Law Firm Associate Salaries Changed Little from Last Year

September 8, 2011

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Recent research from NALP reveals that associate salaries were largely flat in 2011 compared with 2010, with the $160,000 salary for first-year associates still prevailing at large firms in a number of markets, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC. In other markets, such as Boston and San Francisco, the median remained at $145,000, after reaching $160,000 in 2009 and then falling back to $145,000 in 2010. Even in those markets where the prevailing figure remains at $160,000, salaries of $130,000 to $145,000 are more common than was the case at the time of the NALP 2009 Associate Salary Survey report, confirming the characterization of 2009 as the recent high-water mark for large firm salaries. Overall stability notwithstanding, however, salary medians were up in some cases; for example, the median in Atlanta stood at $130,000 compared with $125,000 in 2010, while the median for firms of 251-700 lawyers in Washington, DC, and New York moved up to $160,000 from $140,000 and $145,000, respectively. In Chicago firms of this size, the median was $137,500 compared with $130,000 in 2010.

The overall median first-year salary was $115,000, unchanged from 2010. Medians ranged from $73,000 in firms of 2-25 lawyers to $120,000 in firms of 501-700 lawyers, and $160,000 in firms of more than 700 lawyers, with the latter figure accounting for 54% of reported first-year salaries by firms of that size (and also representing a high), compared with 58% in 2010 and 65% in 2009. The median at firms of 251-500 lawyers has remained unchanged at $125,000 since 2009, while that at firms of 501-700 lawyers edged up from $117,500, reflecting relatively more reporting of salaries of $125,000 and $160,000 compared with 2010.

“These salary figures are not surprising,” said James Leipold, NALP’s executive director. “Following the recession, law firm associate salaries are in stasis. We have not seen much movement upward or downward in associate compensation, and these survey results confirm those observations,” Leipold concluded.

A total of 630 offices provided salary information as of April 1, 2011. With 13% of respondents representing firms of 50 or fewer lawyers and 43% representing firms of more than 500 lawyers, the report sheds valuable light on the breadth of salary differentials among employers of varying sizes at the national level.

As expected, each year of associate experience brings several thousand dollars in increased compensation: median salaries for eighth-year associates ranged from $111,250 in small firms to about $225,000 in the largest firms, with a median for all reporting firms of $162,625.

The volume of data reported on this year’s survey allowed analyses for 29 individual cities as well as many additional states and regions not encompassed by those cities. These analyses reveal a wide range of law firm compensation. For example, the overall prevailing salary for first-year associates in firms of more than 700 lawyers was $160,000 in all regions but the South, where the median was $145,000. The highest first-year salary reported was $165,000. Salaries of $160,000 were not typical everywhere—the median in cities such as Detroit, Indianapolis, and Raleigh/Durham was $100,000. Contrasts between large and smaller metropolitan areas are also evident. For example, in large metropolitan areas with a population of more than 5 million, the median first-year salary in firms of 500-700 lawyers was $135,000; in metropolitan areas of fewer than 1.5 million, the median was $93,500.

The 2011 Associate Salary Survey also gathered information on salaries for intellectual property lawyers, salary levels for staff attorneys and law clerks, and information on the prevalence and size of bonuses for prior judicial clerks. Information on salaries for intellectual property attorneys was more limited, and in large part reported by firms of more than 250 lawyers. The information reported suggests that, compared with firms of this size as a whole, IP lawyers may command a salary that is somewhat higher at the entry level, but that, among more senior associates, the differential may be as much as $50,000. However, when IP salaries are compared with those of the very largest firms (those of more than 700 lawyers) as a whole, medians are very similar. Also, not all firms with IP lawyers have a differentiated salary scale.

Salaries for staff attorneys are $115,000 per year and were most commonly reported by firms of 251-700 attorneys. Median hourly salaries for law clerks typically range from $24 to $40 per hour depending on firm size.

While most firms of more than 700 lawyers pay a bonus to prior judicial clerks, smaller firms usually do not. Bonuses of $10,000 to $25,000 are most common, depending on the type of court, but can be higher, particularly for prior U.S. Supreme Court clerks.

More detailed results by city and region for associates through the eighth year, information on salary ranges and bonuses, and new information on salaries for firms that have established a levels system based on competencies, are found in the complete 2011 Associate Salary Survey report, now available from NALP’s bookstore for $160 plus shipping and handling.

Median Base Salaries by Associate Year and Firm Size
(as of April 1, 2011)
Associate Year FIRM SIZE — Number of Lawyers
2-25 26-50 51-100 101-250 251-500 501-700 701+ All Sizes
Median # Rept Median # Rept Median # Rept Median # Rept Median # Rept Median # Rept Median # Rept Median # Rept
First $73,000 29 $86,000 25 $91,000 48 $110,000 64 $125,000 85 $120,000 119 $160,000* 70 $115,000 440
Second 77,000 29 84,500 24 100,500 46 108,750 56 130,850 86 120,000 121 165,000 72 120,825 434
Third 80,000 31 91,800 25 108,000 51 112,500 55 134,675 98 125,000 121 169,500 76 125,000 457
Fourth 85,000 25 94,025 22 112,500 46 115,800 55 142,000 87 134,625 118 178,750 75 136,650 428
Fifth 96,000 29 99,050 24 116,000 49 122,400 53 146,700 91 138,300 128 192,500 75 140,000 449
Sixth 94,500 32 113,150 24 120,000 50 128,000 49 150,200 94 150,000 123 202,500 77 145,000 449
Seventh 104,000 26 123,000 19 127,500 42 130,000 49 160,000 87 158,275 113 218,750 78 157,950 414
Eighth 111,250 26 121,150 18 117,500 43 139,525 42 165,700 84 165,300 122 225,000 63 162,625 398
Summer Associates ($/week)
1st year 950 15 1,400 11 1,300 35 1,900 40 2,100 72 2,200 54 2,800 48 2,000 275
2nd year 1,100 20 1,550 26 1,575 51 1,900 65 2,200 81 2,400 76 3,075 75 2,200 394
3rd year 1,550 8 2,400 17 1,500 6 3,075 24 3,075 16 2,800 29 2,800 103

The "# Rept" column indicates the number of offices reporting. Medians have been rounded to the nearest $25.
* This figure was reported by 54% of responding offices in this firm size category, and it is also the high figure.



About NALP: Founded in 1971, the National Association for Law Placement, Inc.® (NALP) is dedicated to continuously improving career counseling and planning, recruitment, and retention, and the professional development of law students, lawyers, and its members. NALP maintains an online archive of press releases at www.nalp.org/pressreleases. For additional information about NALP research, contact Judith Collins (jcollins@nalp.org), Director of Research, or James G. Leipold (jleipold@nalp.org), Executive Director, at 202-835-1001.

National Association for Law Placement, Inc.® (NALP®)
1220 19th Street NW, Suite 401, Washington, DC 20036-2405
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