Management consulting and a career in law are both high-profile and potentially high-income careers. Both carry a healthy dose of prestige, and both have high barriers to entry, including post-college education and fierce competition. The educational and licensure requirements for law are much more rigid: four years of college and three years of law school, followed by passing the bar for the state in which one wishes to practice. Though management consulting has no hard and fast rules about education, most of the big firms that pay top salaries and provide a foot in the door to the business prefer candidates with MBAs from reputable programs or a resume to match.
For either career path, a candidate needs good problem-solving abilities. Attorneys are frequently required to extract tiny needles from massive proverbial haystacks of legalese to win favorable outcomes for their clients. A management consultant must be able to analyze a company's operations and determine where inefficiencies exist and where processes can be streamlined or eliminated.
While having good people skills confers a significant advantage in either career, it is an absolute must for management consulting. Myriad behind-the-scenes positions exist for lawyers who excel in logic and problem solving but who are introverts or otherwise lack negotiation skills. Management consultants, by contrast, have to solve problems and present their findings persuasively to the client. It is not a career for the timid or for misanthropes.
While management consulting and law produce plenty of millionaires, both careers also have workers who struggle. The salary range is wide for both fields. An attorney's first-year salary out of law school largely depends on the size of the firm. A starting salary of $160,000 to $190,000 is common at large firms in huge metropolitan areas, such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, though some firms scaled that number down in response to the Great Recession of 2007-2009. The median first-year salary that takes into account firms of all sizes in cities of all sizes is $125,000.
The first-year salary at most large consulting firms depends on whether the employee enters with a bachelor's degree or an MBA. For undergraduates, the big firms pay between $65,000 and $100,000 the first year. For MBAs, the pay can be as high as $200,000.
Sixty-hour weeks are the norm for first- and second-year associates at big New York law firms, while many young attorneys report pulling as many as 80 to 90 hours per week in the office. Work-life balance is a little better on the West Coast and in the Midwest, but very few rookie lawyers at big firms – making over $100,000+ per year right out of law school – work a typical nine-to-five.
When compared to lawyers, management consultants typically work fewer hours to earn their big salaries, frequent travel eats away at their work-life balance. While some are lucky enough to land gigs in which they service local clients exclusively, or at least travel infrequently, most management consultants are road warriors, often flying out on Sunday night to be at work in a city across the country on Monday morning, not to return until Friday afternoon. Firms expect new associates to be flexible with travel, and when local clients become available, senior employees receive first pick.
That said, many recent college and MBA grads who are unencumbered by kids or family obligations consider such work travel to be a bonus, not an imposition. In addition to a generous salary, big consulting firms pay for their employees' airfare, hotel accommodations and food while the employees are on the road.
The Bottom Line
Whether a person chooses management consulting or law, they can expect to work a lot of hours for the first few years. If you don't mind the travel and lower starting salary, management consulting might be the right choice. Those individuals who would rather stay in one city and work more hours but have generally higher starting pay-rates would do better to consider a career in law. Both career paths offer excellent potential for substantial earnings and future ownership opportunities.