Findings from the NALP/PSJD 2018 Public Service Attorney Salary Survey

NALP Bulletin, June 2018

Among attorneys working in civil legal services organizations, as public defenders or local prosecuting attorneys, or as attorneys in public interest organizations, those providing civil legal services have the lowest median entry-level salary, have the smallest increases in salary based on experience, and have seen the slowest growth in salary levels over the past 14 years. This is a key finding from NALP/PSJD's 2018 Public Service Attorney Salary Survey and is consistent with findings from earlier surveys which have been conducted periodically since 2004.

For example, the median entry-level salary for a legal services attorney is $48,000; at 11-15 years of experience the median is $69,400. Pay for public defenders and local prosecuting attorneys is higher, with a median of $58,300 for entry-level public defenders and increasing to about $96,400 for those with 11-15 years of experience. For local prosecuting attorneys, the corresponding figures are $56,200 and $84,400.

Moreover, for the most part, salary medians for entry-level attorneys have increased by about $1,000 per year over the period, although that growth was sometimes stagnant in the period from 2008 to 2014, depending on the kind of organizations, shown in Table 1. For example, the median entry-level salary has increased from $34,000 to $48,000 at civil legal services organizations, though it barely budged from 2010 to 2012, while for local prosecuting attorneys the median increased from $40,000 to about $56,000, though the median was unchanged from 2010 to 2012. Entry-level salaries for public defenders increased the most from 2014 to 2018, from $50,400 to $58,300, or an average increase of about $2,000 per year from 2014 to 2018. Salaries in these organizations were basically flat from 2008 to 2010. Among more experienced civil legal services and local prosecuting attorneys, medians have increased by about $15,000 over the period 2004-2018. Again, public defenders have fared better; for example, the median has increased by $31,000 for those with 11-15 years of experience.

The public interest category is more heterogenous as to the kinds of organizations represented in any year, which should be kept in mind when making comparisons. Nonetheless, for these kinds of organizations as a whole, salaries have increased, though modestly, about $11,000 for attorneys with 11-15 years of experience. Entry-level salary medians range from $50,000 at organizations dealing with health and disability issues to $54,000 at organizations dealing with civil rights.

In addition to national salary figures, figures were compiled based on region of the country and population. For example, entry-level salaries at civil legal services organizations are notably higher in the Northeast, with a median of over $58,000. (States in the Northeast region as defined by the US Census Bureau are CT, MA, ME, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT.) The somewhat higher salary scale is evident across all experience levels. Among local prosecuting attorneys, salary scales are higher in the West. (The Western region includes AK, AZ, CA, CO, HI, ID, MT, NM, NV, OR, UT, WY, WA.) Salaries in larger metropolitan areas are not necessarily higher, although this is the case for legal services organizations.

Finally, the report, taken in tandem with its law firm companion piece — NALP's 2017 Associate Salary Survey — highlights well-understood, but nonetheless sobering distinctions between public sector/public interest salaries and law firm salaries. The median first-year salary at a law firm of 50 or fewer attorneys was about $90,000 in 2017, not quite double the salary for an entry-level attorney at a legal services organization. The median first-year salary for firms with 51-100 attorneys was $115,000. Moreover, the $180,000 starting salary paid at many large firms in big cities is beyond what even the most experienced attorneys can reasonably expect at a public interest organization.

The 2018 Public Service Attorney Salary Survey — which includes salaries by region and population size and some additional information on selected benefits — will be for free to all PSJD subscribers and available for purchase by non-subscribers in the summer of 2018.


Median Salaries for Lawyers by Type of Organization and Years of Experience — 2004-2018

Years of Experience 2004 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 2018
Civil Legal Services
Entry-level $34,000 $36,000 $40,000 $42,000 $42,800 $44,600 $48,000
5 years 40,000 43,300 48,000 49,400 50,200 51,000 54,800
11-15-years 51,900 55,000 60,000 62,500 64,900 65,000 69,400
Public Defenders
Entry-level 39,000 43,300 47,400 47,500 50,500 50,400 58,300
5 years 50,000 54,700 60,000 60,300 62,800 63,000 68,000
11-15 years 65,000 65,500 75,000 76,200 78,600 84,500 96,400
Local Prosecuting Attorneys
Entry-Level 40,000 43,900 45,700 50,000 50,000 51,100 56,200
5 years 52,000 54,500 60,000 62,300 61,400 63,600 66,300
11-15 years 69,300 73,000 77,500 81,500 76,700 80,000 84,400
Public Interest Organizations
Entry-level 36,700 40,000 41,000 45,000 45,000 46,000 50,300
5 years 46,300 52,000 53,800 53,600 56,300 59,000 65,000
11-15 years 64,000 65,000 69,200 70,900 75,000 75,000 80,500

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 347 organizations completed the 2018 survey. Response counts in 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014 were 415, 430, 658, 572, 423, and 362 organizations, respectively.
All figures have been rounded to the nearest $100.

National Association for Law Placement, Inc.® (NALP®), 1220 19th Street NW, Suite 401, Washington, DC 20036-2405, (202) 835-1001 info@nalp.org, © Copyright 2019 NALP

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