Money matters

I wasn’t one of those law school applicants who carefully calculated the ratio between tuition and the average starting salary. I didn’t pore over a cost-benefit analysis to determine if the investment in law school was a good one — I just assumed it was.

Some of that assumption can be attributed to poor planning, but most of it stems from my naiveté about the rising cost of tuition and the decreasing amount of money new lawyers are being paid. To be frank, I expected that my salary as a lawyer would be a good one — definitely higher than average.

I was also naive to the great spectrum of lawyers and firms, as well as their respective billing rates and annual income. To earn an above-average salary seemed the logical answer when I was preparing to pay such an enormous amount in tuition, no matter what area of law I ended up practising.

Early on in law school, however, I learned just how different lawyers’ salaries could be. Big Law equalled big bucks and practising solely public interest law meant you had to lower your expectations significantly.

Then there was everything in between.

After reading “The expectation gap” in Canadian Lawyer a few weeks ago, I was reminded of my naive expectations and the harsh reality check I got once in the law world. The recently released 2013 Compensation Survey revealed that new associates make an average of $60,000 per year, ranging from $40,000 to $105,000.

The survey included comments from senior lawyers who complained young lawyers expected too much. The article quoted one respondent who described new associates as “unrealistic,” while another one said their biggest complaint was “paying associates higher and higher wages in return for them earning the law firm less and less.”

From a business standpoint, I can understand these criticisms. If the economic slowdown has affected revenue, it will inevitably impact salaries. Of course, new lawyers are the logical place to start. As well, less experience reasonably translates to less pay. And nobody likes an overly entitled newbie.

However, I also feel a bit defensive of my fellow young lawyers. Perhaps our expectations are reasonably high because the current cost of tuition is so (unreasonably) high. Perhaps we are simply expecting what would be a rational return on our education investment. Tuition today is drastically higher than what a lot of senior partners and associates were paying in law school.

But is that an employer’s concern? Should it be?

Of course, my comments must be more contextualized. For some firms and legal clinics, there are simply not enough resources to meet young lawyers’ expectations (or debt payments). This has significant implications for access to justice and public interest law, where fewer law grads are going because of the need to pay off debts.

Another very important concession to be made is the fact lawyers’ salaries, even on the low end of the scale, are still higher than average. Lawyers form part of the privileged few, so it is important to keep this conversation in the right context.

Nonetheless, the topic of salary expectations is an important one. We all have to make a living somehow and pay off our loans. As almost-lawyers, we also have to seriously ponder how we want to live and what is most important: time, money, values, or a combination of the three. So whether it’s refugee or securities law we are going to practise, this is a valid consideration at this stage in our careers.

This very pragmatic, monetary concern is why I think many people go into law in the first place. It is seen as a direct route to a stable and well-paying career. For precisely this reason, many leave an already-established career for law.

Credibility and income certainly factored into my decision to go to law school, as I unabashedly admitted earlier (although I must say I have adjusted my expectations since deciding on the type of law I want to practise). Some of my classmates have also echoed this consideration when I asked them about their salary expectations post-law school.

This “expectation gap” is important food for thought as my law school compadres and I approach graduation. I’m not sure if the rising tuition rates in contrast to falling (or frozen) starting salaries should prevent one from going to law school, however, it should absolutely be factored in.

Now when I’m asked by interested law school applicants whether or not they should pursue a career in law, I urge them to really think about whether law is the best (or only) route to the career they want and objectives they want to achieve. I remind them of the great financial and time commitment law school demands and the varied prospects at the other end.

If the answer to that question is no, law school might seem like a waste of money that will force one to sacrifice important goals in order to pay it back. But if the answer is yes, then this investment is worth every penny.

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