What Is Meant By Big Law? A Guide For 2023


You’ve probably heard the term “Big Law” thrown around in legal circles or maybe even in your favorite legal drama. But what exactly does it mean? In this guide, we’re going to break it down for you.

What Is Big Law? 

“Big Law”– it sounds like something out of a legal drama, doesn’t it? But what does it actually mean, and why do people in the legal world talk about it so much? Let’s break it down in a way that’s engaging and easy to understand.

The Big Law Basics

Big Law is the colloquial term for large and prestigious law firms. These are the legal giants that boast hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of attorneys on their teams. But it’s not just about size – it’s about the kind of work they handle and the clients they serve.

Size and Scale

When we say big, we mean big. These firms are massive, with offices all over the country (and sometimes around the globe). They’re like the Walmart of the legal world, offering a little bit of everything. Need help with mergers and acquisitions, intellectual property disputes, or high-stakes litigation? Big Law has you covered.

High-Profile Clients

Big Law firms are like the lawyers for the stars (not Hollywood stars, but you get the idea). They represent the crème de la crème of clients: Fortune 500 companies, governments, famous personalities, and anyone else with a legal matter that could make or break fortunes.

Prestige Galore

Ever heard of law firm rankings in legal publications? Big Law firms are the ones that top those lists. Think of it as being the valedictorian of the legal class. If you make a partner at one of these firms, you’ve pretty much reached the pinnacle of the legal profession.


Let’s talk about the moolah. Big Law is known for offering some of the fattest paychecks in the legal industry. But, and it’s big, but that comes with a price – long hours, high stress, and huge expectations.

It’s Not for Everyone

While Big Law might sound glamorous, it’s not a good fit for everyone. The demanding workload, high-pressure environment, and lack of work-life balance can be deal-breakers for some. If you’re hoping for a 9-to-5 job with predictable hours, you might want to explore other legal career options.

The Big Law Lifestyle

Working at a Big Law firm is like being at the center of the legal universe. You’ll be tackling high-profile cases and rubbing shoulders with legal luminaries. However, the demanding nature of the work can take a toll on your personal life and well-being.

What Is A Big Law Salary?

When people talk about Big Law and its undeniable allure, one subject inevitably takes center stage: the jaw-dropping, wallet-enriching, make-you-do-a-happy-dance salaries. So, let’s spill the beans and delve into the world of Big Law salaries.

First things first, Big Law salaries are like winning the lottery without buying a ticket. They’re often described as some of the most generous in the legal universe. Why? These firms represent the crème de la crème of clients, handling high-stakes cases and complex legal matters that can make or break empires.

It’s a Numbers Game

How much are we talking about, you ask? Well, picture a salary that starts at six figures, and often not the low ones. It’s not uncommon for first-year associates at Big Law firms to earn in the ballpark of $190,000 to $205,000 per year. Yes, you read that right – first-year associates.

The Ladder to Success

The legal ladder in Big Law comes with rapid rungs. As you climb, your salary typically soars. By your third year, you might be clearing the $220,000 mark, and for those who make partners (a big deal in Big Law), the sky’s the limit. Some partners can earn in the millions, especially if they bring in major clients.

Bonuses Galore

But wait, there’s more! Big Law firms are famous for hefty year-end bonuses that can easily reach tens of thousands of dollars. These bonuses often depend on your billable hours, how well you’ve contributed to the firm’s success, and a sprinkle of magic, or so it seems.

Golden Handcuffs

Before you start daydreaming about your new life as a Big Law attorney swimming in a pool of cash, there’s a catch. The pay is undoubtedly fantastic, but it comes with strings attached. The workload can be incredibly demanding, often requiring long hours, high stress, and a relentless pace.

Work-Life Balance – What’s That?

The fabled work-life balance, where you have time for hobbies, family, and relaxation? In Big Law, it’s often more theory than reality. Those big paychecks can come at the cost of your personal life. Late nights, tight deadlines, and always being on call are part of the package.

Famous Big Laws In The US 

When it comes to the legal world, some law firms stand out like dazzling stars in the night sky. These are the Big Law firms that have made their mark and earned their stripes with a history of landmark cases, a roster of elite clients, and a reputation that precedes them. So, let’s take a closer look at these legal luminaries in the United States.

These are a few of the most prestigious law firms having the opportunity to call themselves big law.

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom: 

This New York-based behemoth is often regarded as one of the most prestigious law firms in the world. With a client list that reads like a who’s who of the corporate world, Skadden has been at the forefront of high-stakes mergers and acquisitions and complex litigation.

Cravath, Swaine & Moore: 

Another heavyweight from the Big Apple, Cravath, is known for its long-standing tradition of excellence. It’s often the go-to firm for big corporations seeking top-tier legal services in areas like corporate law, mergers, and securities litigation.

Latham & Watkins: 

With a global presence and an expansive team of attorneys, Latham & Watkins is known for its expertise in various legal areas, including corporate, litigation, and intellectual property. It’s a legal powerhouse with a reach that spans the globe.

Jones Day: 

Headquartered in Cleveland but with offices around the world, Jones Day is famous for its commitment to providing outstanding client service. The firm handles everything from antitrust cases to corporate deals.

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher: 

This firm boasts a reputation for tackling high-profile cases and is particularly well-regarded for its appellate and litigation practices. It’s a go-to choice for clients facing significant legal challenges.

Big Law: The Icons of Excellence

Some of the most esteemed legal firms are able to refer to themselves as “big law”.

Sullivan & Cromwell: 

With a history dating back to the late 1800s, this firm is synonymous with Wall Street. It specializes in financial and business law, often representing major corporations and financial institutions.


A top choice for technology and life sciences companies, WilmerHale has earned a reputation for its intellectual property, securities, and litigation work. The firm has a strong presence in the startup and tech communities.

Kirkland & Ellis: 

Known for its work in private equity, restructuring, and complex litigation, Kirkland & Ellis has become a legal giant with a substantial global footprint.

Debevoise & Plimpton: 

This firm, headquartered in New York, is celebrated for its work in private equity, asset management, and international disputes. It’s a go-to choice for many global financial institutions.

Sidley Austin: 

Founded in Chicago, Sidley Austin has grown into an international player known for its strengths in corporate law, litigation, and regulatory matters. The firm is often praised for its commitment to pro bono work.


So, in 2023, when you hear the term “Big Law” being thrown around, you can confidently join the conversation. You now know that it refers to those massive, prestigious law firms that handle some of the most significant legal cases in the world. Whether you’re aspiring to be a Big Law attorney or you’re just curious about the legal world, this guide has given you the inside scoop on what Big Law is all about.

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