With Biglaw offices reopening and office attendance soon to be expected at most firms (at least for part of the week), many associates are contemplating their post-pandemic Biglaw futures and considering their options. It still remains to be seen whether the exodus from large, high-cost cities during the pandemic will end up being a momentary blip or a permanent shift. But even assuming the migration to lower-cost locales partially reverses, the relative advantages of living in different parts of the United States remain front-of-mind for many associates.
A move from a high-cost city to a lower-cost one is a particularly good deal if you can continue to earn the same compensation. But it may be a tougher call if it comes with a salary cut. That’s a trade-off that employees of some major tech companies are currently weighing. Facebook and Google have both taken a relatively flexible approach to the post-pandemic workplace, allowing employees to request office transfers or permanent remote arrangements. But there’s a catch: pay localization. Facebook and Google have thus far declined to explain publicly how they will recalculate the salaries of employees who move. But judging from the approach of companies like Stripe, base salary cuts of around 10% are likely on the table.
Tech workers may not like it, but the reality is that paying lower salaries in lower-cost cities has historically been the norm for many industries. That’s also true of the legal industry, to a point. But Biglaw is an anomaly. Top firms largely ignore cost of living and instead pay associates the “New York” rate in several “major” markets, including the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Boston, and DC. On a cost of living basis, paying New York salaries in San Francisco is justified. In Houston? Not so much.
It’s good to be a Houston Biglaw associate
A November 2019 NALP analysis of median private practice first-year associate salaries relative to cost of living found stark differences in associate buying power. NALP calculated that Houston first-year associates enjoyed 2.4 times the buying power of their New York counterparts. Chicago associates were at 1.9 times the New York baseline. Meanwhile, first-year associates in cities like Miami, Portland, and San Diego were found to have less buying power than their New York peers.
The NALP survey looked at private practice salaries overall, rather than Biglaw salaries exclusively. If the analysis had been limited to Biglaw offices, the results would surely have been somewhat different. But the broader point is unassailable: associate salaries are poorly correlated with cost of living.
Billing rates are a key driver
If cost of living isn’t driving associate salaries, what is? The answer is billing rates. Houston and Chicago may not be high-cost cities, but they have plenty of clients willing to pay firms top-dollar rates. Viewed from that lens, paying top salaries in these markets seems fair: associates are being compensated for the value they create. Over time, as clients become more accustomed to the notion of top legal talent being based in regional cities, we may see more lawyers being paid New York rates in cities across the country. Biglaw firms in markets like Kansas City and St. Louis, for example, have raised their first year associate salaries up to 30% this year, significantly narrowing the salary gap. That’s not to say that median associate salaries in secondary cities will rival the New York level. But for lawyers with top-flight credentials, geographic arbitrage may become increasingly possible and alluring.
As we discussed last week, however, we aren’t quite there yet. The post-pandemic market is still sorting itself out, and for most Biglaw associates, the work-from-anywhere dream is not yet a reality. Still, that doesn’t mean you don’t have options. If you are a New York or Bay Area associate tired of putting up with relatively low buying power, you may wish to consider a lateral move to Texas. Needless to say, plenty of professionals have had the same idea recently, so housing isn’t as cheap as it used to be. But at least you’ll pay no state income tax!