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March 1, 2011
Attorneys unsure of profession’s economic future

Bar economic survey finds ‘significant decreases’ in job-related satisfaction

By Mark D. Killian
Managing Editor

Half of Florida’s lawyers report a decrease in their profitability over the past two years, and 19 percent are considering transitioning to a different career.

Fifty-one percent of the lawyers responding to The Florida Bar’s 2010 Economics and Law Office Management Survey said their practice has experienced a decrease in business/profitability during the past two years, and 41 percent of respondents report the economic downturn kept their firms from increasing their lawyers’ salaries.

The survey also found that around one-third of respondents (34 percent) have adjusted their billing rates because of the economic climate, 31 percent instituted a nonlawyer staff hiring freeze in 2010, and 25 percent stopped hiring new lawyers.

Twenty-two percent said their firms laid off some nonlawyer staffers.

When asked how they expect the economy to impact their practice in the next two years, 35 percent said it will remain the same; 26 percent of respondents anticipate a decrease in profitability, compared to 25 who expect improved profitability. Fourteen percent said the economy does not impact their practice.

When the lawyers were asked how satisfied they were with various aspects of their jobs, the survey found significant decreases between the 2008 and 2010 Bar surveys across the following categories: salary and fringe benefits (down from 75 percent satisfied in 2008 to 58 percent satisfied in 2010); job security (down from 84 percent satisfied in 2008 to 69 percent satisfied in 2010); attorney-to-support-staff ratio (down from 85 percent satisfied in 2008 to 77 percent satisfied in 2010), assistance from support staff (down from 85 percent satisfied in 2008 to 78 percent satisfied in 2010); and advancement opportunities (down from 81 percent satisfied in 2008 to 75 percent satisfied in 2010).

A high percentage of respondents also reported their firm or legal office has decreased various aspects of their budget over the past two years, including:

• 46 percent report decreases in salary and bonuses.

• 43 percent report decreases in travel budgets.

• 42 percent report decreases in new hires.

•38 percent report a decrease in paying for association memberships.

A significantly higher percentage of respondents in government practice cite a decrease in various budget categories, including 84 percent who report a decrease in travel budgets, 82 percent a decrease in the budget for new hires, and 76 percent who report a decrease in their governmental entities paying for association memberships.

When asked if they were considering transitioning to a different career or practice area or launching their own firm, 19 percent of respondents said they have either already transitioned or are considering a transition to a different career.

Another 14 percent said they are considering a transition to another field of practice, and 7 percent are contemplating launching their own firms.

Compensation
When asked in 2010 to list the average salary levels for attorneys in their firms, the compensation levels were down across the board from 2008, except in the case of recent law school graduates with no experience, whose pay held steady at an average of $50,000.

Survey respondents indicated the median salary — not including additional bonuses and compensation — for lawyers with fewer than three years of experience was $60,000, down $5,000 from two years ago; $70,000 for those in practice three to five years, also down $5,000 from 2008; and $85,000 for those with six to eight years of experience, five grand less then two years ago. Associates with more than eight years experience had a median salary of $100,000, $10,000 less than in 2008. Partner salaries also were down by $5,000 coming in at a median of $120,000.

The poll is taken every other year to keep lawyers informed on what their colleagues are doing in various areas of law office management. This year’s survey was completed by 508 lawyers from a sample of 2,595 in-state members. The 20 percent response rate gives a 4 percent margin of error, according to Mike Garcia, director of the Bar’s Research, Planning, and Evaluation Department.

Florida lawyers also reported spending an average of 50 hours each week in the office and billing for 27 of those hours.

The survey found 79 percent of Florida lawyers are in private practice, while 15 percent are government lawyers or judges. The remainder work as corporate counsel, for legal aid offices, or for other employers.

Sixty-five percent of respondents reported working in a firm or other legal setting with five or fewer lawyers, while 12 percent say they work with over 25 attorneys. Overall, 77 percent work in firms consisting of 10 or fewer lawyers, with 31 percent indicating they are sole practitioners.

Overall, 2009 medium net income reported in the survey ranged from zero to $7.5 million.

The 2009 median net incomes — including additional bonuses and compensation — broken down by legal classification are as follows:

• Partners, $180,000.

• Corporate counsels, $100,000.

• Sole practitioners, $80,000.

• Associates, $75,000.

• State government attorneys, $60,000.

By gender, the survey found the average male lawyer netted $120,000 in 2009, and female lawyers earned, on average, $70,000. The typical male lawyer, however, has been in practice for 19 years compared to 10 years for female lawyers, according to the survey. When comparing males and females with five or less years of experience, the survey showed males earning a medium salary of $75,000 compared with $50,000 for females. One reason for that disparity, Garcia said, is that newly admitted women lawyers are going into government practice at a greater percentage than their male classmates, and 9 percent of women lawyers with less than five years experience report working part time.

Respondents also reported 50 percent of their offices’ gross receipts in 2009 went to pay the lawyers in the office, while 20 percent went to support staff salaries; the remaining 30 percent paid for all the other firm expenses, percentages that all held steady over the past eight years.

Billable Hours
The poll showed that 68 percent of all respondents maintain billable hours, and, for those who keep them, 41 percent billed 1,600 hours or more in 2009. Of that group, 29 percent reported that they billed more than 1,800 hours in 2009.

Fourteen percent billed between 1,401 and 1,600 hours; 13 percent billed from 1,201 to 1,400 hours; 14 percent said they billed from 1,000 to 1,200; and 18 percent less than 1,000 hours.

The survey found 35 percent of respondents list their hourly rate at $250 or higher, while 16 percent report their hourly rate to be more than $300. Additionally, 40 percent report their hourly rate to be $200 or less.

Contingency Fees
Under half (41 percent) of all respondents report their firms handle contingency fee cases, down from 50 percent since 2002. Of those who accept cases on a contingency fee basis, the majority say those types of cases comprise 25 percent or less of the total cases they handle. Fifty-eight percent of those who handle contingency cases report receiving, on average, a 33 percent award for winning the case.

To access the full survey, visit www.floridabar.org.

[Revised: 09-02-2014]