How Much Do Law Firms Pay New Associates? A 14-Year Retrospective as Reported by Firms

NALP Bulletin, September 2009 

In the last 14 years, law firms of all sizes have increased their first-year salaries, with salaries more than doubling in the largest firms. Tables 1 and 2 provide a 14-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. (The school-reported figures appeared in the August 2009 NALP Bulletin article "What Do New Lawyers Earn? A 15-Year Retrospective as Reported by Law School Graduates.")

The four largest employment markets for new law graduates drove this growth. In three of these markets (Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC), salaries have more than doubled. Salaries in the largest market, New York City, have not doubled because the median was considerably higher than in any of the other three markets in 1996. New York was the first to reach the $160,000 prevailing salary mark in 2006. (See Table 2.)

In contrast, salaries in other sectors have increased, but at nowhere near the 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 40% to 50%. (See Table 3.)

 

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
1996 $35,000 $41,500 $52,000 $58,500 $60,000 $70,000
1997 40,000 52,000 50,000 60,000 65,000 71,500
1998 39,500 52,000 53,000 61,000 60,000 75,000
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
2008 — 73,000 — 92,500 95,000 110,000 135,000
2009 — 70,000 — 92,500 104,000 110,000 145,000
% change 1996-2009 — 37%* — 78% 78% 83% 107%

* % change from 1999-2009.
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
1996 NA $75,000 $85,000 $72,500
1997 73,000 80,000 87,000 74,000
1998 80,000 82,500 87,500 80,000
1999 90,000 92,000 96,000 91,000
2000 117,500 125,000 125,000 114,050
2001 125,000 125,000 125,000 125,000
2002 125,000 125,000 125,000 120,000
2003 125,000 125,000 125,000 120,000
2004 125,000 125,000 125,000 120,000
2005 125,000 125,000 125,000 125,000
2006 132,500 135,000 145,000 135,000
2007 145,000 145,000 160,000 145,000
2008 160,000 160,000 160,000 160,000
2009 160,000 160,000 160,000 160,000
% change 1996-2009 114% * 113% 88% 120%

* Change from 1997 - 2009.
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
1996 $33,000 $35,000 $30,000
2008 $50,000 $50,000 $41,750
% change 1996-2006 51% 43% 39%

Note: Figures are based on salaries reported by graduates on NALP's graduate employment survey for these two classes.

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