What is BigLaw, and why is it in danger?

Recession Image Gallery Most law students want a BigLaw job, but they're increasingly harder to get. See more recession pictures.
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BigLaw. One word. It's become a familiar term in headlines -- often unflattering ones. You'll find it on blogs about the legal profession. You'll see it in news coverage. Sometimes more formal news media, such as "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal," will be more traditional and use "Big Law" as two words.

One word or two, the meaning has become clear. BigLaw is the collective nickname for the world's biggest and most successful law firms. These are the firms with upwards of 1,000 partners. They usually have headquarters in big cities -- New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, Boston and the like. Many have a major presence in Washington, D.C. They're also likely to have offices in Europe, Asia and other continents.

BigLaw's fees are big, too. Some charge their clients upwards of $1,000 an hour -- even more for handling specialized problems [source: Koppel].

And a job in a BigLaw firm can mean big money for a lawyer. Partners at top BigLaw firms may pull down as much as $5 million a year. For partners who perform well -- by being in demand and bringing in lots of money for the firm -- there may be a bonus of $1 million or more on top of the regular compensation.

If that wasn't enough, the big bucks trickle down to the lowliest associates (junior employees who are trying to become partners). Newly hired associates at some BigLaw firms -- often the best and brightest from the top 10 U.S. law schools -- are paid as much as $160,000 or more fresh out of law school [source: Segal].

Not everyone who goes to law school hopes for a BigLaw job. Many aspire to jobs in government or public interest groups. Some want to practice in smaller firms and smaller cities. Some want to go into practice for themselves or follow other paths beyond the law.

But a significant number of aspiring lawyers vie for admission to top-tier, expensive law schools with lucrative BigLaw incomes in mind.

And quite a few of them are finding that BigLaw is in trouble, and that means they may be, too.

Keep reading to learn why BigLaw has run into trouble.