Salary Trends for New Law Graduates - 1985-2013

NALP Bulletin, January 2015

NALP's bimodal salary curve has clearly illustrated the earnings gap between law graduates who take a job in a large law firm and graduates who take a job in just about any other sector or in small firms. (See www.nalp.org/class_of_2013_bimodal_salary_curve.) As has also been documented, salaries have not always had this distribution (see, for example, www.nalp.org/august2012research), nor was the gap between salaries in private practice as a whole and salaries in other sectors as large.

As shown in Table 1 and Figure 1, median salaries have approximately doubled since 1985 across all sectors except private practice, where the overall median has tripled. At the same time, however, prices, as measured by the CPI-U, have also gone up, more than doubling over the same time period. The net result is that salaries for full-time jobs in every sector but private practice have essentially remained flat for almost 30 years when inflation is factored in (see Table 2 and Figure 2). Salary medians nudged up somewhat from about 2000 to 2007, only to fall back again starting in 2008 or 2009, depending on sector. Only private practice has seen real growth of almost 40% since the mid-1980s. At the height of large firm hiring in 2008 and 2009, real growth was about double.

So, not only do salaries fall into two quite distinct segments or humps, it is also evident that, on average, many salaries in the left-hand hump offer no more purchasing power than they did in 1985.


Figure 1. Trends in Median Reported Salaries for Full-Time Jobs Obtained by Law School Graduates by Employer Type — 1985-2013 —
Salaries in Current Dollars


 

Table 1. Trends in Median Reported Salaries for Full-Time Jobs Obtained by Law School Graduates — By Employer Type — Classes of 1985-2013
(Salaries in Thousands of Current Dollars)

  All Full-time Salaries EMPLOYER TYPE
Academic Business Judicial Clerkships Government Private Practice Public Interest
1985 $27.4 $25.0 $29.6 $23.6 $24.2 $31.7 $18.8
1986 29.7 25.7 32.4 25.7 24.8 34.5 21.1
1987 35.9 26.8 35.8 25.3 26.1 39.3 23.1
1988 35.0 35.8 33.6 25.1 26.9 45.0 23.9
1989 37.5 34.5 37.5 28.9 32.0 42.0 32.0
1990 40.0 35.0 42.0 29.9 30.0 50.0 25.9
1991 40.0 38.0 43.0 31.0 30.0 50.0 25.5
1992 36.0 35.0 40.0 32.0 31.5 47.5 26.0
1993 36.0 35.0 40.0 33.0 31.6 48.0 27.0
1994 37.0 34.5 42.0 33.0 32.5 50.0 28.2
1995 40.0 35.0 43.0 34.0 33.0 50.0 30.0
1996 40.0 35.0 45.0 35.0 34.5 50.0 30.0
1997 41.0 36.0 46.0 36.0 35.0 55.0 30.0
1998 45.0 38.0 50.0 37.5 36.0 60.0 31.0
1999 50.0 39.8 54.0 38.0 38.0 70.0 32.0
2000 51.9 40.0 60.0 40.0 40.0 80.0 34.0
2001 55.0 40.0 60.0 40.3 41.0 90.0 35.0
2002 60.0 40.0 60.0 42.0 42.0 90.0 36.0
2003 55.0 40.0 60.0 42.0 43.0 80.0 37.5
2004 55.0 40.0 60.0 43.0 45.0 80.0 38.0
2005 60.0 45.0 60.0 45.0 46.2 85.0 40.0
2006 62.0 45.0 65.0 46.5 48.0 95.0 40.0
2007 65.7 45.0 69.1 48.0 50.0 108.5 42.0
2008 72.0 48.0 70.0 50.0 52.5 125.0 43.8
2009 72.0 46.0 65.0 50.0 52.0 130.0 42.8
2010 63.0 47.0 65.0 51.9 52.0 104.0 42.9
2011 60.0 45.0 65.0 52.0 52.0 85.0 45.0
2012 61.2 50.0 65.0 52.6 52.0 90.0 44.6
2013 62.5 50.0 65.0 53.0 52.0 95.0 45.0

Source: Compiled from NALP graduate employment reports for the law school classes of 1985-2013.

 

Figure 2. Trends in Median Reported Salaries for Full-Time Jobs Obtained by Law School Graduates by Employer Type — 1985-2013 —
Salaries in Constant Dollars


 

Table 2. Trends in Median Reported Salaries for Full-Time Jobs Obtained by Law School Graduates — By Employer Type — Classes of 1985-2013
(Salaries in Thousands of Constant Dollars)

  All Full-time Salaries EMPLOYER TYPE
Academic Business Judicial Clerkships Government Private Practice Public Interest
1985 $25.5 $23.2 $27.5 $21.9 $22.5 $29.5 $17.5
1986 27.1 23.4 29.6 23.4 22.6 31.5 19.3
1987 31.6 23.3 31.5 22.3 23.0 34.6 20.3
1988 29.6 30.3 28.4 21.2 22.7 38.0 20.2
1989 30.2 27.8 30.2 23.3 25.8 33.9 25.8
1990 30.6 26.8 32.1 22.9 23.0 38.3 19.8
1991 29.4 27.9 31.6 22.8 22.0 36.7 18.7
1992 25.7 24.9 28.5 22.8 22.5 33.9 18.5
1993 24.9 24.2 27.7 22.8 21.9 33.2 18.7
1994 25.0 23.3 28.3 22.3 21.9 33.7 19.0
1995 26.2 23.0 28.2 22.3 21.7 32.8 19.7
1996 25.5 22.3 28.7 22.3 22.0 31.9 19.1
1997 25.5 22.4 28.7 22.4 21.8 34.3 18.7
1998 27.6 23.3 30.7 23.1 22.1 36.8 19.0
1999 30.0 23.9 32.4 22.8 22.8 42.0 19.2
2000 30.1 23.2 34.8 23.2 23.2 46.5 19.7
2001 31.1 22.6 33.9 22.8 23.2 50.8 19.7
2002 33.4 22.2 33.4 23.3 23.3 50.0 20.0
2003 29.9 21.7 32.6 22.8 23.4 43.5 20.4
2004 29.1 21.2 31.8 22.8 23.8 42.4 20.1
2005 30.7 23.0 30.7 23.0 23.7 43.5 20.5
2006 30.8 22.3 32.2 23.1 23.8 47.1 19.8
2007 31.7 21.7 33.3 23.2 24.1 52.3 20.3
2008 33.5 22.3 32.6 23.3 24.4 58.1 20.4
2009 33.6 21.4 30.3 23.3 24.2 60.6 20.0
2010 28.9 21.5 29.8 23.8 23.8 47.7 19.7
2011 26.7 20.0 28.9 23.1 23.1 37.8 20.0
2012 26.7 21.8 28.3 22.9 22.6 39.2 19.4
2013 26.8 21.5 27.9 22.8 22.3 40.8 19.3

Salaries expressed in constant dollars have been adjusted for inflation using the annual average CPI-U as compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for each of these years. The BLS currently uses 1982-1984 as the base (100) for its CPI figures.

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