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.)
* % change from 1999-2011.
* Change from 1997-2011.
Note: Figures are based on salaries reported by graduates on NALP's graduate employment survey for these two classes.