New Research on Attorney Salaries at Public Sector and Public Interest Organizations

NALP Bulletin, October 2006.

NALP has recently published the 2006 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report. This biennial report, first published in 2004, provides salary information for both entry-level and experienced attorneys at public sector and public interest organizations.

Excerpts of the findings, along with comparisons of those reported in 2004, are shown in Table 1. It is evident that salaries at these organizations have increased only modestly, by a few thousand dollars at most, regardless of organization type or experience. It is also evident that experience brings with it only relatively modest increases in salary, particularly at civil legal services organizations. For example, the median entry-level salary for a legal services attorney is $36,000; at 11-15 years of experience, the median is $55,000. Pay for prosecuting attorneys, either state or local, is somewhat higher, starting at about $45,000 and increasing to about $70,000 for those with 11-15 years of experience. The full report benchmarks salaries for each type of organization for each of the first seven years, then in increments for attorneys with 8-10 years of experience, 11-15 years of experience, and more that 15 years of experience.

In addition to national salary figures, the report provides subnational analyses based on region of the country and population. For example, salaries at civil legal services organizations are somewhat higher in the Northeast, with a median entry-level salary of $38, 500 — and increasing to about $58,000 for attorneys with 11-15 years of experience. Among public defenders, salary scales are somewhat higher in the West. Salaries in larger metropolitan areas are generally higher, but not necessarily by large amounts, particularly at the entry-level. For example, the median entry-level salary for a local prosecutor is about $41,000 in rural areas and small cities, compared with $45,000 in metropolitan areas with a population of 1 to 2 million, and $48,000 in metropolitan areas with a population of more than 2 million.

The survey also gathered information about benefits and workplace policies. Among the findings:

  • Public interest and legal services organizations are most likely to pay the full premium for health insurance for their employees — 76% and 68% of respondents, respectively, reported doing so. Among local prosecuting attorney and public defender offices, the figures were 43% and 40%, respectively. Contrasts are similar with respect to dental insurance.
  • Legal services organizations typically provide more vacation days, with a median of 18 days for new employees and 25 days after 10 years. At public defender and prosecuting attorney offices, employees typically start at 11 to 13 days and can work up to about 20 days after 10 years.

Finally, this year’s report provides additional depth of information in two areas not covered by the 2004 report. First, many more public interest organizations that handle cases or conduct advocacy in specific issue areas participated in the survey, an increase that may be attributed in part to a greater awareness in the public interest community of this survey and of other NALP and PSLawNet initiatives. The report recognizes five issue areas: civil rights; environmental law; international human rights/immigration law; women’s rights/family law/domestic violence/child advocacy; and health/disability law. This specific categorization allows for more accurate and relevant comparisons of salary data among organizations performing the same type of work. For example, the median entry-level salary at an environmental organization is $33,000, compared with $40,000 at organizations involved in health or women’s rights issues.

Second, the report includes an entire section devoted to the compensation of federal attorneys, the result of collaboration with the Partnership for Public Service. The federal government is the largest employer of attorneys in the nation, and many attorneys move from the private sector, or from other public sector positions, into federal jobs. The federal government’s compensation schemes do not lend themselves to survey analysis, thus this information is found in a separate section of the report. This section includes a primer on where attorney positions fit in the larger federal compensation structure, information on benefits, and federal “General Schedule” (GS) salary tables illustrating how most attorneys are paid, including cost of living adjustments for several major employment markets in the US.

This report serves as a companion piece to NALP’s annual Associate Salary Survey. These two reports also provide a basis for comparing private law firm and public sector/public interest salaries. The contrasts, though hardly a surprise, are nonetheless stark. For example, according to the 2006 Associate Salary Survey, the median salary for a fifth-year associate ranged from $90,000 to $169,000 depending on firm size, figures that are at least double, and often more than double, what an attorney with similar experience makes at a public service organization. The $135,000 starting salary now typical at big firms in big cities is beyond what even the most experienced attorneys can reasonably expect at a public sector organization. (See Table 2.)

The full 2006 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report, including salaries by region and population size and additional information on bonuses and benefits, is available from NALP for $50 (plus shipping and handling). The 2006 Associate Salary Survey is available for $125 (plus shipping and handling). Both reports may be ordered through the online bookstore at www.nalp.org or by calling NALP.


 

Table 1. Median Salaries for Lawyers by Type of Organization and Years of Experience — 2004 and 2006

 

Years of Experience Civil Legal Services Public Defenders Local Prosecuting Attorneys State Prosecuting Attorneys Public Interest Organizations
2004 2006 2004 2006 2004 2006 2004 2006 2004 2006
Entry-level $34,000 $36,000 $39,000 $43,300 $40,000 $43,915 $40,574 $46,374 $36,656 $40,000
5 years 40,000 43,291 50,000 54,672 52,000 54,500 47,700 55,177 46,313 52,000
11-15 years 51,927 55,000 65,000 65,500 69,255 72,970 68,139 67,712 64,000 65,000

Note: Findings are based on a nationwide survey conducted by NALP among civil legal services organizations; offices of public defenders, state attorneys general, and local prosecuting attorneys; and public interest organizations. A total of 415 and 430 organizations completed the 2004 and 2006 surveys, respectively. The full survey methodology is included in the 2004 and 2006 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Reports.

 

Table 2. Median Salaries for Associates in Private Practice by Size of Firm — 2004 and 2006

 

  Firms of 50 or Fewer Lawyers Firms of 51-100 Lawyers Firms of 101-250 Lawyers Firms of 251-500 Lawyers Firms of 501+ Lawyers
2004 2006 2004 2006 2004 2006 2004 2006 2004 2006
First-year $70,000 $75,000 $81,000 $85,000 $88,500 $90,000 $97,250 $115,000 $120,000 $135,000
Fifth-year 88,000 90,000 97,000 100,000 102,000 106,583 115,570 135,500 155,000 168,643

Source: NALP Associate Salary Survey, 2004 and 2006.

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