Home > Law practice > The four-tier model of law firms


The legal profession is stratified into a caste system. Over the years, I have observed four tiers of law firms: (1) sole practitioners, (2) small law firms, (3) medium-sized law firms, and (4) large law firms. Each has its benefits and drawbacks, which I outline here.

Sole practitioners (untouchables)

One lawyer, often without an actual office. Income ranges from negative to low hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. This is the guy you see at court who embarrasses himself and needs to retire, or else he’s out chasing ambulances. Use of technology ranges from minimal to extensive, with many solos being tied to their cell phones and constantly making or receiving calls. Being "the law offices of John Doe" is not desirable, but I admire the people who make it work.

Small law firms (lowest caste)

Two to ten lawyers. Typical associate salary $85,000 per year, minimal to hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit per year. Partners and associates (if any) each have different roles.

Medium-sized law firms (middle caste)

Eleven to fifty lawyers. Typical associate salary $125,000 per year, perhaps millions of dollars in profits. Several partners and numerous associates actually doing the work.

Large law firms (upper caste)

Fifty-one or more lawyers (typical associate salary $250,000 per year, multiple tens of millions or more in profits). Enough people to have their own internal caste system (“name” partners, equity partners, non-equity partners, associates, “staff attorneys,” summer associates, etc.)

Castes within castes

There is stratification in each of these tiers as well. The amount of money you make and the type of firm you are in is not the sole factor in your position; other factors include country club membership, how nice your office space is, whether you have a family, whether you drive a nice car, whether people know who you are, the quality of your cases and clients, which firms are on your c.v., and so on. It's a sliding scale in each area; for example, the more people who know who you are, the less nice your office has to be. The less people who know you, the more important it is to be in a club. The better the firms you have worked for, the less people care about whether you have a family.

Last updated: July 6, 2018

© 2018 Andrew G. Watters