Starting salary of a legal aid attorney is around $40,000-$52,000. Salaries vary based on location and agency, but that is the ballpark. According to the legal career association NALP, the median salary in 2014 was $44,600. My own salary fits within the range.
Living in the Bay Area on that salary requires careful planning and diligence, but it’s definitely doable. I don’t eat out much, and try to prepare my own food (hence the Mason jar salads). I don’t go to shows or concerts. I don’t travel. I exercise at home, so I don’t have to pay for a gym membership. I make sure to put some money aside for my Roth IRA and for my savings.
I’m thankful for what I have, because every day I meet people who have to survive on much less. People who are receiving General Assistance from Alameda County get $336 a month, along with $194 in food stamps. That’s $530 a month, or $6,360 a year. That’s not a lot, especially for folks who are disabled and unable to work. SSI is $895 a month, or $10,740 a year. While not great, it’s definitely better. This is why we work so hard to get people on SSI.
Some folks may be surprised by my salary. “Don’t lawyers make a lot of money?”, they may wonder. But it depends on the kind of lawyer you are. Private practice lawyers, especially those at big firms (with clients like Google, Exxon, or Walmart), can make significantly more. In fact, starting salary at these big firms is around $160,000, not including bonuses. So a 25-year-old straight out of law school can make more as a BigLaw attorney, working to support big companies, than a legal aid attorney with 10 years of experience, working to advocate for poor people. That’s just how things are.
But BigLaw is not the life for me. Many BigLaw attorneys are unhappy. They’re unhappy with the stress. They’re unhappy with the 80-hour work weeks. They’re unhappy with the constantly buzzing phones. I know people have their reasons for pursuing BigLaw, and I wish my BigLaw colleagues success and happiness in their careers. But I’ll take my lower salary, my 35-hour work week, and my personal satisfaction with my work, and be content with that.
My parents joked with me that it’s a good thing that I’m saving money now, because once I have a girlfriend, my money will disappear. I certainly hope that’s not true. I mean, I would like to be the kind of guy who can afford to take his girlfriend out to fancy dinners or excursions. But the truth is, at least for a while, I won’t be able to afford that. So some women who are accustomed to a certain standard of living won’t give me the time of day. But I bet that whoever ends up choosing to be with me will appreciate what I do have to give.