How Much Do Law Firms Pay Associates? A Look Back at 20 Years of Findings from the NALP Associate Salary Survey

NALP Bulletin, October 2014

This marks the 20th year of NALP’s publication of the Associate Salary Survey. The survey reports on salaries for first- through eighth-year associates, but the focus of this article is on what two decades of data tell us about starting salaries for law graduates going into private practice and about how these salaries have changed.

Over the past 20 years law firms of all sizes have increased their first-year salaries, but the percentage increase at the largest firms is double that of the smallest firms, even though not all large firms pay a $160,000 starting salary, even in large markets, as evidenced by the $135,000 median for these firms as a whole.

When comparing medians from year to year, one must remember that the respondent pool varied from year to year. In other words, each year’s medians reflect only firms responding in that year, rather than representing medians for a static set of firms. This is particularly true for firms with 251 or more lawyers — a size category that has grown considerably over the past 20 years and that encompasses a wide variety of firms and offices in markets both large and small. This wide spectrum notwithstanding, figures for this category provide general trend information that can be carried through the entire time span of this survey, and one that is less affected by differences in how these firms are distributed across more granular size categorizations. It is also difficult to make generalizations even for more discrete sets of firms. For example, not all firms of more than 700 lawyers pay $160,000 to start, even in the largest markets, and not all firms that pay $160,000 are firms of more than 700 lawyers.

Salary medians 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 consistently at that level. 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 the other three markets in 1995.

Finally, the figures also suggest that this 20-year time period can be divided into three segments: the period prior to 2000 and before the run-up to $125,000 starting salaries in large firms; a period of a half-dozen years where that level was sustained; and then a period starting in 2007 and continuing to the present during which many large firms in large markets moved to a $160,000 starting salary. Associate Salary Survey findings indicate that 2006 appears to be something of a transition year.


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

Year FIRM SIZE (Number of Lawyers)
2-10 11-25 26-50 51-100 101-250 251 or More
1995 —$45,000— $50,000 $59,500 $58,500 $70,000
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
2012 — 70,750 — 90,000 100,000 110,000 135,000
2013 — 78,000 — 110,000 100,000 110,000 145,000
2014** — 68,000 — 105,000 110,000 105,000 135,000
% change 1995-2014 — 51% — 110% 85% 79% 93%

**    Preliminary

Note: From 1999 on, a single figure was compiled for the 2-25 size category. Salaries were reported as of April 1, except in 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
1995 N/A $70,000 $85,000 $71,750
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
2012 145,000 160,000 160,000 160,000
2013 160,000 160,000 160,000 160,000
2014* 152,500 145,000 160,000 157,500
% change 1995-2014 109%** 107% 88% 120%

*  Preliminary

**   Change from 1997-2014.

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, or even the highest salary.

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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