What Do New Lawyers Earn? A 15-Year Retrospective as Reported by Law School Graduates

NALP Bulletin, September 2007 

The table below provides a 15-year overview of law firm starting salaries based on NALP's annual graduate employment survey (now published as Jobs & JD's: Employment and Salaries of New Law Graduates). The figures in this table thus reflect actual salaries reported by law school graduates obtaining jobs in private practice rather than salary figures reported by law firms and published in the Associate Salary Survey. Also note that, because graduate employment information is collected and reported well after graduation, it is not as current as that reported in the Associate Salary Survey.

Two findings are noteworthy. First, during this time period, the overall median law firm starting salary has doubled, from $47,500 to $95,000. This reflects both rising salaries in general and an overall increase in the share of jobs taken in larger firms.

Second, in percentage terms, salaries have increased most at the largest firms, nearly doubling over the time period. The recent run-up at large firms came after six years of stability, which itself mirrored the stability of the early 1990s. Salaries at smaller firms have increased but at a much slower, although also a much more consistent, pace.

What Do New Lawyers Earn?

Commentary from the NALP Research Advisory Group

If we read between the lines of NALP research findings and consider the broader context, the data become even more useful to NALP members and other consumers of NALP research analyses. Here are two examples.

Finding:
Median salaries have doubled for graduates accepting jobs in private practice in the past 15 years.

Context: Are law graduates "worth" these salaries? Is the "greedy associate" appellation fitting? Consider the way several points of data intersect - tuition and fees, student debt, starting salaries, and cost of living - to get a comprehensive picture of the financial impact of law school attendance. For instance, ABA statistics show substantial increases in median tuition and fees to law schools in the past 15 years. In 1992, average tuition/fees at public law schools totaled $4,015 for residents and $18,146 for non-residents (i.e., out-of-state students). By 2006, those figures had risen to $14,245 and $25,227 respectively - cumulative increases of 149% for residents and 121% for non-residents. At private law schools, average tuition/fees in 1992 totaled $13,730. By 2006 that had risen 86% to $30,520. (See www.ABAnet.org/legaled/statistics.) In other words, the costs of a legal education have risen substantially faster than salaries, and these costs are an important factor in understanding the bigger picture of our current market.

As reported at the NALP/Access Group Law School Debt Symposia earlier this year, the average amount borrowed for law school is currently over $80,000 for private law school students and over $54,000 for public law school students.

Another Finding:
Salaries have increased the most at the largest firms. The recent and notable increases follow several years of consistency. Salary increases at smaller firms have been smaller and more consistent.

Context: Law schools with more graduates who accept private practice positions with larger firms will measure another jump in average salaries this year, unlike schools with graduates who distribute themselves more broadly across the spectrum of first jobs. Law schools often report this information to alumni, prospective students, and other audiences, some of whom will evaluate and form qualitative conclusions about the value of a legal education on the basis of recent graduate salaries. Access to the data NALP reports that is sorted by firm size (number of lawyers) will be increasingly useful to law schools who seek to communicate the story behind their median starting salaries to various audiences. This wealth of statistical information in the Jobs & JD's report enables career services professionals to explain the changing landscape in the context of the mission of the law school and the employment preferences of their students.

 

Median Starting Salaries by Firm Size — 1992-2006

Year FIRM SIZE (Number of Attorneys)

All Sizes 2-10 11-25 26-50 51-100 101-250 251-500 501+
1992 47,500 30,000 40,000 48,000 54,000 60,000 70,000 70,000
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*
% Change, 1992-2006 100% 67% 55% 52% 57% 75% 78% 93%

* The median for these categories is as shown. However, because so many salaries were reported at this level, the concept of a modal, or prevailing, salary is more useful.
Source: Employment Report & Salary Survey reports/Jobs & JD's reports for the Classes of 1992-2006.

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