What Do New Law Graduates Who Go into Private Practice Earn? A 25-Year Retrospective

October 2018, NALP Bulletin

It does not take more than a quick look at the table below to see that starting salaries at the largest law firms have increased far more than at smaller firms. The difference is stark: whereas the median salaries at the largest firms (251+ attorneys) have gone up by 157%, at the smallest firms the median has not even doubled. This discrepancy has contributed to the evolution of the bi-modal nature of the salary distribution. (For more information, see "Salaries for New Lawyers: How Did We Get Here?," published in the January 2008 issue of the NALP Bulletin.)

Viewed another way, the median salary at the largest firms is over three times that of the smallest firms, compared with 2.3 times in 1993, and these numbers do not yet reflect the recent increase at many of the largest firms to a $190,000 starting salary. Salaries at smaller firms were able to "catch up" somewhat during periods when salaries at large firms were relatively flat, e.g., 2000-2006, only to lose ground with the next round of salary hikes at BigLaw.

It is also evident that over the past 25 years, a period ending with 2017, which is the most recent year for which law graduate salary information is available, there have been two periods of sustained stability in the salary medians at large firms: 2000-2006 and 2007-2015. During the former period, salary medians at smaller firms continued to trend upward; during the latter period, salary medians were generally flat across all firm sizes.

These figures can also be viewed in the context of law school tuition and movement in consumer prices. For example, according to the ABA, average tuition at private law schools almost tripled from 1993 to 2013 to about $42,000 (the latest year for which the ABA has posted figures), meaning that by 2013 the median salary at a small firm exceeded that tuition by less than 20%. The differential based on a salary of $160,000 at that time was not quite four times yearly tuition at a private law school. Finally, when salary growth over the 25-year period is compared with inflation of about 70% as measured by the annual CPI-U over the same period, median salaries have been essentially flat in firms of 11-100 attorneys. Growth in medians at firms of 251+ attorneys has been more than double that of inflation. Growth in the median at the smallest firms has exceeded inflation by a modest amount.


A Quarter Century Look at Median Starting Salaries by Firm Size — 1993-2017

Year FIRM SIZE (Number of Attorneys)
All Sizes 1-10 11-25 26-50 51-100 101-250 251-500 501+
1993 48,000 30,000 40,000 48,000 54,000 61,750 70,000 70,000
1994 50,000 32,000 40,000 48,000 55,000 60,080 70,000 70,000
1995 50,000 32,500 40,000 48,000 55,000 62,000 72,000 72,000
1996 50,000 34,000 40,000 49,000 55,000 62,000 74,000 77,000
1997 55,000 35,000 42,000 50,000 58,000 67,000 79,000 80,000
1998 60,000 37,000 43,500 52,000 62,000 72,000 85,000 90,000
1999 70,000 40,000 46,000 55,000 70,000 80,000 92,000 97,000
2000 80,000 40,000 50,000 60,000 76,000 99,500 125,000* 125,000*
2001 90,000 43,000 52,000 62,000 80,000 100,000 125,000* 125,000*
2002 90,000 45,000 52,500 65,000 80,000 100,000 125,000* 125,000*
2003 80,000 45,000 55,000 65,000 80,000 95,000 125,000* 125,000*
2004 80,000 48,000 55,000 65,000 76,000 100,000 116,000 125,000*
2005 85,000 50,000 60,000 70,000 80,000 100,000 125,000* 125,000*
2006 95,000 50,000 62,000 73,000 85,000 105,000 125,000* 135,000*
2007 108,500 52,800 65,000 75,000 90,000 115,000 140,000 160,000*
2008 125,000 55,000 65,000 77,000 95,000 120,000 160,000* 160,000*
2009 130,000 50,000 65,000 75,000 95,000 120,000 160,000* 160,000*
2010 104,000 50,000 64,000 75,000 85,500 110,000 145,000 160,000*
2011 85,000 50,000 65,000 75,000 88,000 110,000 145,000 160,000*
2012 90,000 50,000 61,000 75,000 87,500 110,000 160,000* 160,000*
2013 95,000 50,000 65,000 72,000 85,000 111,000 150,000 160,000*
2014 95,000 50,000 65,000 75,000 87,000 110,000 160,000* 160,000*
2015 100,000 53,000 65,000 75,000 88,000 110,000 160,000* 160,000*
2016 104,000 55,000 65,000 75,000 90,000 115,000 160,000* 180,000*
2017 117,000 58,000 67,750 78,000 90,000 120,000 180,000* 180,000*
% Change 1993- 2017 146% 93% 69% 63% 67% 94% 157% 157%

* The median for these categories is as shown. However, because so many salaries were reported at this level, the median salary is also the modal salary (the most frequently reported salary).
Source: Employment Report & Salary Survey reports/Jobs & JDs reports for the Classes of 1993-2017.

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