New Findings on Salaries for Public Interest Attorneys

NALP Bulletin, September 2010

NALP’s new 2010 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Survey documents that, in general, practice experience brings with it relatively modest salary increases, particularly within civil legal services organizations, a finding consistent with that of prior reports, the first of which was in 2004. For example, the median entry-level salary for a legal services attorney in the U.S. is $42,000; at 11-15 years of experience the median is $62,550. Pay for public defenders and local prosecuting attorneys is somewhat higher, with a median of $47,500 for entry-level public defenders and increasing to about $76,000 for those with 11-15 years of experience. For local prosecuting attorneys, the corresponding figures are $50,000 and $81,500.

Excerpts of the findings, along with comparisons of those reported in prior reports, are shown in Table 1. It is evident that salary medians at these organizations have increased very modestly, if at all, since 2008. For example, the median entry-level salary for public defenders is $47,500; $60,300 for attorneys with five years of experience; and just over $76,000 for those with 11-15 years experience. All these figures are very similar to those reported in 2008. The median entry-level salary at public interest organizations is somewhat higher than in 2008, but that increase does not appear to carry over to more experienced attorneys.

In addition to national salary figures, the report provides subnational analyses based on region of the country and population. For example, entry-level salaries at civil legal services organizations are slightly higher in the South Atlantic states, with a median of $46,000. (States in the South Atlantic division as defined by the US Census Bureau are DE, DC, FL, GA, MD, NC, SC, VA, and WV.) The somewhat higher salary scale is evident across all experience levels. Among public defenders and local prosecuting attorneys, salary scales are somewhat higher in the Pacific states. (The Pacific division includes AK, CA, HI, OR, and WA.) Salaries in larger metropolitan areas are generally higher, but not necessarily by large amounts, particularly at legal services organizations.

Finally, salary figures are reported for a wide variety of organizations that handle cases or advocate in a specific issue area. Entry-level salary medians range from $41,000 at organizations focused on women, families, and domestic violence to $48,700 at organizations dealing with housing/homelessness issues.

The Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Survey serves as a companion piece to NALP’s annual Associate Salary Survey. These two reports also provide a basis for comparing private sector and public interest salaries. The contrasts, though hardly a surprise, are nonetheless stark, and made even more so in light of generally stable law firm salaries recently and even well-publicized salary cuts at some firms. For example, according to the 2010 Associate Salary Survey, the median salary for a fifth-year associate ranged from $95,000 to $172,500 depending on firm size, figures that are double, and often more than double, what an attorney with similar experience makes at a public service organization. The $160,000 starting salary at big firms in big cities is beyond what even the most experienced attorneys can reasonably expect at a public sector or public interest organization. (See Table 2.)

The full 2010 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report, including salaries by region and population size and additional information on selected benefits, is available from NALP for $50 (plus shipping and handling). The 2010 Associate Salary Survey is available for $135 (plus shipping and handling). Both reports may be ordered through NALP's online bookstore.

Table 1. Median Salaries for Lawyers by Type of Organization and Years of Experience — 2004-2010

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE CIVIL LEGAL SERVICES PUBLIC DEFENDERS
2004 2006 2008 2010 2004 2006 2008 2010
Entry-level $34,000 $36,000 $40,000 $42,000 $39,000 $43,300 $47,435 $47,500
5 years 40,000 43,290 48,000 49,440 50,000 54,670 60,000 60,280
11-15 years 51,930 55,000 60,000 62,550 65,000 65,500 75,000 76,160
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE LOCAL PROSECUTING ATTORNEYS PUBLIC INTEREST ORGANIZATIONS
2004 2006 2008 2010 2004 2006 2008 2010
Entry-level $40,000 $43,915 $45,675 $50,000 $36,655 $40,000 $41,000 $45,000
5 years 52,000 54,500 60,000 62,320 46,315 52,000 53,815 53,560
11-15 years 69,255 72,970 77,500 81,500 64,000 65,000 69,195 70,875

Note: Findings are based on a nationwide survey conducted by NALP among civil legal services organizations, offices of public defenders, local prosecuting attorneys, and public interest organizations. A total of 572 organizations completed the 2010 survey. Responses in 2004, 2006, and 2008 were received from 415, 430, and 658 organizations, respectively.

Table 2. Median Salaries for Associates in Private Practice by Size of Firm — 2004-2010

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE FIRMS OF 50 OR FEWER LAWYERS FIRMS OF 51-100 LAWYERS
2004 2006 2008 2010 2004 2006 2008 2010
First-year $70,000 $75,000 $80,000 $80,000 $81,000 $85,000 $95,000 $95,000
Fifth-year 88,000 90,000 99,250 95,600 97,000 100,000 109,000 103,000
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE FIRMS OF 101-250 LAWYERS FIRMS OF 251-500 LAWYERS FIRMS OF 501+ LAWYERS
2004 2006 2008 2010 2004 2006 2008 2010 2004 2006 2008 2010
First-year $88,500 $90,000 $110,000 $105,000 $97,250 $115,000 $125,000 $125,000 $120,000 $135,000 $145,000 $135,000
Fifth-year 102,000 106,585 115,000 $120,000 115,570 135,500 146,500 $144,000 155,000 168,645 183,000 172,500

Source: NALP Associate Salary Survey, 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2010. Medians reflect the respondent pool, which varies from year to year, and not the movement of salaries at a fixed group of firms over time.

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