Findings on First-Year Salaries from the 2021 Associate Salary Survey

NALP Bulletin+
May 2021

NALP's new 2021 Associate Salary Survey report shows that the overall median first-year associate base salary as of January 1, 2021 was $165,000, up $10,000 (6.5%) from 2019, the year of the last biennial survey administration. However, salary improvements were not universal across firm sizes. Firms of 251-500 lawyers and those with more than 700 lawyers saw modest salary gains compared to 2019, with median first-year associate base salaries in each firm size increasing by $10,000 to $170,000 and $190,000, respectively.

Larger increases were observed for firms of 51-100 lawyers where salaries grew by $12,500 to $127,500 and in firms of 101-250 lawyers, where salaries improved by $15,000 to $130,000. Median 2021 first-year associate salaries in firms of 501-700 lawyers declined by $5,000 to $155,000. This decrease from 2019 is not indicative of firms of 501-700 lawyers lowering their first-year salaries since 2019, instead it is because of differences in the composition of firms that fell into this firm size between the two years, due to both changes in the size of some firms as compared to 2019 and a different mix of participating firms. Lower salaries as compared to 2019 were also observed in the smallest firms of 50 or fewer lawyers. Law firms of more than 250 attorneys accounted for about 78% of all responses in 2021, compared to 70% in 2019. See Chart 1 to further explore these trends.

It is important to note that because the respondent pool for the survey, both with respect to firm size and even within firm size, varies from year to year, use of the Associate Salary Survey data across different years to discern trends should be done with caution, as these reports do not contain salary scales for a set group of firms. Salary adjustments on the part of some large firms in recent years, law firm acquisitions and mergers which can result in firm size changes, and fluctuations in the distribution of respondents play a role in determining changes in median salaries within the report.

Despite the fact that nearly 63% of offices reported implementing salary reductions for associates in 2020 due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of these offices indicated that salary reductions were no longer in place as of January 1, 2021, thus, ultimately having little to no impact on 2021 salaries.

Although several firms announced $190,000 salaries in 2018, there were still not enough offices reporting a $190,000 salary to push the median up to that level in any of the firm sizes back in 2019. However, in 2021 the median first-year associate base salary in firms of more than 700 lawyers did finally reach $190,000, but the overall median salary was still shy of that amount by $25,000. A $190,000 salary was the modal, or most frequently occurring, first-year associate base salary reported, accounting for 39.6% of all salaries and 53.3% of salaries in firms of more than 700 lawyers. While it may seem unusual that an even larger percentage of salaries in the largest firms have not yet moved to $190,000, the data suggest that as more law firms have grown through acquisitions and mergers, the largest law firms are not as similar to one another as they used to be. In addition to elite global law firms, there are several firms with more than 700 lawyers that are made up of numerous smaller regional offices, many of which do not pay the new benchmark first-year salary of $190,000, and, as a result, just a slim majority of large law firm starting salaries have reached the $190,000 mark in 2021. See Chart 2 for more detailed information on the frequency of $190,000 salaries by firm size.

As Table 1 shows, almost 40% of responding offices reported $190,000 as the average associate first-year base salary in 2021. By firm size, firms of more than 700 lawyers were the only category in which the majority of responding offices reported a salary of $190,000. Offices paying $190,000 were also concentrated primarily within a few cities. As Table 2 illustrates, well over half (58.1%) of the offices reporting an average first-year salary of $190,000 came from just five reporting areas: New York City, the Washington, DC area, Los Angeles/Orange County, Dallas, and San Francisco. More than one-quarter (25.7%) of the reported $190,000 salaries came from the three largest California markets - Los Angeles/Orange County, San Francisco, and the Silicon Valley — and about 16% came from the three largest Texas markets of Dallas, Houston, and Austin.

When further exploring salary data by geographic market, the majority of offices in 10 cities or areas now have a $190,000 starting salary. As Table 3 indicates, these cities or markets include the Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Houston, New York City, Austin, Boston, Los Angeles/Orange County, the Washington, DC area, Dallas, and Chicago. However, many locations, including the Detroit area, Portland (OR), the Raleigh/Durham area, and the St. Louis area, still had zero offices reporting a $190,000 first-year salary in 2021. Regionally, the highest median first-year associate base salaries reported were in the Northeast ($175,000), followed by the South and West, both at $170,000. The lowest salaries were in the Midwest ($130,000).

The 2021 Associate Salary Survey is available in NALP's bookstore.


Chart 1: Median Associate First-Year Base Salaries (in $/year) by Firm Size, 2015-2021


Year Firm Size - Number of Lawyers
50 or Fewer 51-100 101-250 251-500 501-700 701+ Overall
2015 $121,500 $111,250 $115,000 $145,000 $125,000 $145,000 $135,000
2017 90,000 115,000 113,500 150,000 160,000 155,000 135,000
2019 98,750 115,000 115,000 160,000 160,000 180,000 155,000
2021 85,000 127,500 130,000 170,000 155,000 190,000 165,000

Note: All figures are based on average salaries reported as of January 1 of the respective year.
Source: NALP Associate Salary Survey, 2015-2021.


Chart 2: Percentage of Offices Reporting a First-Year Base Salary of $190,000 by Firm Size



Table 1: Distribution of Average Associate First-Year Salaries by Firm Size
(in $/year, as of January 1, 2021)

Average First-year Salary Overall % of Salaries Reported at Each Amount by Firm Size (# of lawyers)
100 or fewer 101-250 251-500 501-700 701+
Less than $100,000 5.4% 33.3% 11.8% 0.0% 5.4% 0.0%
$115,000 3.2 0.0 10.3 1.6 1.8 2.2
$125,000 4.0 6.1 2.9 9.5 8.9 0.5
$130,000 3.2 9.1 2.9 3.2 1.8 2.7
$140,000 4.7 9.1 5.9 6.3 3.6 3.3
$150,000 4.5 3.0 1.5 11.1 3.6 3.8
$160,000 3.7 0.0 4.4 3.2 5.4 3.8
$165,000 5.7 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 12.5
$180,000 4.7 0.0 1.5 3.2 7.1 6.5
$190,000 39.6 12.1 23.5 41.3 28.6 53.3

Note: The salaries included in this table are those that accounted for 3% or more of reported salaries. The overall column reports the percentage of all first-year salaries that were reported at each salary level. Salaries are then further broken out by the percentage of first-year salaries within each firm size.
Source: NALP 2021 Associate Salary Survey


Table 2: Distribution of Average Associate First-Year Salaries of $190,000 by City
(as of January 1, 2021)

City % of $190,000 First-year Salaries Accounted for by This City
New York City 15.6%
Washington, DC area 15.6
Los Angeles/Orange County 11.9
Dallas 7.5
San Francisco 7.5
Silicon Valley 6.3
Chicago 6.3
Houston 5.6
Boston 4.4
Austin 3.1
Charlotte 2.5
Philadelphia 1.3
Atlanta 1.3
Denver 1.3
Seattle area 1.3
Wilmington, DE 1.3
Total 92.5%

Note: In total, 160 offices reported $190,000 as the average first-year associate salary. In addition to the cities listed, twelve additional offices across ten cities reported a $190,000 average first-year salary, collectively accounting for 7.5% of all $190,000 salaries.
Source: NALP 2021 Associate Salary Survey


Table 3: Percentage of Offices Reporting a $190,000 Average Associate First-Year Salary in Selected Cities
(as of January 1, 2021)

City % of Offices Reporting a First-year Salary
of $190,000
# of Offices Reporting an
Average First-year Salary
Silicon Valley 100.0% 10
San Francisco 85.7 14
Houston 81.8 11
New York City 80.6 31
Austin 71.4 7
Boston 70.0 10
Los Angeles/Orange County 67.9 28
Washington, DC area 67.6 37
Dallas 66.7 18
Chicago 52.6 19
Charlotte 44.4 9
Wilmington, DE 28.6 7
Seattle area 28.6 7
Philadelphia 25.0 8
Atlanta 22.2 9
Denver 22.2 9
Minneapolis 10.0 10
Miami/West Palm Beach area 9.1 11
Detroit area 0.0 8
Portland, OR 0.0 6
Raleigh/Durham area 0.0 7
St. Louis area 0.0 6

Note: The cities included this table had at least six offices reporting an average first-year associate salary.
Source: NALP 2021 Associate Salary Survey

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