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"Too often fees for prosecuting produce hourly rates worse than wages at McDonald's," (Chris Henley, Chairman of the Bar Association).

People pursue careers in Law for a number of reasons. A question junior candidates often ask me pertains to what options they should study at University to pursue a highly paid legal career. I spoke to my colleagues in the office who studied to become Lawyers and scrolled through some of my files to try and give a clear answer to this.

The Bottom

The quote at the start of this article was made by Chris Henley, and he references the current plight of Criminal Barristers. There are two important elements to address here. One is the current pay rate of Lawyers who work in Criminal fields. The other is the distinction between Lawyers and Barristers.

After checking through the candidate records, Crime is the lowest paid area of Law to specialise in. Duty Solicitors are singularly the lowest paid qualified fee-earners we work with across all geographic areas - they also face some of the longest and most un-sociable working hours. There is an exception to this rule, particularly in Regulatory or White-Collar work. However, this is only at the top level where it becomes competitive with other areas of Law.

Barristers are an interesting case study, and I will hasten to add not the speciality of this agency. At one end of the Spectrum, there have been reported incidents of Barristers earning less than burger flippers at McDonald's and taking home less than minimum wage after expenses. At the other end of the spectrum, Barristers can make huge salaries. The difficulty is getting to be that highly regarded and having a strong enough name in the market to make the latter option attainable. For many, there are easier ways to earn comparable salaries with top Barristers.

Nestling in a similar category to the above, Legal Aid is also a long way behind the rest of the pack when it comes to competitive salaries. With the recent cuts taking full effect in 2018, it may even see a decline in pay for newly qualified Solicitors. I recently spoke with a Partner at one of London’s top legal aid firms, who had been there most of their career, and their salary was sub £50,000. A huge discrepancy with what others of a similar level are paid.

The Middle

My definition of the middle asks “how much do you need to own a nice house, where you want to live, and how much disposable income do you need to be happy this year?”. The middle is grey, the middle is subjective, and the middle is comfortable.

With the above in mind, and with consideration given to the bottom, I would argue that a career in Law can put you in the middle bracket in pretty much any specialism. If you are happy with this level of earning than do yourself a favour and cruise a little. You worked your butts off to get that house and to be able to go on holiday 2 times a year. Enjoy it, this is a great place to be.

The best options for people to be comfortable with their earning levels come from mid-sized high street firms, most regional firms, and boutiques. The best areas of law to specialise in are Property, Private Client, Family Finance, Low-level litigation, and Employment.  

The Top

The top as I see it does not refer to those who occupy the space in their Ivory Towers peaking above the clouds in the aristocracy that is the Magic and Silver Circles. Nor does it refer to those acting as a Head of Legal, or Legal Counsel, for the world’s largest companies. I see it as “having more money than you as a single person needs, where you do not have to think about the price of anything, and where you can make risky investments just because.”

Most people would say they want to be at this level. However, the reality is that most people would prefer a few extra holidays than years of late nights in the office. To get to this level, unless you are very lucky, takes a considerable amount of consistent hard work and planning.

It is a misconception today that you need to be a Redbrick/Oxbridge educated, privately tutored, magic circle trained Lawyer to get the kind of salaries that allow for this lifestyle. More firms of the modern age are turning towards valuing commercial mindedness and attitude as determiners for success as an alternative. The modern Lawyer needs to be more aware of the commercial value they bring to the firm than ever, and they must have the attitude that says I would die for my work. These are the people that make up the top earners in the legal industry.

Rather than looking at the areas of law that would get you to the top, I think it is important to say which areas of law these types of profiles are attracted to. The common ones are Corporate, Construction, High-End Real Estate, Private Wealth, Top-End Litigation, and Finance.

Conclusion

To any aspiring Lawyers, my advice would be to stay clear of Legal Aid and Crime. I will not touch on the ethical considerations of advising in such a way; at the moment it is just not a very good commercial decision, especially given the cost of training. I would also say that you should look internally and ask yourself how much money is enough and what is the cost of pursuing it? You might end up like Captain Ahab and find yourself at the bottom of the proverbial sea that is the race to the top. The middle is vast and comfortable for a lot of people so do not feel bad about wanting to live there.

Ultimately, you will be in control of where end up based on attitude and having the knowledge to decide where to put your resources. Linking back to the original point Barristers currently, occupy the lowest earning position in Legal and the highest.