Some Associate Salaries Retreat from Their High But Remain Far Ahead of Salaries for Public Service Attorneys

September 9, 2010

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Recent research from NALP reveals that associate salaries at law firms were largely flat between 2009 and 2010, although median salaries in some markets fell back. During this same period, salaries for lawyers working in the public interest have also been largely flat, and the gap between private sector and public interest lawyer salaries remains as large as ever.

NALP's 2010 Associate Salary Survey shows that, although the $160,000 salary for first-year associates still prevails at large firms in a number of markets, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC, in other markets, such as Boston and San Francisco, the median has dropped back to $145,000, reflecting salaries ranging from $110,000 to $160,000. Even in those markets where the prevailing figure remains at $160,000, salaries of $130,000 to $145,000 figure more prominently than was the case at the time of the 2009 report, confirming the characterization of 2009 as the recent high-water mark for large law firm salaries.

The overall median first-year salary was $115,000, and ranged from $72,000 in firms of 2-25 lawyers to $117,500 in firms of 501-700 lawyers, and $160,000 in firms of more than 700 lawyers, with the latter figure accounting for 58% of reported first-year salaries in firms that size, and also representing the high. The median at firms of 251-500 lawyers remained unchanged at $125,000, while that at firms of 500-700 lawyers declined by several thousand dollars, reflecting relatively more reporting of salaries of $110,000, $115,000, and $145,000 compared with 2009.

NALP also recently published the 2010 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report, a biennial report that provides salary information for both entry-level and experienced attorneys at public sector and public interest organizations. This report serves as a companion piece to NALP's annual Associate Salary Survey.

According to this new report, the median entry-level salary for an attorney at a civil legal services organization is $42,000; an attorney with 11-15 years of experience can expect a salary of about $62,000. The median entry-level salary for public defenders is about $45,700; with 11-15 years of experience, the median is about $76,000. The salary scale for local prosecuting attorneys is slightly higher, starting at $50,000 and progressing to $81,500 for those with 11-15 years of experience. Finally, salaries for attorneys in public interest organizations with issue-driven missions — such as those dealing with women's or environmental issues — start at $45,000 and rise to about $71,000 with 11-15 years of experience.

Together the two reports provide a basis for comparing private law firm and public sector/public interest salaries. The contrasts remain stark and alarming, notwithstanding salary decreases at some large law firms. For example, the median salary for a fifth-year associate ranges from $90,000 to almost $190,000, depending on firm size. In contrast, attorneys with similar experience at public sector and public interest organizations can expect salaries of roughly $50,000 to $60,000. The $160,000 first-year salary still offered at many big firms in big cities — or even $145,000 or $130,000 — is beyond what even the most experienced attorneys can reasonably expect at a public sector or public interest organization. Finally, it is also evident, based on comparisons to findings in previous reports, the first of which was in 2004, that salaries at public interest organizations have increased only modestly since then — by not more than $15,000, and less for more junior attorneys. Although these changes are in line with those at small law firms, during this same period the typical first-year salary in a large firm in a major market increased from $125,000 to as much as $160,000.

"The 2010 Associate Salary Survey makes it clear that associate salaries have come down in a small but measurable way, more so in some markets than others, but they have not come down nearly as much as we thought they might at the height of the recession," noted James Leipold, NALP's executive director. "The real story on associate salaries is that they have been largely flat during the recession, and that is actually better news than we might have hoped for." Leipold went on to say, "Of more importance is the persistent gap between private sector and public interest lawyer salaries that these two surveys so dramatically document. Even as some private sector associate salaries have fallen back during the recession, this gap has not diminished, and is not likely to diminish in the near future."

NALP's Associate Salary Survey Provides Detailed Look at Lawyer Salaries in Years 1 - 8

A total of 588 offices provided salary information as of April 1, 2010 for NALP's 2010 Associate Salary Survey. With 11% of respondents representing firms of 50 or fewer lawyers and 40% representing firms of more than 500 lawyers, the report sheds valuable light on the breadth of salary differentials among employers of varying sizes at the national level.

As expected, each year of associate experience brings several thousand dollars in increased compensation: median salaries for eighth-year associates ranged from $102,500 in small firms to about $230,000 in the largest firms, with a median for all reporting firms of $160,000.

The volume of data reported on this year's survey allowed analyses for 28 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 overall prevailing salary for first-year associates in firms of more than 700 lawyers was $160,000 in all regions but the South, where the median was $135,000. The highest first-year salary reported was $170,000. Salaries of $160,000 were not typical everywhere — the median in cities such as Detroit, Indianapolis, New Orleans, and St. Louis was $100,000. Contrasts between large and smaller metropolitan areas are also evident. For example, in large metropolitan areas with a population of more than 5 million, the median first-year salary in firms of 250-700 lawyers was $135,000; in metropolitan areas of fewer than 1.5 million, the median was $100,000.

The 2010 Associate Salary Survey also gathered information on salaries for intellectual property lawyers as well as on salary levels for staff attorneys and law clerks. Information on salaries for intellectual property attorneys was more limited, and in large part reported by firms of more than 250 lawyers. The information reported suggests that, compared with these size firms as a whole, IP lawyers may command a salary that is about $20,000 higher for junior associates but that the differential is larger among more senior associates. However, when IP salaries are compared with those of the very largest firms (those of more than 700 lawyers) as a whole, medians are very similar. Also, not all firms with IP lawyers have a differentiated salary scale.

Salaries for staff attorneys are typically just over $100,000 per year and were most commonly reported by small firms of 50 or fewer attorneys and midsize firms of 101-500 attorneys. Median hourly salaries for law clerks range from $24 to $50 per hour depending on firm size.

More detailed results by city and region for associates through the eighth year, information on compensation structures, and new information on salary ranges and bonuses are found in the complete 2010 Associate Salary Survey report, now available from NALP's bookstore for $135 plus shipping and handling.

Median Base Salaries by Associate Year and Firm Size (as of April 1, 2010)

Associate Year FIRM SIZE — Number of Lawyers
2-25 26-50 51-100 101-250 251-500 501-700 701+ All Sizes
Median # Rept Median # Rept Median # Rept Median # Rept Median # Rept Median # Rept Median # Rept Median # Rept
First $72,000 21 $95,000 21 $95,000 49 $105,000 96 $125,000 107 $117,500 80 $160,000* 69 $115,000 443
Second 76,500 18 103,000 25 99,775 52 110,000 85 125,000 96 122,700 80 165,000 89 120,375 445
Third 82,800 21 101,500 25 104,000 49 111,950 86 130,675 96 135,000 85 170,000 88 127,500 450
Fourth 83,750 18 103,500 26 104,250 52 117,000 85 135,000 98 137,500 86 176,800 88 132,400 453
Fifth 90,000 19 106,500 23 103,000 49 120,000 81 144,000 100 143,750 78 188,750 93 137,500 443
Sixth 94,300 18 109,425 20 105,500 49 120,000 81 147,000 91 151,500 71 210,000 91 144,000 421
Seventh 110,000 15 112,000 21 120,750 46 126,750 80 156,700 92 166,400 69 225,000 85 153,850 408
Eighth 102,500 14 114,950 18 125,225 40 135,000 73 161,625 88 177,500 60 235,675 79 160,000 372
Summer Associates ($/week)
1st year 1,025 10 1,275 12 1,100 29 1,800 59 2,100 37 1,775 38 2,875 49 1,925 234
2nd year 1,200 17 1,525 22 1,550 39 1,900 92 2,400 63 2,300 57 3,075 77 2,125 367
3rd year 1,000 9 1,700 6 1,900 10 1,800 14 3,075 23 2,100 17 3,075 37 2,500 116

The "# Rept" column indicates the number of offices reporting. Medians have been rounded to the nearest $25.
* This figure was reported by 58% of firms responding in this size category, and is also the high figure.

Public Sector/Public Interest Report Offers Analyses by Type of Public Service Employment and Years of Experience

The 2010 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report is based on a nationwide survey conducted by NALP among civil legal services organizations; offices of public defenders; local prosecuting attorneys; and public interest organizations. The survey was completed by 572 organizations, and the study 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 than 15 years of experience. In addition to national salary figures, the report provides sub-national analyses based on region of the country and population. The report also provides information about selected benefits and workplace policies, including the availability and cost of health and dental insurance, and whether or not the employer contributes to a retirement plan or has a Loan Repayment Assistance Program.

The “public interest organization” category is also further analyzed to focus on several subcategories of organizations based on the kinds of cases handled or issue areas advocated: international human rights/ immigration law; women/children/domestic violence; health/disability law; and housing/homelessness. This categorization allowed for salary comparisons among organizations performing the same type of work. For example, the median entry-level salary at organizations involved with issues related to women/children/ domestic violence is $41,000, compared with $48,700 at organizations involved with housing/homelessness issues. The report also has a section devoted entirely to compensation for federal government attorneys.

The full report, which includes more detail on all of the items mentioned above, is available from NALP for $50, plus shipping and handling.

Median Salaries for Public Interest Attorneys by Type of Organization and Years of Experience (as of January 1, 2010)

Years of Experience Civil Legal Services Public Defenders Local Prosecuting Attorneys Public Interest Organizations
Entry-level $42,000 $45,700 $50,000 $45,000
5 years 49,435 62,280 62,320 53,560
11-15 years 62,550 76,160 81,500 70,875
National Association for Law Placement, Inc.® (NALP®)
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