Entry-Level Associate Salaries Show No Sign of Leveling Off
08-30-1999

The National Association for Law Placement has completed its fifth comprehensive survey of associate compensation with the 1999 Associate Salary Survey report. Over 660 offices (30% of which had 50 or fewer attorneys) provided salary information as of April 1, 1999.

The median salary for first-year associates ranged from $51,000 in firms of 2-25 attorneys to $85,000 in firms of 251 attorneys or more, with a first-year median for all participating firms of $70,000. A comparison with figures reported 16 months earlier, as of January 1998, shows a dramatic increase in first-year salaries, especially in larger firms. In firms of 101-250 attorneys, the $70,000 median is $10,000 higher than in January of 1998. The median salary in firms of 251 or more attorneys also rose by $10,000.

As expected, each year of associate experience brings several thousand dollars in increased compensation: median salaries for eighth-year associates ranged from $90,000 in small firms to $114,142 in large firms, with a median for all participating firms of $100,000.

The volume of data allowed analyses for 32 individual cities as well as many additional states and regions not encompassed by those cities. These analyses reveal a wide range of law firm compensation. For example, the median salary for first-year associates in all firms of over 251 attorneys in the Northeast was $95,000, with reported salaries ranging from $72,000 to $107,000. For firms of 251 or more in the West, the median first-year salary was $89,500, with reported salaries ranging from $62,000 to $105,000. In comparison, while a first-year associate in a large firm in Washington, D.C. might earn in excess of $91,000, the median salary for a first-year associate in Columbus, Ohio was $50,000. Contrasts between large cities and smaller metropolitan areas are also evident. The median salary for a fourth-year associate in New York City was $130,000; for firms reporting from other areas of New York State, the median was $63,450.

The 1999 survey was the first to request information on salaries for intellectual property (IP) attorneys specifically. Although the reporting of IP salaries was far more limited, the data suggest that IP attorneys command a premium of about $15,000 and that firms of 51-250 attorneys pay better in this field than either smaller or larger firms.

The survey also reports the aggregate compensation and bonus systems at participating firms and the prevalence and size of bonuses for prior judicial clerks. Aggregate compensation includes bonuses in addition to base pay. For first-year associates aggregate compensation ranged from $35,000 to $114,500 nationwide. Among the findings regarding bonus systems: 56% of firms use a discretionary basis as one means of determining eligibility for bonuses. Over two-thirds of firms of 2-25 do so, compared with 48% of firms of 251 or more attorneys. Many firms (46%) use "meeting fixed goals" as a determinate of eligibility, and for this factor the frequency is reversed - 33% of small firms consider this factor, while 58% of the largest firms do so. Bonus amounts were based on various factors, the most common of which were merit/performance (74% of offices offering associates bonuses), billable hours (58%), and discretion (47%). About one-quarter of the firms reported paying a bonus to prior judicial clerks, with large firms most likely to offer bonuses. Bonuses of $5,000-$10,000 were most typical.

Median Salaries by Associate Year and Firm Size (as of April 1, 1999)

 

Firm Size (number of attorneys)

Associate Year

All Sizes

2-25

26-50

51-100

101-250

251+

First

$70,000

$51,000

$57,500

$67,000

$70,000

$85,000

Second

75,000

54,000

62,000

70,000

73,000

87,000

Third

77,900

60,000

62,500

72,000

77,785

91,059

Fourth

82,000

65,000

66,459

76,000

81,050

97,481

Fifth

87,000

71,250

73,500

80,000

85,000

101,000

Sixth

93,250

75,000

76,500

86,000

89,000

108,000

Seventh

100,000

82,500

85,000

90,000

100,000

116,000

Eighth

100,000

90,000

80,000

94,000

100,000

114,142

Summer (weekly):

First-year

$1,200

$800

$981

$1,100

$1,200

$1,500

Second-year

1,288

917

1,000

1,250

1,200

1,532

Third-year

1,350

1,050

1,000

1,100

1,225

1,600

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