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How Much Do Law Firms Pay New Associates? A 16-Year Retrospective

NALP Bulletin, October 2011

Since the mid-1990s law firms of all sizes have increased their first-year associate salaries, but the percentage increase at the largest firms is double that of the smallest firms, despite the fact that some, but by no means all, large firms in some markets backed off from starting associates at $160,000. Table 1 provides a 16-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.

When comparing medians from year to year, it should be kept in mind that the respondent pool varies from year to year, which means that each year's medians reflect firms responding in that year, rather than medians for the same set of firms. This is particularly true of the largest firm size category, a category that has grown considerably and that encompasses a wide variety of firms in both large and smaller to mid-size markets. It is also the case that the firm size of this respondent group has shifted away somewhat from firms of 701 or more lawyers in the past two years, which affects the median. However, for these firms as a whole, it appears that 2009 represented a high point, and even in the largest firms of 701 or more lawyers, the percentage of starting salaries reported at $160,000 dropped from 65% of offices in 2009 to 54% of offices in 2011. The overall median in firms of 101-250 lawyers has been relatively stable over the past four years.

Salary medians in the largest firms in the four largest employment markets are shown in Table 2. It is evident that New York was the first market to reach the $160,000 mark in 2007 and the only one to stay there. In contrast the typical salary in large firms as a whole in Chicago in 2011 is the same as in 2007, after higher salaries prevailed in 2008 and 2009. Recent fluctuations notwithstanding, salaries in all these markets except New York have at least doubled. Salaries in New York have not doubled because the median was considerably higher than in any of the three other markets in 1996.

In contrast, salaries in other sectors have increased, but at nowhere near the rate to match salary increases in large 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 in the 40-50% range, similar to small firms. (See Table 3.)

Table 1. Median Starting Salaries for First-Year Associates by Firm Size

Year FIRM SIZE
  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
2010 — 72,000 — 95,000 95,000 105,000 130,000
2011 — 73,000 — 86,000 91,000 110,000 130,000
% change 1996-2011 — 43%* — 65% 56% 83% 86%

* % change from 1999-2011.
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 mostly a result of variation in the respondent pool from year to year, particularly in the largest size category, which has grown considerably over the life of the Associate Salary Survey. However, starting in 2009, some firms in some markets reduced salaries.

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, DC
1996 N/A $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
2010 135,000 145,000 160,000 145,000
2011 145,000 160,000 160,000 160,000
% change 1996-2011 99%* 113% 88% 120%

* Change from 1997-2011.
Note: Salaries reported as of April 1, except 1996-1998. Because salary levels in these cities tend to cluster at one or two figures, the medians shown often reflect a prevailing or most commonly reported salary.

Table 3. Median Starting Salaries for Selected Non-Firm Lawyer Jobs

  Prosecutors Judicial Clerks Legal Services
1996 $33,000 $35,000 $30,000
2010 $49,000 $51,900 $42,800
% change 1996-2010 48% 48% 43%

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



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