Big Law Pay Scale: Salaries And Bonuses At Top Law Firms

The pay at big law firms has always been a hot topic, especially for law students and young associates trying to determine if the high stress is worth the high salary. If you’re wondering what BigLaw associates and partners really make, you’ve come to the right place.

In short, first year associates at top firms in major markets like New York and Silicon Valley can expect to earn salaries around $200,000. Bonuses are extra on top of that. The pay scale goes up from there, with experienced partners making well over $1 million per year.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll break down the BigLaw pay scale in detail, including base salaries, bonuses, factors that impact pay, and how compensation has changed over time. Whether you’re considering a career in BigLaw or just curious about the pay, read on for a look inside the BigLaw money machine.

Base Salaries for Associates

First Year Associates

First year associates at top law firms are often the most highly sought-after positions in the legal industry. These positions are typically filled by recent law school graduates who have excelled academically and demonstrated exceptional potential in the field.

The base salary for first year associates can vary depending on the firm and location, but it is generally in the range of $190,000 to $200,000 per year.

Salaries by Year of Experience

As associates gain more experience and progress in their careers, their salaries tend to increase. The pay scale for associates at top law firms often includes tiered salary structures based on the number of years of experience.

For example, second year associates may earn around $220,000 per year, while third year associates could make closer to $250,000. Senior associates with several years of experience may earn salaries upwards of $300,000 or more.

Salaries by Market

The base salaries for associates can also vary depending on the location or market in which the law firm is located. Major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco tend to have higher salary scales due to the higher cost of living and increased demand for legal services.

For instance, associates working in New York City may earn higher salaries compared to their counterparts in smaller markets. It is important to note that these figures are just estimates and can vary from firm to firm and based on other factors such as the size and prestige of the firm.

For more detailed and up-to-date salary information, you can refer to reputable legal industry websites such as National Association for Law Placement (NALP) or Vault.


End of Year Bonuses

One of the most anticipated events in the world of Big Law is the distribution of end-of-year bonuses. These bonuses are typically awarded to associates based on their performance throughout the year and the profitability of the firm.

The size of these bonuses can vary greatly depending on various factors such as seniority, billable hours, and the overall financial success of the firm.

Associates who have consistently met or exceeded their billable hours targets and have demonstrated exceptional client service and legal skills can expect to receive substantial end-of-year bonuses. These bonuses can often be a significant portion of an associate’s annual income, making them a highly coveted reward.

Special Bonuses

In addition to end-of-year bonuses, some top law firms also offer special bonuses to associates who have achieved extraordinary results or have made exceptional contributions to the firm. These special bonuses are often given out on a discretionary basis and are a way for firms to recognize and reward outstanding performance.

Special bonuses can vary in size and are typically awarded to associates who have worked on high-profile cases, brought in significant new business, or have demonstrated exceptional leadership skills.

These bonuses not only serve as a financial incentive but also as a way for the firm to show appreciation for the hard work and dedication of its top-performing associates.

Pro-Rated Bonuses

Pro-rated bonuses are a unique type of bonus that is typically given to associates who join a firm mid-year or leave the firm before the end of the year. These bonuses are calculated based on the amount of time the associate has worked at the firm and are prorated accordingly.

For example, if an associate joins a firm in July, they may be eligible for a pro-rated bonus that reflects their time worked for the remainder of the year. Similarly, if an associate leaves the firm in November, they may receive a pro-rated bonus that reflects their contribution up until their departure.

Pro-rated bonuses are a way for firms to recognize and reward associates who have made valuable contributions to the firm, even if their tenure is shorter than a full year. This practice ensures that associates are fairly compensated for their efforts, regardless of their length of service.

For more information about bonuses at top law firms, you can visit websites such as or These websites provide comprehensive data and insights into the compensation structures of major law firms, including information about bonuses.

Salaries for Partners

Partners at top law firms enjoy some of the highest salaries in the legal industry. The compensation structure for partners is typically divided into two categories: non-equity partners and equity partners.

Additionally, the salary of partners can vary depending on the city and the size of the law firm.

Non-Equity Partners

Non-equity partners are typically senior attorneys who have been promoted to a partnership position but do not have an ownership stake in the firm. They are often compensated with a base salary and may also be eligible for bonuses based on their performance and the firm’s profitability.

The base salary for non-equity partners can range from $200,000 to $500,000 per year, depending on the firm and location.

Equity Partners

Equity partners, on the other hand, have an ownership stake in the law firm. They share in the profits and have a say in the firm’s decision-making process. The compensation for equity partners is usually more complex and includes a combination of a base salary, profit-sharing, and bonuses.

Equity partners at top law firms can earn millions of dollars per year, with some even surpassing the $10 million mark.

Salaries by City and Firm Size

The salaries of partners can also vary based on the city and the size of the law firm. For example, partners in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and London tend to earn higher salaries compared to their counterparts in smaller cities.

Similarly, partners at larger law firms with a global presence often command higher salaries than those at smaller regional firms.

According to a survey conducted by The American Lawyer, the average salary for partners at the top 100 US law firms in 2020 was around $1.6 million. However, it’s important to note that this figure can vary significantly depending on various factors such as the partner’s experience, specialization, and the firm’s financial performance.

Factors That Impact Pay

When it comes to determining salaries and bonuses at top law firms, several factors come into play. These factors can greatly influence the compensation that lawyers receive. Understanding these factors is crucial for both aspiring lawyers and those already in the legal profession.

Years of Experience

One of the primary factors that impact pay in the legal industry is the number of years of experience a lawyer has. As lawyers gain more experience and expertise in their field, they become more valuable assets to their firms. This often leads to higher salaries and bonuses.

For example, a junior associate with two years of experience may earn a lower salary compared to a senior associate with ten years of experience.

Office Location

The location of a law firm’s office can also significantly affect the pay scale. Generally, lawyers working in major cities or in regions with a higher cost of living tend to earn higher salaries. This is because firms in these locations often have higher billing rates and can afford to pay their lawyers more.

For instance, a lawyer working in a top law firm in New York City may earn a higher salary compared to a lawyer working in a smaller town in a rural area.

Practice Area

The area of law in which a lawyer specializes can also impact their pay. Certain practice areas, such as corporate law or intellectual property law, are known to offer higher salaries compared to other areas of law.

This is because these practice areas require specialized knowledge and skills that are in high demand. Additionally, lawyers who work on high-profile cases or with prestigious clients often command higher salaries.

Law School Pedigree

The reputation and prestige of the law school a lawyer attended can also play a role in determining their pay. Lawyers who graduate from top-ranked law schools often have an advantage when it comes to securing high-paying jobs at prestigious law firms.

These firms are willing to pay a premium for graduates from renowned institutions. However, it’s important to note that while law school pedigree can open doors, it is not the sole determinant of success in the legal profession.

Billable Hours

The number of billable hours a lawyer clocks in is another crucial factor that impacts their pay. Most law firms operate on a billable hour system, where lawyers are expected to track and bill their time spent working on client matters.

Lawyers who consistently meet or exceed their billable hour targets are often rewarded with higher bonuses or salary increases. However, this can also lead to long hours and high levels of stress.

Understanding the factors that impact pay in the legal industry is essential for both lawyers and those considering a career in law. It allows individuals to make informed decisions about their career paths and negotiate better compensation packages.

Ultimately, each factor listed above can vary depending on the specific law firm and individual circumstances, so it’s important to consider all of these factors together when evaluating potential salary and bonus opportunities in the legal field.

The Evolution of BigLaw Pay

Over the years, the pay scale in BigLaw firms has undergone significant changes. The legal industry, like many others, has been influenced by various factors such as economic trends, market demand, and competition for top talent.

Understanding the evolution of BigLaw pay helps shed light on the current salary and bonus structures in these prestigious law firms.

Pay Scales in the 2000s

In the early 2000s, BigLaw firms began to experience a surge in profits, thanks to a booming economy and increasing demand for their services. This led to a substantial rise in associate salaries, with some firms offering starting salaries well above the six-figure mark.

Gradually, the pay scales in BigLaw firms started to become more competitive, as firms competed to attract and retain the best legal talent.

During this period, bonuses also became an integral part of BigLaw compensation packages. Firms started to reward associates for their exceptional performance, often tying bonuses to billable hours, client development, and successful case outcomes.

These bonuses served as additional incentives for associates to work diligently and contribute to the firm’s overall success.

The Cravath Scale

One notable development in BigLaw pay was the introduction of the Cravath Scale. Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, a prestigious law firm, set the standard for associate salaries in the industry. Other firms soon followed suit, adopting a similar scale to remain competitive.

The Cravath Scale established a framework for associate salaries based on years of experience, with incremental increases as associates progressed in their careers.

Today, the Cravath Scale continues to be used as a benchmark for associate salaries, although some firms have deviated from it in recent years. While the scale provides a general guideline, variations exist among different firms, depending on factors such as location, practice area, and market conditions.

Increases in Starting Salaries

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in starting salaries for associates at top law firms. This trend can be attributed to several factors, including increased competition among firms to attract top talent, rising costs of living in major cities, and the desire to match or exceed the salaries offered by rival firms.

For example, in 2018, several major law firms raised their starting salaries for first-year associates to $190,000, a significant jump from the previous year. This move was seen as a response to the competitive hiring market and the need to attract the best law school graduates.

It is important to note that while starting salaries have increased, the legal industry still faces challenges in terms of work-life balance, long hours, and high-pressure environments. As the legal profession continues to evolve, so too will the pay scale in BigLaw firms, reflecting the changing dynamics of the industry.


While BigLaw certainly pays well compared to most legal jobs, the high salary comes with its tradeoffs too. The hours are long, the work is demanding, and you’re expected to be on call 24/7. Still, for those willing to put in the work, BigLaw represents the pinnacle of pay in the legal industry.

The pay scales we’ve outlined give you an inside look at what BigLaw lawyers really take home. Salaries that start near $200,000 for first year associates and rise to over $1 million for partners is what attracts top legal talent to these firms.

However, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons carefully when considering a career in BigLaw.

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