New Findings on Salaries for Public Interest Attorneys

NALP Bulletin, September 2008

This month NALP is publishing the 2008 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report. This biennial report, first published in 2004, provides salary information for both entry-level and experienced attorneys at public sector and public interest organizations.

This year's survey brought greatly increased participation across all types of organizations, an increase that may be attributable in part to a heightened awareness of the survey in the public interest community, particularly among the organizations with which NALP and PSLawNet partnered to distribute, publicize, and promote the survey.

Excerpts of the findings, along with comparisons of those reported in the prior two reports, are shown in Table 1. It is evident that salary medians at these organizations have increased quite modestly, generally by no more than $5,000, regardless of organization type or experience. It is also evident that experience brings with it relatively modest increases in salary, particularly at civil legal services organizations. For example, the median entry-level salary for a legal services attorney is $40,000; at 11-15 years of experience, the median is $60,000. Pay for public defenders and local prosecuting attorneys is somewhat higher, starting in the mid-40's and increasing to about $75,000 for those with 11-15 years of experience. The full report benchmarks salaries for each type of organization for each of the first seven years, then in increments for attorneys with 8-10 years of experience, 11-15 years of experience, and more than 15 years of experience.

In addition to national salary figures, the report provides subnational analyses based on region of the country and population. For example, entry-level salaries at civil legal services organizations are slightly higher in the Northeast, with a median of $42,000. Among public defenders and local prosecuting attorneys, salary scales are somewhat higher in the West. Salaries in larger metropolitan areas are generally higher, but not necessarily by large amounts, particularly at legal services organizations.

Finally, salary figures are reported for a wide variety of organizations that handle cases or advocate in a specific issue area. Entry-level salary medians range from $37,500 at environmental organizations to $43,000 at organizations dealing with civil rights and with housing/homelessness issues.

The survey also gathered information about benefits and workplace policies. Among the findings:

  • Public interest and legal services organizations are most likely to pay the full premium for health insurance for their employees - 69% and 75% of respondents, respectively, reported doing so. Among local prosecuting attorney and public defender offices, the figures were 46% and 30%, respectively. Few organizations pay the full premium for spouses, partners, or dependents, but again legal services and public interest organizations are most likely to do so.

  • These organizations typically offer four or more weeks of vacation after ten years of service. For new attorneys, however, the median number of vacation days ranges from 10 at local prosecuting attorney offices to 15 among legal services, state prosecuting attorney offices, and public interest organizations.

This report serves as a companion piece to NALP's annual Associate Salary Survey. These two reports also provide a basis for comparing private sector and public interest salaries. The contrasts, though hardly a surprise, are nonetheless stark. For example, according to the 2008 Associate Salary Survey, the median salary for a fifth-year associate ranged from $99,000 to $183,000 depending on firm size, figures that are double, and often more than double, what an attorney with similar experience makes at a public service organization. The $160,000 starting salary now typical of big firms in big cities is beyond what even the most experienced attorneys can reasonably expect at a public sector organization. (See Table 2.)

The full 2008 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report, including salaries by region and population size and additional information on bonuses and benefits, is available from NALP for $50 (plus shipping and handling). The 2008 Associate Salary Survey is available for $135 (plus shipping and handling). Both reports may be ordered through NALP's online bookstore, or by calling NALP.

Table 1. Median Salaries for Lawyers by Type of Organization and Years of Experience — 2004-2008

Years of Experience Civil Legal Services Public Defenders
2004 2006 2008 2004 2006 2008
Entry-level $34,000 $36,000 $40,000 $39,000 $43,300 $47,435
5 years 40,000 43,290 48,000 50,000 54,670 60,000
11-15 years 51,930 55,000 60,000 65,000 65,500 75,000
Years of Experience Local Prosecuting Attorneys State Prosecuting Attorneys Public Interest Organizations
2004 2006 2008 2004 2006 2008 2004 2006 2008
Entry-level $40,000 $43,915 $45,675 $40,575 $46,375 $50,000 $36,655 $40,000 $41,000
5 years 52,000 54,500 60,000 47,700 55,180 62,780 46,315 52,000 53,815
11-15 years 69,255 72,970 77,500 68,140 67,710 80,830 64,000 65,000 69,195

Table 2. Median Salaries for Associates in Private Practice by Size of Firm — 2004-2008

Years of Experience Firms of 50 or Fewer Lawyers Firms of 51-100 Lawyers
2004 2006 2008 2004 2006 2008
First-year $70,000 $75,000 $80,000 $81,000 $85,000 $95,000
Fifth-year 88,000 90,000 99,250 97,000 100,000 109,000
Years of Experience Firms of 101-250 Lawyers Firms of 251-500 Lawyers Firms of 501+ Lawyers
2004 2006 2008 2004 2006 2008 2004 2006 2008
First-year $88,500 $90,000 $110,000 $97,250 $115,000 $125,000 $120,000 $135,000 $145,000
Fifth-year 102,000 106,585 115,000 115,570 135,500 146,500 155,000 168,645 183,000

Source: NALP Associate Salary Survey, 2004, 2006, and 2008.

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