associate starting salaries to match the greater markets.
"Certainly our firm and other firms in town feel like we compete with other large firms in the country," says partner Steve Earp of Smith Moore Leatherwood. "As a result, the local economy isn't as much of a driver of, especially, new lawyer salaries as the larger competitive market."
While partners weren't matching the income of their New York colleagues, employed lawyers in Greensboro were offered pay relatively consistent with those in the megacities, Earp says. "Our people were being offered double to ride up another floor in the elevator," he adds.
However, unlike their big-city counterparts, Greensboro firms did not drastically reduce salaries nor experience mass layoffs in 2008, Winslow says, adding that long-term trends are "bright and positive" with opportunities for both national and regional-based practices.
"You get to practice at a very high level, but in a very livable city located in the middle of the state."
Median salary: $135,680
Average salary: $153,540
Population growth since 2000: 14.2 percent
"Right now in the economic climate in our area, jobs are very scarce for new attorneys especially," says George Arata, a partner at Arata, Swingle, Sodhi & Van Egmond. "And from what I've also seen for new attorneys, the salaries have not increased; they've been static for at least a year, if not more.
"I think what skewed [the figures] high, especially in Modesto," he says, "is if we were going to attract new lawyers, we had to compete with the Bay Area or Sacramento."
Arata also notes that insurance companies in the area have added to their in-house legal departments so as to cut outside counsel budgets. "I think ... [that] has had a negative effect on defense firms in the valley.
"Firms have to look for other sources of income—business work, business litigation—so we're seeing a lot of firms trying to diversify, and as a result trying to shrink."
Despite the hard times, Arata says he had a firm in Sacramento call "to see what we were paying here. ... Usually it's the converse. Everyone is trying to be fair and competitive. The valley has become more regionalized, competing with people from Sacramento, Fresno, Stockton—everyone is in everyone's county now."
For lawyers planning a move, Arata says, "I think the thing they need to look at in Modesto is people here are looking for a long-term applicant. Is he really going to stay in town or is this a temporary stop because he can't find employment in the Bay Area?"
Noting that the cost of living is below that of San Francisco, the conservative lifestyle can encourage law firms to look to the Midwest for new blood.
"The region is very similar, which increases the likelihood people would stay," he says.
"Modesto can be a culture shock to those used to a big city."
ODESSA & MIDLAND, TEXAS
Median salary: $118,880
Average salary: $138,110
Population growth since 2000: 12.6 percent
Harper Estes, a shareholder at Lynch, Chappell & Alsup, was not surprised by the salary figures for his community.
"We live and die by the oil and gas industry and how it's performing, and our practices are driven by the price of hydrocarbons," says Estes, who was president of the Midland County Bar Association in 1994-1995 and the State Bar of Texas in 2008-2009. "While oil and gas is doing well, law firms in Midland and Odessa tend to do well. And that's for a number of reasons: We do commercial work on the transactional side. And even the personal injury work will go up because there's more drilling and more trucks on the road.
"What tends to happen in this part of the world is that our labor market tends to be transient: When there's no work, they go home," he says. "The law firms here grow when times are good and they don't grow when times are a little more lean. Things were pretty good; then came 2008, and they're better now."
"You might expect that the work would go to firms in Dallas or Houston. But that's not true in the oil patch. Most of the major oil companies and some of the large independents have a presence here."
Estes also notes that there aren't too many government law jobs, which would bring down averages. "I think it's true that most of the jobs here are private practice as opposed to government."
Regarding what he might tell a lawyer thinking of practicing in Midland and Odessa, Estes says: "It's a great place to work. I have a five-minute commute from my office, and I get to work on what I would call big-city cases. ...The quality of work and of life is good because of the size of the city—and, frankly, because of the collegiality of the bar association. Competitors are good friends. ... It's a great opportunity for someone interested in learning about the oil and gas business."
Median salary: $119,590
Average salary: $136,930
Population growth since 2000: 22.3 percent
Although Las Vegas and Seattle boast expansive legal markets and greater capacities for career growth, the median salary for employed lawyers in the Reno-Sparks, Nev., area topped both.
"A lot of regionwide firms recognize that it's wise to have a Reno-based office as well," says Jasmine Mehta, a partner at Southwest regional firm Lewis and Roca.
"Regional firms usually have a broader market and higher salaries, which would bump up the numbers in Reno," says Mehta, who adds that many expanding law firms prefer to court experienced, local practice groups rather than build organically.
"We had tremendous growth because of the tech firms leaving California to come here. Tech was booming," says Michael Kattelman, a name partner in Silverman, Decaria & Kattelman.
Silicon Valley and Bay Area technology companies flocked to Reno, drawn by favorable state business requirements—there is no state tax in Nevada—as well as its proximity to Lake Tahoe.
"With more new companies, more new law firms were springing up—particularly IP and real estate practices," Kattelman says.
However, Kattelman predicts that the median salary may stall or decline for 2010 as a result of the tech bust. "Around 2008 the market fell apart," he says. "The community is shrinking and lawyers are leaving."
For new law grads, Kattelman suggests a trip to Washoe County. "We're a pretty open bar. If an associate drove to town, they could hit up five to six law firms in a day and talk to managing partners, not necessarily for a job interview but as a way to enhance the possibilities."
Median salary: $142,920
Average salary: $150,410
Population growth since 2000: 10.5 percent
"We're trying to get attorneys to come to Rockford," says Michael Baima, an associate at Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren and young lawyers president of the Winnebago County Bar Association. "If you did a cost-of-living adjustment, you would never get people to come here. Rockford doesn't have the best schools nor the best crime rate," explains Baima. That Illinois' third-largest city has a reputation that is less than stellar is well-known throughout the state.
"People get wind of that and then they don't want to work here. They'd rather go to bigger cities. Most firms realize that we can't cut salaries" and compete with Chicago, he says.
That's one explanation why this city's top-paid lawyers trumped their Chicago colleagues, who reported a median income of about $11,500 less, at $131,360, in 2008.
A disproportionate amount of business and transactional attorneys compared to those in typically less lucrative practice areas, such as family law, also contributed to the higher income statistics, Baima says.
"There's not a lot of attorneys here to begin with and you don't have a lot of lower-income attorneys. There's a lot of business law, and that tends to be higher on the pay scale."
For those contemplating practicing in the area, Baima says don't count Rockford out. "It has all the auspicious qualities of a larger city: good shopping, great restaurants, plus lower property taxes and a lower cost of living."
Nearby Northern Illinois University College of Law is the top feeder school for the city's lawyers and judges, which contributes to the highly collegial nature of the bar's roughly 600 members, adds Rockford native and Sreenan & Cain associate Patrick Moore, secretary of the Winnebago County bar. "It's a very friendly kind of legal community and very progressive," he says.
In the print version of "Ten Surprising Law Markets," page 41, should have read "Richmond County, Ga."
The Journal regrets the error.