$10K Associate Position: Exploitation or Opportunity?

The small Boston law firm Gilbert & O’Bryan that is seeking to hire an associate for a first-year salary of $10,000 is being mostly mocked and ridiculed.

But not by everyone.

As of this writing, at least 50 people have applied for the job.

Is this just another sign of how bad the law job market is, and how greedy law firms are trying to take advantage? Or might this be a good opportunity for a new lawyer in the right circumstances?

Larry O’Bryan, one of two partners at the firm, told the ABA Journal that the low first-year salary allows it to hire and train new lawyers, and that the firm is proud of them when they move on to other jobs after they gain valuable experience. He also noted that the firm has hired more than twenty associates in this fashion. While many new lawyers can’t afford to take so low a salary, those with working spouses can make it work. Basically, O’Bryan seems to suggest that it can afford to pay only this low salary to a new associate who needs extensive training.

The ABA Journal article about this job has (as of this writing) generated upwards of 200 comments, and not all of them expressed a negative view of the firm.

A frequent commenter at the website, who posts as “B. McLeod” started an entertaining (and, at times, informative) debate when he wrote:

Last few years, I have seen some young lawyers having to take unpaid volunteer work to get the experience they need to move on. This position is $10,000 better than that, plus the partners are providing some valuable mentoring. They are also doing significantly more than the firms that aren’t hiring any young lawyers at any salary, so I see no reason to pick on them for making this opportunity available.

As easy as it is to mock any legitimate law firm that would pay a new lawyer significantly less than the minimum wage, one has to wonder if, assuming everything O’Bryan is saying is true, this job might not be better than working a completely non-law job.

After all, it’s certainly true that it’s new lawyers’ inexperience and lack of useful skills that makes it difficult for many firms to hire them. This firm is at least hiring someone, albeit at an absurdly low pay rate. But it pays more than an unpaid internship.

And the fact that 50 people (who I suppose we can assume figure they can survive for a year while grossing $10K) have applied suggests that any opportunity to learn how to practice law is better than no opportunity at all.

What do you think?

(photo: Sad boy image from Shutterstock)

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  • I understand the points pro and con. And, if there are people applying and willing to take the position, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong nor does it seem to be exploitation.
    But, how does that firm avoid federal minimum wage law? Minimum wage would be $15,600/yr.
    I’m assuming they must be calling it a “part-time” position? Of course, we all know the employee would be putting in much more than part-time hours, right?

    • e is

      it exempts professions like attorney positions etc

  • Andy Mergendahl

    Good question, and one that came up in the comments to the ABA Journal article. I don’t know the correct answer.

  • William Chuang

    It’s not exploitation; it’s an apprenticeship. If the lawyers are actually mentoring these new lawyers, providing them with substantive work, and giving them a shot at getting a higher-paying job, then it’s completely legit, in my mind. And let’s face it: the job market for new lawyers is tough, especially for those from lower-ranked schools.* If the alternative between this $10,000 apprenticeship is to stuff envelopes looking for a job, or doing doc review, which pays well but is a dead end career-wise, then I definitely can see this working out for everyone involved. Also, there’s no employment contract here so the apprentice can always leave for greener pastures if they exist.

    *I’m not disparaging the graduates of lower-ranked schools, but in this market, it’s a beauty contest and employers have the luxury of being super-picky about such things, and they are enjoying that luxury.

  • Missy

    The problem with this, along with the many unpaid volunteer or internship jobs that people feel forced to take to gain experience, is that the only people who can do this are those who have the resources of family or a spouse to help support them. I don’t know what is supposed to happen to all of the people who may be smart but who weren’t born into wealthy families or who have children of their own to support. This is a great opportunity for someone who has financial support, but does that mean that people who don’t come from that background should be told to just stay away from law schools? It’s a pretty sad day when we admit that this isn’t a career looking for the best and brightest, but for those who are able to live off Mom and Dad’s credit cards and networking associates.

  • MIssy, I agree it’s a sad day. It’s a sad era. It strikes me as ironic that we, the taxpayers, will loan anyone who can get into law school $150,000+ to get the degree, but mom and dad are the only lenders who will support you while you develop the skills that will give you a real shot at making a living as a lawyer.

  • Katrina

    The problem with this approach is that lawyers are not less educated than the lawyers before them. You can bet that the attorneys hiring these attorneys never took 10k a year jobs after law school, just because they required significant training. No one expected that of them. Law school graduates are probably more prepared now than they were in the past. It is the law schools that have caused this issue by flooding the market with too many young lawyers, the bad economy, and greedy partners that don’t remember someone gave them a chance. I guarantee the partner at my first job could have paid me more than he did, and while what I made was not a lot 10,000 is a slap in the face to someone who has worked so hard.

  • The problem with both this position and the unpaid post-graduation internships is the same – it is driving down the market value of all attorney jobs. Anyone who takes this job or an unpaid job is just making the value of their degree and the profession less just as tuition rates are getting higher and jobs are getting more competitive as new lawyers flood the market each year. The only way to fight this, which, of course, will never happen, is for no one to take a job that isn’t worth the money it pays. Until that happens, it will just be a race to the bottom for who will work the cheapest (and that is not specific to lawyers).

  • Kafka, Esq.

    Well, like the unpaid internships, it is illegal, so I wouldn’t call it an opportunity, exactly.