You may have heard that Atlanta is a fantastic place to live. There’s no shortage of people deciding to move here to enjoy our reasonable cost of living, cultural diversity, and world-class entertainment, not to mention the second highest rate of job growth among large American metros. With Georgia regularly placing first in rankings of the best states for doing business, and Atlanta recognized as one of the five best metros nationally for business climate, many employers are actively expanding here, including Microsoft, Amazon, and Rivian. That adds to what has long been a strong local employer base: major companies headquartered in Atlanta include Home Depot, UPS, Coca-Cola, and Delta Air Lines.
But for Big Law attorneys considering a move to Atlanta, there was always one significant drawback. Despite the A-list corporate client base, Atlanta associate salaries lagged compensation in New York and other leading legal markets. Before Spring 2021, the top Atlanta salary scale started at $165k for first-year associates. Firms tended to follow a loose compensation scale for lateral associate hires, but annual salary increases for existing associates were not lockstep at most firms, causing many associates to fall increasingly behind their top-market peers as their careers progressed.
Closing the salary gap
Happily, over the past 18 months, the situation has improved greatly. First-year starting salaries have increased in Atlanta by as much as 30%. At least 14 firms now pay first-year associates $215k and another five start first-year associates at over $200k. Perhaps more significantly, of the 56 Big Law firms with an Atlanta office, at least 11 have matched the lockstep New York/Cravath compensation scale for all associates through their eighth year. Firms now paying Atlanta associates top dollar include both Atlanta-based firms, such as King & Spalding, Alston & Bird, and Troutman Pepper, and national firms with a substantial Atlanta presence, such as Holland & Knight and DLA Piper. Another 12 firms have adopted a modified version of the Cravath scale. Atlanta-based firms Morris, Manning & Martin and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton are in this group, along with the Atlanta offices of national firms such as Nelson Mullins, Baker Hostetler, Greenberg Traurig, and Seyfarth Shaw.
The compensation increases have removed the main reason to hesitate in accepting an Atlanta Big Law offer. Even two years ago, the opportunity to relocate to a slightly smaller market that offers both sophisticated work and substantially more favorable cost of living was well worth considering. Now that a Big Law attorney from a top market can move here without taking a significant pay cut, it’s virtually a no-brainer.
Broad demand across practice areas
For lawyers intrigued about the opportunities here, we have good news: Atlanta lateral hiring is booming. In the first half of 2022, there were 285 lateral hires in Atlanta: 174 associates, 58 partners, and 53 counsel. That was a substantial increase over the 199 lateral hires in the first half of 2021 (117 associates, 50 partners, 32 counsel). Incidentally, it’s also more than the 229 total lateral moves in full-year 2020.
Opportunities are plentiful in both litigation and corporate. Litigation leads the pack, comprising 37% of Atlanta lateral moves year-to-date in 2022. Corporate lateral moves have accounted for 18% of the year-to-date total. Real Estate (15%), L&E (9%), and IP (7%) are also seeing relatively strong demand. These proportions were virtually identical in full-year 2021 for Corporate, Real Estate, and IP. Litigation was a bit less dominant in 2021 (32% of lateral moves), whereas L&E accounted for a somewhat greater proportion in 2021 (13%).
Atlanta is poised to compete for top talent
For those who haven’t spent much time here, it may be difficult to appreciate just how far a New York/Cravath salary and bonus will take you in Atlanta. The Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and Nerdwallet calculate our cost of living to be 140% less than New York City, 94% less than San Francisco, 58% less than DC, 45% less than Boston, and 17% less than Chicago. In other words, $215k in Atlanta is equivalent to $527k in New York City, $414k in San Francisco, $340k in DC, $311k in Boston, and $253k in Chicago. We at Lateral Link recently helped a 4th-year associate move from New York to Atlanta: she traded a 1-bedroom apartment for a five-bedroom house in one of Atlanta’s premiere neighborhoods.
But the upsides of living in Atlanta extend well beyond cost of living. This region is home to a remarkable diversity of people, with no majority racial group and one of the largest LGBT populations nationally. Atlanta blends a cosmopolitan sensibility with traditional southern hospitality. And the mild winters will be appreciated by those migrating from northern climates.
Whatever your preferred form of entertainment, you’ll find it here. Atlanta has a legendary music scene, and film production has grown so rapidly in recent years that the city is now widely regarded as the Hollywood of the South. We have a pro sports team in every league and regularly host major college sports championships and tournaments. And when you’re ready to get out of town for a quick weekend trip, there’s a great chance you’ll find a direct routing from Atlanta: more than 80% of the U.S. population is within a two-hour flight.
Now that our major firms have closed the salary gap, Atlanta is poised for outsized success in the competition for top legal talent. If you think you might be tempted to move here, please contact us to learn more.