What Do New Lawyers Earn? A 15-Year Retrospective 1994-2008

NALP Bulletin, August 2009

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; however, because this information is collected as of the February 15th following graduation, it is current through the Class of 2008. A future companion piece to this article will report on salaries from the employer perspective as reported in NALP's annual Associate Salary Survey.

Two findings are noteworthy. First, during this time period, the overall median law firm starting salary has more than doubled, from $50,000 to $125,000. This reflects rising salaries in general, especially at large firms, and an overall increase in the share of jobs taken in larger firms, where salary coverage is more complete.

Second, even though salary coverage is more complete for jobs at large firms, comparisons between firm sizes are still valid and it is the case that, in percentage terms, salaries have increased most at the largest firms, more than doubling over the time period. The most recent run-up at large firms came after a period of stability from 2000-2005, which itself mirrored a period of stability of the early 1990s when large firm salaries stood at $70,000. Salaries at smaller firms have increased but at a much slower though also relatively consistent pace of a few thousand dollars per year.

Median Starting Salaries by Firm Size — 1994-2008

Year FIRM SIZE (Number of Attorneys)

All Sizes 2-10 11-25 26-50 51-100 101-250 251-500 501+
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*
% Change,
1994-2008
150% 72% 63% 60% 73% 100% 129% 129%

* 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 1994-2008.

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