3 Reasons Lawyers Will Take a $100k+ Paycut


Samantha Leonard

Samantha works with attorneys looking for a career change to an Associate, Partner-level, or In-House position. She is based in Denver but works throughout Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, and Nebraska. Her clients vary from large national firms to small boutiques looking for the best legal talent. She is a licensed attorney who pivoted to a career in business development after law school. After time with a tech company and a startup, she decided to move to Denver to get closer to the beautiful National Parks concentrated further west of my native Wisconsin. She is an avid hiker, camper, and backpacker.

Would you be willing to take a six-figure pay cut? If you’re like most people, the answer is no. And you might be wondering who in the world would be crazy enough to take such a hit. As an attorney recruiter, I work with lawyers across the country looking to make a career or lifestyle change. And believe it or not, I’ve worked with many lawyers who have taken six-figure pay cuts to change jobs.

“Who are these people?” you may be asking. “And what are they thinking??”

Across the board they are hard-working attorneys with incredible credentials and impressive experience. And here are the top three reasons they take the hit:

1. Priorities

As the saying goes, different strokes for different folks. Just like the rest of us, different attorneys have different priorities. For some, building a practice as the nation’s leading expert on election law is a #1 priority. For others, raising their kids near cousins and a hiking trail is a #1 priority.

Many attorneys relocating to the markets in my territory – like Denver, Phoenix, or Salt Lake City – are looking to strike a balance between their professional and personal goals. Whether it’s skiing, Sunday dinner at Mom’s, or the opportunity for beers with college friends, my markets often exert a personal pull on candidates. They don’t want to compromise their career ambitions, but they are ready to get more of what they love in their lives.

Luckily, attorneys relocating to middle markets don’t have to compromise. The American Lawyer in 2018 published a finding that law firms in mid-market cities perform “markedly better on cost and efficiency” when compared with their peers in major markets, and tie with those peers when reviewed for quality of service provided to clients. In other words, clients using mid-market law firms are just as pleased as their competitors using major market offices but paying much less for legal services. This creates a competitive advantage for mid-market cities that attracts sophisticated work and impressive clientele

2. Quality of Life

Markets like Denver or Salt Lake City have unique personalities. Denver is consistently one of Parker + Lynch Legal’s top markets for relocation and the reasons include both a burgeoning legal scene and a quality of life balance.

The average required annual billables for a firm in Denver hover around 1900 hours. The unofficial requirement – the requirement that most associates hit and you better, too – also hovers around 1950 hours. With BigLaw offices in major markets like New York or DC hovering closer to an unofficial expectation like 2200, a move to a middle market can provide a serious change in lifestyle for attorneys.

And don’t forget the intangibles: what are the conversations at the water cooler? What’s the overall vibe at the office? Awkwardly avoiding any eye contact on the way to your third triple latte of the day may not be your speed. How about heading out at 4:00 p.m. to grab a beer and swap favorite camping spots?

3. Starting with the End in Mind

The final motivator I see behind folks accepting massive pay cuts is a focus on the future. For an associate with aspirations to make partner, major markets can mean a crowded peer group and stiff competition.

The antidote? The smaller offices, close mentorship, and ready-made business pitch of the middle market. The same factors that draw sophisticated clients from major to mid-markets – comparable services at a lower cost – form the basis for a compelling pitch to potential clients. Enterprising associates in middle markets are in prime position to grow a book of business that can be the difference-maker in a partner vote. And the smaller offices mean firm leadership is often more invested in the success of their team and developing associates.

Perhaps a candidate of mine who took a $100k+ pay cut summed it up best in a note he sent me after starting his new position. He’d made a change to get closer to and have more time with family, and to join a law firm committed to seeing his end-of-career retirement as partner among their ranks. In his words:

“Working here has been a night-and-day difference from where I was before, and now I feel like being an attorney is actually a viable long-term option for me.”

And one last comment: don’t forget the value of a good recruiter in navigating a middle market. An expert on the ground will be able to tell you which firms to target if your eventual goal is to go in-house, and which firms might leave the office at 3:30 p.m. for beers. Get informed about the market and rest assured, the move can absolutely be worth it.

Samantha Leonard is an Attorney Recruiter with Parker+Lynch Legal, a service offering of Special Counsel. Connect with Samantha on LinkedIn or via email today!

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