As I get ready to head to my fifteenth law school reunion in the frighteningly near future, I’ve been reflecting a bit over my legal career so far. It has unfolded in a way I never would have believed at my law school graduation – not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly consistent with how life twists and turns generally – and I am excited to see how the next fifteen years of my law practice shake out.
So far I’ve been fortunate to live and practice in two different major metropolitan areas, and many of my law school colleagues have moved around the country too. So I thought it would be interesting to rank (anecdotally) the major U.S. legal markets where aspiring attorneys and those just getting started ought to consider setting up shop in order to position themselves for sustained, long-term financial and professional success.
Here is my methodology behind the five factors against which I chose to rank each city, with the results and my analysis following:
COL: cost-of-living. Is this an expensive city and metro – from housing prices to getting around?
Career paths: can you start out in insurance defense and end up climbing an in-house corporate ladder? Or are you stuck wherever you start out because there just aren’t that many Fortune 500 companies that hire into their legal department?
Perception: I remember a West Coast partner at a large law firm telling me once that the “caliber” of lawyers his firm was able to recruit out of Manhattan was higher than in other major metros. Valid or not, there is a perception around the capabilities and work ethics of attorneys who practice in different cities. For this reason, I believe the opportunities you will have in your career if you start out in NYC or DC will be dramatically better than if you begin in, say, Denver or Minneapolis.
QOL: quality of life. Are there arts, culture, and big-city amenities, coupled with a reasonable cost of living and access to the great outdoors?
Potential: the most subjective of my categories. The way I’m looking at this is “what is the likelihood that, after 15 years of practice, I can realistically still be living here and working as a professional – whether as a lawyer or in the business – based on all of these other factors?” Cities like Chicago and Atlanta and Dallas are affordable and have lots of diverse opportunities for attorneys (at least from my perspective). NYC is great for a lot of reasons, but it takes two spouses both working demanding jobs to support a lifestyle that only one working spouse can probably afford in other metros.
Total: Highest score wins, out of a possible 25 points.
Keeping in mind that this is all really in good fun, your results will most definitely vary, and these rankings are colored by my personal experience in the trenches (and those of my law school classmates and colleagues), here are my rankings, on a sliding scale from 1 to 5 (worst to best):
Wow, DC is the winner! I actually thought this might be the case (and, disclosure, I don’t like DC, so don’t think I rigged my rankings). Chicago is a close second with NYC coming in third. (Interesting, because I didn’t think either of these two cities would be at the top of the list.)
As I worked on this article, I decided to do a bit more data-driven analysis. I looked up each of these cities by number of Fortune 1000 companies with headquarters in their metropolitan areas. I also looked for the number of large law firms (biggest 350 in the country) headquartered there as well.
Here is how these same metros stack up:
This chart is less surprising to me, although I was thinking DC would rank higher (clearly the federal government and all of its agencies are a major legal employer there, which is not reflected in these numbers).
I’ve also included a column with some data on overall average lawyer salaries by city. The range is pretty narrow, but I’ve flagged the high (Bay Area) and low (Chicago) as being of particular interest, driven in my opinion mostly by Silicon Valley and Chicago’s relatively low cost of living.
Seattle, Denver, and Minneapolis all jump out as relatively small markets (of course, at least with respect to Seattle, there are some enormous employers like Amazon that have an army of attorneys – more on that in a future post here at Dollar Barrister).
What do you think? Feel free to dissect or shred my logic in the comments below!