Median First-Year Big-Law Associate Salary Slumps to $145,000 in 2012, a Median Last Seen in 2007

September 20, 2012

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Recent research from NALP reveals that, although first-year associate salaries of $160,000 are still widespread at large law firms of more than 700 lawyers — especially in large markets — that figure no longer represents the prevailing salary, resulting in a median for this group of firms as a whole of $145,000, a median figure last seen in 2007. In the intervening years at least half the first-year salaries in firms of this size were reported at $160,000, with the proportion reaching a high of nearly two-thirds in 2009, confirming the characterization of 2009 as the recent high point for large firm salaries.

$160,000 Still the Norm at Largest Firms, Though Prevalence Erodes

To be sure, in many markets, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC, first-year salaries of $160,000 are still the norm at the largest firms, though they are not as widespread as they were just a few years ago. For example, in 2009, about 90% of offices in firms of more than 700 lawyers in Los Angeles and Washington, DC reported a first-year salary of $160,000; in 2012 only about two-thirds did so. Overall in firms of more than 700 lawyers salaries of $160,000 accounted for 46% of reported first-year salaries, compared with 54% in 2011, 58% in 2010, and 65% in 2009.

In firms of 251-700 in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington DC, although some firms still pay first-year associates $160,000, most do not, resulting in medians in the $135,000-145,000 range. The median in San Francisco for firms of 251 or more lawyers remains at $145,000 having reached $160,000 only in 2009. Only in New York is the $160,000 starting salary still dominant, with 75% of firms with 251 or more lawyers paying that amount and 87% of firms with 701 or more lawyers reporting that as the first-year associate salary.

Overall Median Rises Slightly

NALP’s 2012 Associate Salary Survey reports that the overall median first-year salary at firms of all sizes was $125,000, up from $115,000 in 2011. Medians ranged from $70,750 in firms of 2-25 lawyers to $125,000 in firms of 501-700 lawyers, and $145,000 in firms of 251-500 lawyers and in firms of more than 700 lawyers. The median at firms of 251-500 lawyers had been at $125,000 from 2009 to 2011, while that at firms of 501-700 lawyers edged up from $120,000, reflecting relatively more reporting of salaries of $125,000 in 2012 compared with 2011.

“Compared to the period of 2006 through 2009, when associate salaries were rising year on year at a steady clip, in the period since the recession hit the legal industry we have seen associate salaries remain more or less static,” noted James Leipold, NALP’s Executive Director. “Among the largest firms, there has been a measurable backing away from $160,000 as a starting salary, though that level of compensation is still dominant in New York and a few other markets. Associate salaries at smaller firms have shown very modest movement, both upward and downward, over the last three years. We would not expect to see much widespread upward movement in associate salaries until the demand for legal services in North America picks up considerably from where we are today,” he concluded.

Anticipated Median Salary for Incoming Associates at Largest Firms Also Falls

Information reported by firms concerning their anticipated base pay for incoming Class of 2012 associates, lawyers who will start work this fall, suggests that while $160,000 will remain the most common starting salary in firms of more than 700 lawyers, it will continue to be the starting salary for less than half of these firms, resulting in a median of $145,000 for these firms, compared with the $160,000 anticipated salary that was reported last year for the Class of 2011. Anticipated base salaries for other size firms remained relatively steady, except in firms of 251-500 lawyers where the median anticipated base salary for incoming associates rose to $135,000 compared to about $125,000 for 2011.

Median Base Salaries by Associate Year and Firm Size (as of April 1, 2012)

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 $70,750 10 $90,000 21 $100,000 38 $110,000 62 $145,000 67 $125,000 70 $145,000 83 $125,000 351
Second 75,100 7 94,500 22 103,000 37 112,500 63 160,000 64 124,000 66 155,000 85 127,000 344
Third 78,850 14 94,750 19 112,000 35 116,000 64 170,000 65 127,275 70 160,950 96 131,250 363
Fourth 80,000 12 105,600 21 115,700 36 120,000 64 180,000 68 135,600 75 167,075 97 137,700 373
Fifth 83,450 12 107,450 24 114,650 41 124,000 63 205,000 63 143,600 77 180,000 96 144,350 376
Sixth 86,000 8 118,000 19 115,000 38 130,000 62 215,000 65 145,000 75 185,000 99 150,000 366
Seventh 123,000 16 127,000 35 134,000 57 225,000 65 153,000 73 200,000 95 159,000 345
Eighth 95,000 11 118,250 16 126,150 22 135,000 44 250,000 54 160,000 71 210,975 84 169,100 302
Summer Associates ($/week)
1st year 1,175 10 1,350 20 1,900 37 2,800 55 2,300 47 3,075 35 2,100 208
2nd year 1,450 20 1,600 29 2,000 48 2,800 64 2,300 69 3,075 87 2,300 321
3rd year 1,275 5 2,050 12 2,000 8 3,100 21 3,075 19 2,100 12 2,800 77

The "# Rept." column indicates the number of offices reporting. For purposes of this summary report, medians have been rounded to the nearest $25.


Impact of Levels-Based Salaries Apparent in Reported Data

In recent years, a number of firms have moved to a compensation system in which associates move through levels, with compensation decisions within each level primarily based on skills mastered rather than on class year. Firms using a levels-based system typically have three, or sometimes four, levels. In 2012, the median level of compensation within the first level was $133,000 in firms of 251 or more lawyers. The median in the second level of compensation was $143,500, and $164,500 in the third level. The reporting of salaries by level rather than class year is new enough that historic comparisons are not relevant or even necessarily available.

Data Represent Broad-Based Reporting

A total of 570 law offices responded to NALP’s 2012 Associate Salary Survey by providing salary information as of April 1, 2012. With almost 10% of respondents representing firms of 50 or fewer lawyers and 54% representing firms of more than 500 lawyers, the report sheds valuable light on the breadth of salary differentials among law firms 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 $95,000 in small firms to about $211,000 in the largest firms, with a median for all reporting firms of $169,100.

Regional and Geographic Differences Apparent

The volume of data reported on this year’s survey allowed analyses for 21 individual cities as well as 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 the Northeast and West, but $125,000 in the Midwest and $135,000 in South. The highest first-year salary reported was $165,000. Outside of the largest markets, salaries of $160,000 were not typical. The median in Seattle and Philadelphia was $120,000, and in Minneapolis $110,000 was the typical starting salary. Contrasts between large and smaller metropolitan areas are also evident. For example, in large metropolitan areas with populations of more than 5 million, the median first-year salary in firms of 501-700 lawyers was $125,000; in metropolitan areas of fewer than 1.5 million, the median was $90,000.

The 2012 Associate Salary Survey also gathered information on salaries for intellectual property (IP) 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, those with IP lawyers may pay an entry-level salary of $160,000 somewhat more often. When IP salaries at the largest firms are compared with those of the largest firms as a whole, the median is $160,000 instead of $145,000 and is $30,000-40,000 higher among senior associates. Also, not all firms with IP lawyers have a differentiated salary scale for IP lawyers.

Staff Attorney Salaries, Post-Clerkship Bonuses, Also Reported

Salaries for staff attorneys are about $117,000 per year and were most commonly reported by firms of 251-700 attorneys. Median hourly salaries for law clerks typically range from $25 to $65 per hour depending on firm size.

While about half of firms of more than 250 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 information on salaries for firms that have established a levels-based system tied to the mastery of competencies, are found in the complete 2012 Associate Salary Survey report, now available from NALP’s bookstore for $160 plus shipping and handling.


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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