According to the Law Society of New South Wales, more than 70 percent of solicitors in the state work for private law firms, making this the largest legal sector.
Lawyers in private practice tend to focus on three types of work: transactional, advisory and litigious. Transactional work is the preparation and negotiation of deals, such as the purchase and sale of real estate, licence agreements, mergers and leasing. Advisory work involves researching and drafting legal advice, for example, on environmental, financial or corporate regulation. Litigation work involves preparing cases for trial, appeal, arbitration or mediation – for example, if someone is injured in a car accident and the parties failed to negotiate a settlement.
There are many specialities within private practice, so the term applies more to a particular operating model than to a specific legal niche.
Generally speaking, private practices offer higher remuneration than legal roles in other sectors, making it a very competitive field for graduates to enter without the advantage of impeccable credentials (and an appropriate graduate entry scheme) or useful connections. Employers in private practice will look particularly kindly upon relevant experience, such as evidence that you have completed a clerkship or summer internship, or worked as a tipstaff.
Within private practices, junior solicitors are usually outranked by associates, senior associates, partners (salaried or equity), and practice managers. It’s not unusual for solicitors to wait five to ten years (if not longer) to be offered a partnership, which brings with it substantial financial rewards, as well as a responsibility to develop
Sole practitioners will usually develop their expertise across a range of practice areas. By contrast, lawyers employed in large firms tend to focus on specific practice areas, such as taxation law, criminal law, family law, or intellectual property law.
The focus of sole practitioners and law firm employees is the billable hour. Firms often require their employees to meet billable hours targets, which means tracking every minute that you spend on work for a client and ensuring it’s accurately reflected in invoices. Billable hour targets range from five to eight billable hours per day, and do not include administrative work, learning sessions or breaks.
Though the nature of your work will vary depending on your practice area, most lawyers in private firms will have to contend with long hours, or, at the very least, the occasional late night. For junior employees trying to make a good impression or meet their billable hour targets weeks of 50 to 80 hours are not uncommon. Having said that, each firm is unique and will have its own expectations of when lawyers are available.
The main drawback of working in a top-tier private firm is that you’ll be expected to earn your salary through the achievement of large billable hours targets, often requiring you to work long days, or even give up part of your weekend. While time management, experience, and a supportive team can make this easier, it remains true that many smart graduates burn out or find themselves trapped in what Lisa Pryor calls ‘The Pinstripe Prison’: a world of sleepless affluence that’s extremely hard to leave.
If you can navigate around (or overcome) these obstacles, then there’s good news: you’ll likely be well paid and, if you join the right firm, can eventually focus on issues that you feel strongly about. There is also a strong element of prestige, with many successful private practice lawyers rightly accorded a degree of respect and admiration.
The career progression for a private practice lawyer will usually go from summer clerk (while in your penultimate year of law school), to graduate lawyer, to associate, to senior associate, to partner.
The highest level a lawyer can achieve in private practice is a senior equity partner. A partner (also known as “principal”) is a senior lawyer who receives a set portion of the firm’s gross profit as a large portion of their salary. This means that a partner also assumes the firm’s risk – in a challenging legal market, they can potentially take home less income. Partners may also choose to have the option to take a salary in lieu of equity. More than half the partners in Australian law firms are on a salary.
However, before achieving partnership, lawyers in private firms can expect to spend up to eleven years working as a solicitor, associate and senior associate – that is, in salaried positions that requires them to meet set billable hours targets. Some lawyers purposely choose not to progress beyond the associate or senior associate level, and are often given titles like “consultant”.
Salaries vary widely depending on how long you’ve worked at the firm, what your role is, and whether you work in a small, medium-sized, large or boutique firm. Generally speaking, graduates will earn around $72,000 p.a when they start their careers. After four to five years, the average salary rises to around $100,000 p.a. Partners who have an equity share in the firm that employs them can earn more than $350,000 a year. The salary of a senior partner at a top tier firm can reach as high as $2 million.