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21 September 2017

Why legal salary guides are overrated

The information in a legal salary guide is often meaningless and tends to focus your attention on the wrong things. Although there are times when they might come in handy, you need to be wary of their limitations when reading them.

The data in a lawyer salary survey is usually statistically unreliable.

Salary surveys may seem like a good way to discover what other lawyers are being paid. Wrapping the data with high quality graphic design gives the survey an (often deserved) sense of authority.

The problem is that there is no information provided to determine if the data in salary guides is statistically reliable. 

The guides often do not reveal the survey methods, or even the nature or number of participants. Most of the time, there is nothing to suggest the information in the survey is based on a statistically significant sample.

If you consider the number of different points of data that are provided by a legal salary survey, and then consider the research methods and number of people that would be required to produce a statistically significant sample, it is unrealistic to expect all of the information to be reliable.

The way the data is presented is often meaningless.

A typical legal salary guide will offer salary information according to the seniority of the position, often grouped by the nature of practice (private practice, in-house or government), and then by the size of the firm or business involved.

The guide will probably give you a 'high', 'low' and 'mode' for each position, without more. This has immediate limitations.

For example, let's say the data shows a high of $130k, a low of $85k, and a mode of $110k. Let's also assume there were 100 people surveyed in relation to this type of position.

By definition, the 'high' and 'low' numbers are outliers. They are not indications of a typical salary for the role in question. They merely identify the amount being paid to the individuals at the opposite ends of the scale of the range of people interviewed, without providing any meaningful insights as to the spread of salaries in between.

Although the 'mode' might sound like a more reliable indicator, even that is questionable. In our example, it may be that everyone except two people reported a salary of $110k. Or there may have been an even spread of salaries across the range.

Again, without having access to the underlying data for each position, it's impossible to know what's going on.

A higher salary doesn't mean a better job.

A third problem with lawyer salary surveys is that, by definition, they do not take into account all facets of the role described in the survey.

For example, the role that pays the most is also likely to be the one that is the most demanding. It may also turn out to be the least satisfying when you take into account non-financial considerations such as:

  • expected hours of work;
  • the type of work involved;
  • the level of training, mentoring and other support; and
  • the culture of the office.

It's obviously impossible for these types of considerations to be included in a salary guide. Other important non-financial factors to consider are:

  • the 'likeability' of the people you would be working with;
  • the level of autonomy in the role;
  • the firm's (or company's) leave policy, and whether people in the office actually take leave;
  • opportunities for flexible working conditions; 
  • the physical office environment; and
  • the firm's attitude towards professional development.

A careful review of the firm's website, careers page, social media pages and any employee reviews (if available) should give a better sense of the true 'combined package'.  Some roles may not score as highly in terms of salary but may offer a lot more overall.

You should also be careful not to assume that larger firms will necessarily offer higher pay. This is one of the common myths about the differences between small and large law firms

More money is not the secret to a happier career.

Remuneration is only one part of what any job has to offer.

It is rare for a person to change jobs because they are not being paid enough. In fact research has shown that once your wage reaches a relatively low but comfortable level (around $75,000 in the US), pay rises above this point will no longer have an impact on your level of happiness. People are more likely to leave their job because they feel they are not getting enough mentoring, because they are required to work unreasonable hours, because they do not feel appreciated, and so on. An increase in salary will undoubtedly be attractive and may make you happier for a short period, however it's invariably the other, non-financial factors that are likely to make a more meaningful difference to your level of happiness in your current role.

Obviously financial considerations are important. However if your aim is to do something to increase your overall sense of satisfaction or happiness in your job, a lawyer salary survey is probably not the best place to start. 

If you are looking for a change and need somewhere to start, consider looking at our list of legal recruiters in Sydney.

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About the Author

Morgan McIntosh | Senior Associate

Morgan is a commercial lawyer whose practice is mainly focused on transactional matters in the construction space.

morgan.mcintosh@turtons.com | (02) 9229 2901

About Turtons

Turtons is a commercial law firm in Sydney with specialist expertise in privately owned construction and technology businesses.

Morgan McIntosh | Senior Associate


Morgan McIntosh | Senior Associate


Morgan is a commercial lawyer whose practice is mainly focused on transactional matters in the construction space.

morgan.mcintosh@turtons.com | (02) 9229 2901