Survey shows associate salaries largely flat last year, but median slips a bit

Recent research from the National Association for Law Placement (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, D.C., 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 percent 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.

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.

The Public Sector/Public Interest Report is available from NALP for $50, plus shipping and handling.

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Published: Mon, Sep 27, 2010


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