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Best Cities for Money (And Maybe Happiness)

Vivia Chen

November 21, 2016

E39007da2a72edf3977b1cc6025c1ccaThe cliche is that money can't buy you love. Maybe that's true, but money ain't nothing either. I mean, it will buy you something

In the world of Big Law, it will give you at least a modicum of satisfaction. One reason that Big Law partners seem pretty happy, according to the Major Lindsey & Africa survey on partner compensation, is that last year was a jolly good year for making dough. As MLA notes, "unlike 2014, which showed wide positive and negative swings in partner compensation among cities, 2016 saw increases in every city with the exception of Philadelphia." (Poor Philly.)

That said, cities where partners make big bundles of money don't necessarily rank the highest on the satisfaction scale. But hold that thought. First, here are the top 10 cities based on average total partner compensation for 2016:

Silicon Valley     $1,433,000

New York             1,168,000

Los Angeles         1,136,000

Houston               1,062,000

San Francisco         997,000

Washington, DC      981,000

Boston                      862,000

Atlanta                      850,000

Miami                        847,000

Chicago                    780,000

And now for the cities with the highest satisfaction scores—where 30 percent or more partners consider themselves "very satisfied":

Seattle     38 percent

         Dallas / San Francisco     36 percent

Boston     35 percent

New York / DC / L.A. / Silicon Valley    30 percent

What's interesting is that two of the cities—Seattle and Dallas—in the "very satisfied" group aren't paying the fattest compensations in the nation. Though Dallas partners took home a respectable average of $727,000 for 2016, Seattle partners made a measly $564,000—and yet Seattle has the highest percentage of happy partners. In fact, among the 13 major legal markets in the MLA survey, Seattle ranked dead last for partner compensation.

Which raises this question: Why are partners in Seattle so deliriously happy when they're making squat? Are they not materialistic? Super laid back? Overdosing on coffee?

"Generally lawyers who practice in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest are not here to make every last dollar and seem to have more balance in their lives," explains Seattle-based MLA managing director Rehman Bashey. "Average compensation is lower, no question, but so are average billable hours and with that comes the opportunity to pursue interests outside of the practice of law."       

I get the work/life balance thing, but Seattle partners still worked relatively hard. According to the MLA survey, they billed on average 1,622 hours for 2016—more than their counterparts in Dallas, Houston and Miami who made quite a bit more. So are Seattle firms the bargain basement of Big Law?

Maybe so.

"Our rates are significantly lower than the larger markets," says Bashey. "It all comes down to lower revenue numbers in this market, with rates being the largest driver and hours secondary." The high stakes stuff usually go to big Wall Street firms. "Local firms will perform less significant acquisitions and IPOs, but when it’s a bet the company level litigation or the company is being acquired, it’s usually a bigger firm." 

Considering that there's a vibrant tech industry right in its own backyard, it seems Seattle ought to give those out-of-town firms a run for their money.

High time for a little rate hike?

vchen@alm.com

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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