NALP Bulletin, October 2007
Tables 1 and 2 provide a 12-year overview of law firm starting salaries, based on NALP's annual Associate Salary Survey. The figures in these tables thus reflect salary figures reported by law firms, rather than salaries reported by law school graduates obtaining jobs in private practice. (Salary figures reported by graduates were the topic of the September 2007 NALP Bulletin article "What Do New Lawyers Earn? A 15-year Retrospective as Reported by Law School Graduates.")
It is evident that, in the last 12 years, law firms of all sizes have increased their first-year salaries, with salaries nearly doubling in the largest firms. In the largest firms in the largest employment markets for new law graduates, salaries have doubled, or nearly doubled, after a five-year period of $125,000 salaries. (See Table 2.)
In contrast, salaries in other sectors have increased, but at nowhere near a rate to match salary increases in law firms. Although long-term trend information on salaries from public sector employers is not available, salaries reported by graduates taking jobs with these employers suggest increases of about one-third. (See Table 3.)
Another Perspective on Salaries . . .
Commentary written on behalf of the NALP Research Advisory Group by Andrew Chapin, Director of Public Interest Scholars & Counseling at Fordham Law. Statistics on debt were gathered with the assistance of Access Group.
It's common knowledge that public sector lawyers are grossly underpaid when their salaries are compared to first-year associates in private law firms of 251 or more lawyers. Unsurprisingly, other first-year attorney salaries also seem by comparison to constitute underpayment.
The figures in the tables on the opposite page reveal that first-year prosecutors are paid roughly 67% of the salary of lawyers at the smallest private law firms, while first-year legal services attorneys are paid roughly 56% of same. It is only when comparing the median 2006 income for US families ($48,201 according to the Census Bureau) that public sector attorney entry-level salaries begin to compare more favorably.
As a law school career counselor, my question goes to quality of life, which includes the "live-ability" of these public interest salaries when students have law school debt to pay and no Loan Repayment Assistance Program or other resource to help them afford their public interest career.
Economists recommend that debt repayment be no more than 15% of one's gross annual income. Therefore, at a first-year judicial clerk or prosecutor's salary of $46,500, an attorney has only $581 monthly available for debt repayment, and at a first-year legal services salary of $38,000, an attorney has only $475 available.
Doing the numbers, this means that judicial clerks and prosecutors can reasonably afford their careers if their debt is no more than $50,300 if consolidated for 10 years of repayment, no more than $75,700 if consolidated for 20 years, and no more than $88,400 if consolidated for 30 years, figured at an interest rate of 6.8%.
For legal services attorneys the debt limits are less: no more than $41,100 if consolidated for 10 years, no more than $61,800 if consolidated for 20 years, and no more than $72,300 if consolidated for 30 years.
As average law school debt loads have been recently reported at over $80,000 for private law school students and over $54,000 for public law school students, the long-term debt burden placed upon public interest minded law students is very apparent.
Table 1. Median Starting Salaries for First-Year Associates by Firm Size
|Firm Size — Number of Lawyers|
|2-10||11-25||26-50||51-100||101-250||251 or more|
|1999||— 51,000 —||57,500||67,000||70,000||85,000|
|2000||— 60,000 —||63,000||70,000||75,000||110,500|
|2001||— 60,000 —||70,500||75,900||90,000||110,200|
|2002||— 53,500 —||75,000||75,000||90,000||110,000|
|2003||— 59,000 —||71,000||80,000||85,000||107,000|
|2004||— 65,000 —||72,900||81,000||88,500||110,000|
|2005||— 67,500 —||80,000||83,000||86,000||110,000|
|2006||— 67,000 —||80,000||85,000||90,000||120,000|
|2007||— 68,000 —||81,000||90,000||105,000||130,000|
|% change 1996-2007||— 33%* —||56%||54%||75%||86%|
* % change from 1999-2007.
Note: From 1999 on, a single figure was compiled for the 2-25 size category. Salaries reported as of April 1, except 1996-1998. Medians for each size range are based on firms in that size range responding to the survey for the year specified. Some medians appear to decline; this is a result of a different pool of respondents in each year rather than a decrease in salaries on the part of any one firm.
Table 2. Median Starting Salaries for First-Year Associates in Firms of 251 or More Lawyers — Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC
|Chicago||Los Angeles||New York||Washington|
|% change 1996-2007||99% *||93%||88%||100%|
* Change from 1997 - 2007.
Note: Salaries reported as of April 1, except 1996-1998. Medians are based on firms responding to the survey for the year specified. Some medians appear to decline; this is a result of a different pool of respondents in each year rather than a decrease in salaries on the part of any one firm.
Table 3. Median Starting Salaries for Selected Non-Firm Lawyer Jobs
|Prosecutors||Judicial Clerks||Legal Services|
|% change 1996-2006||39%||33%||27%|
Note: Figures are based on salaries reported by graduates on NALP's graduate employment survey for these two classes.