The Exchange

Attention Lawyers: Get Your … $10,000 a Year Salary?

The Exchange

Attention college students applying to law school: put down the LSAT prep book. You might want to consider another line of work.

In what could be either a sign of the economic times or simply an extreme case, a law firm in Boston posted a position on Boston College Law School's career site for an associate position with a less-than-generous salary of $10,000.

The job is for a full-time associate at Gilbert & O'Bryan LLP, a Boston law firm specializing in domestic relations, estate planning, bankruptcy and civil service law. The Boston Business Journal got a tip from a currently employed Boston College Law School graduate who spotted the posting and said the ad was "demoralizing." (Here's their screen shot of the post.)

Compensation for the full-time associate position — suited for a new lawyer or "someone returning to a legal career" — is based mainly on a "percentage of work billed and collected," which means a percentage of what's billed to the firm's clients. (Larry O'Bryan, partner at the firm, wouldn't disclose the percentage amount, but says it's within the range of what firms typically pay.) The associate would have their own case load and clients from the get-go, according to the posting, which goes on to say, "we expect an associate to earn ten thousand dollars in compensation in the first year." Gilbert & O'Bryan has received 32 applications for the job so far, more than they were expecting, says O'Bryan. The position was listed at a number of Boston-area law schools.

As the BC alum pointed out, if the associate works a typical 40-hour week, the salary works out to about $4.80 an hour. The minimum wage in Massachusetts is $8 an hour, while the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Median starting salaries for first-year associates at firms that have between two and 25 lawyers was $73,000 in 2011, up slightly from $72,000 in 2010, according to the latest data from the National Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP). For firms with 251 or more lawyers, first years got a median salary of $180,000, the same as in 2010. In March, NALP also reported that the legal sector, which was hit hard by the recession, continued to lose jobs, but at a much slower pace through the end of 2011.

So can't the firm afford to pay its associates a more substantial wage? "We're a small firm, and we don't have a huge amount of business. The economy is tight, and we'd love to have more business to pay our associates more," O'Bryan says. He added that the firm has hired about 20 associates at the same salary level in the past five years and emphasized that associates tend to earn more in subsequent years.

The position offers some nice benefits, though, including health insurance, malpractice insurance, an employer-paid clothing allowance and an MBTA pass.

Gilbert & O'Bryan's position may just be an outlier — obviously, entry level jobs at other law firms pay lavishly. According to Boston College's web site, graduates of the law school earned a median $160,000 nine months after graduation in 2010 at private sector positions (public sector lawyers earned $40,588).

"This is more the exception than the rule," says Nate Kenyon, communications director at Boston College Law School. Other postings on the school's online job database offer much higher salaries, "but we're starting to see all sorts of creative ideas and listings and opportunities -- the paradigm is shifting," he says. Kenyon says the school doesn't edit any job posted through their database, and while "We wouldn't necessarily endorse a full-time job that pays $10,000 a year, but there may be graduates who feel that the experience combined with health and other benefits are worth it, particularly if they want to start up their own practice."

Looking on the brighter side, the Gilbert & O'Bryan position can be viewed as the equivalent of a medical school students' residency program, Kenyon notes. That's essentially what the Massachusetts Bar Association recommended in its May report on employment in the legal field. Medical residencies pay little, but students get hands-on training and valuable experience. The report proposes a reinvented third year of law school to expose students to work they'd see in a real job, since law firms these days "are less willing to pay for new lawyers who do not possess any skills related to the actual day-to-day practice of law or any awareness of the legal needs of clients," the report says.

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