Findings from the NALP/PSJD 2022 Public Service Attorney Salary Survey

NALP Bulletin+, June 2022

Among attorneys working in civil legal services organizations, as public defenders, or as attorneys in public interest organizations in 2022, those providing civil legal services have the lowest median entry-level salary and receive the smallest increases in salary based on years of experience. This is a key finding from NALP/PSJD 2022 Public Service Attorney Salary Survey Report 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 $57,500; with 11-15 years of experience the median is $78,500. Pay for public defenders is higher, with a median of $59,700 for entry-level public defenders that increases to $100,500 for those with 11-15 years of experience. For public interest organizations, the corresponding figures are $63,200 and $95,000.

However, the rate of growth in median salaries since 2018 at civil legal services and public interest organizations was larger than the rate observed in prior reports. The median entry-level salaries for civil legal services and public interest organizations increased by $9,500 and $12,700, respectively, from the 2018 survey. As shown in Table 1 and Chart 1, that compares to increases of about $1,000 per year over the 2004-2018 period, although that growth was sometimes stagnant in the period from 2008-2014, depending on the kind of organization. Increases in median public defender salaries were more modest, with entry-level salaries only growing by $1,400 since 2018. However, the most experienced public defenders with 11 or more years of experience still earn the highest salaries across the 3 organization types. NALP did not receive enough responses from district attorney/local prosecuting offices in 2022 to provide nationally representative analyses for this employer type.

It is important to keep in mind that at the time of data collection for this year's survey, the United States was experiencing the highest rate of inflation in nearly 40 years, coupled with rapidly rising private sector salaries, which may have contributed to larger median salaries. Additionally, this year's dataset skewed more heavily toward organizations located in larger-sized population areas — with 55% of respondents located in metropolitan population areas of over 4 million people — locations that tend to have higher salaries.

Moreover, 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. In 2022, entry-level salary medians range from $60,000 at organizations dealing with immigration issues to more than $70,000 at organizations dealing with women, children, and/or domestic violence issues. Finally, the 2022 report includes analyses from a smaller respondent pool compared to prior reports, as the effects of the pandemic made it more difficult to reach public service employers, and this should be considered when making comparisons to prior years in which the number of respondents was higher.

In addition to national salary figures, the report compiles figures based on region of the country and population. For example, salaries at civil legal services organizations are notably higher in the West, with a median entry-level salary of approximately $64,600. (States in the Western region as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau are AK, AZ, CA, CO, HI, ID, MT, NM, NV, OR, UT, WA, and WY.) The West's somewhat higher salary scale is evident across all experience levels. Among all specialty public interest organizations combined, salary scales were also highest in the West. Across all types of public service employers, salary scales in the largest metropolitan areas of more than 4 million were higher as compared to smaller population areas.

This year's survey also included new analyses for civil legal services organizations and public defender offices by unionization status. Within civil legal services, median salaries were notably higher across all experience levels for unionized organizations; however, there were no notable differences in salaries by unionization status within public defender offices.

Finally, the report, taken in tandem with its law firm companion piece — NALP's 2021 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 $85,000 in 2021, 48% higher than the median salary for an entry-level attorney at a legal services organization. The median first-year salary for firms with 51-100 attorneys was $127,500 and it was $190,000 in the largest firms of more than 700 lawyers. These figures were collected prior to several publicly announced salary increases by large firms in the latter part of 2021 and early 2022 — with some entry-level salaries now starting at $215,000. These $215,000 starting salaries paid by many large firms in major cities are beyond what even the most experienced attorneys can reasonably expect to earn at a public service organization and are generally about double the size (or more) of the median salaries of public service attorneys with more than 15 years of experience at organizations included within the survey.

The 2022 Public Service Attorney Salary Survey Report, to be released later this month, includes more detailed salary information by region, population size, and union status, as well as additional information on selected employee benefits. PSJD subscribers receive complimentary access to the report. Non-subscribers may purchase the publication in the NALP Bookstore.

Table 1. Median Salaries for Public Service Attorneys by Type of Organization and Years of Experience, 2004-2022

Years of Experience 2004 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 2018 2022
Civil Legal Services
Entry-level $34,000 $36,000 $40,000 $42,000 $42,800 $44,600 $48,000 $57,500
5 years 40,000 43,300 48,000 49,400 50,200 51,000 54,800 67,100
11-15 years 51,900 55,000 60,000 62,500 64,900 65,000 69,400 78,500
Public Defenders
Entry-level 39,000 43,300 47,400 47,500 50,500 50,400 58,300 59,700
5 years 50,000 54,700 60,000 60,300 62,800 63,000 68,000 75,700
11-15 years 65,000 65,500 75,000 76,200 78,600 84,500 96,400 100,500
Public Interest Organizations
Entry-level 36,700 40,000 41,000 45,000 45,000 46,000 50,300 63,000
5 years 46,300 52,000 53,800 53,600 56,300 59,000 65,000 78,700
11-15 years 64,000 65,000 69,200 70,900 75,000 75,000 80,500 95,000
Total Number of Responses 415 430 658 572 423 362 347 197

Source: NALP's Public Service Attorney Salary Survey, 2004-2022.
Note: All figures have been rounded to the nearest $100.

Chart 1. Median Salaries for Public Service Attorneys by Type of Organization and Years of Experience, 2004-2022

Source: NALP's Public Service Attorney Salary Survey, 2004-2022.
Note: All figures have been rounded to the nearest $100.

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