Associate salaries rise in some markets, but national median remains unchanged

The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) today released its 2017 Associate Salary Survey report, showing that the overall median first-year salary as of January 1, 2017, was $135,000, the same as in 2015, the year of the most recent previous survey — with both survey years reflecting response pools in which offices in firms of 251+ lawyers accounted for about 70 percent of responses. The median for firms of 501-700 lawyers was $160,000 as of January 1 of this year, compared with $125,000 in 2015; the median in firms of 701+ lawyers was $155,000 this year, compared with $145,000 in 2015. The full 2017 Associate Salary Survey report is available in the NALP bookstore here for $160 plus shipping and handling.

Significant Findings:

• Many firms are not yet paying first-year associates a $180,000 starting salary. While in some markets such as New York, Los Angeles/Orange County area, and Washington, DC/Northern Virginia many large firms have adopted a $180,000 starting salary, overall not nearly enough firms reported an $180,000 salary to push the median up to that level, even among the largest firms.

• Though seemingly counterintuitive, the findings 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 many firms with more than 700 lawyers that are made up of many smaller regional offices, many of which don’t pay a first-year salary of $180,000, and as a result, a large percentage of large law firm starting salaries fall below that mark.

• The overall median has remained the same as in 2015, when this survey was last administered. Just as in 2007 when the movement to a starting salary of $160,000 began, it took several years to become the prevailing salary at the largest firms.

• Region and geography still play an important role in salary differentials. This year’s survey contains analyses for 30 individual cities as well as additional states and regions not encompassed by those cities. These analyses reveal a wide range of law firm compensation. For example, the overall median salary for first-year associates in firms of more than 251 lawyers was $135,000 but ranged from $90,000 in firms of 50 or fewer attorneys to between $150,000 and $160,000 in firms of more than 250 attorneys.

“It’s not what I expected to see,” says James Leipold, NALP’s executive director. “After all of the publicity surrounding the move to $180,000, I fully expected to see the national median starting salary for law firms move upwards, but what the data reveal is that for the most part only the largest firms in the largest legal markets made that move, and while many offices are paying $180,000 to start, many are not. The result is upward movement in some law firm size bands while the national median has remained unchanged.”


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