New public service attorney salary figures from NALP show slow growth since 2004

According to new research from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), salaries for public service attorneys have risen modestly since 2004, but among attorneys working in civil legal services organizations, as public defenders or local prosecuting attorneys, or as attorneys in public interest organizations, those providing civil legal services have the lowest median entry-level salary, earn the smallest increases in salary based on experience, and have seen the slowest growth in salary levels over the past 14 years. This is a key finding from NALP/PSJD’s 2018 Public Service Attorney Salary Survey and is consistent with findings from earlier surveys, which have been conducted periodically since 2004.

The 2018 report demonstrates that, in general, practice experience brings with it relatively modest salary increases, particularly within civil legal services organizations. For example, the median entry-level salary for a legal services attorney is $48,000; at 11-15 years of experience the median is $69,500. Pay for public defenders and local prosecuting attorneys is somewhat higher, starting at about $58,000 and $56,000, respectively, and increasing to about $96,000 and $84,000, respectively, for those with 11-15 years of experience.

NALP’s Public Service 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, and provides salary information for both entry-level and experienced attorneys at public interest organizations as of January 1, 2018. A total of 347 organizations participated in the survey. The figures reflect salaries of attorneys whose positions involve primarily law practice and not organizational management.

The report categorizes salary outcomes both geographically and based on the nature of the responding organization. (Definitions for the categories used are available in the report’s introduction.) For example, entry-level salaries at civil legal services organizations are notably higher in the Northeast (as defined by the US Census Bureau), with a median of over $58,000. Among local prosecuting attorneys, salary scales are higher in the West. The report also includes information on the types of benefits responding organizations provide their attorneys.

“It is gratifying to see that salaries for public service attorneys continue to rise,” said NALP’s executive director James Leipold, “but at a time when private sector starting salaries at the largest law firms are on the move as well, the gap between large law firm salaries and public service salaries is highlighted. Supporting lawyers who work in the public interest with professional compensation packages that allow them to pay down their student debt, afford housing, and do the good work they do has never been more important.”

The report, taken in tandem with its law firm companion piece — NALP’s 2017 Associate Salary Survey — highlights well-understood, but nonetheless sobering distinctions between public sector/public interest salaries and law firm salaries. The median first-year salary at a law firm of 50 or fewer attorneys was about $90,000 in 2017, not quite double the salary for an entry-level attorney at a legal services organization. The median first-year salary for firms with 51-100 attorneys was $115,000. Moreover, the $180,000 starting salary paid at many large firms in big cities, and the recent move to $190,000 on the part of a number of firms, is beyond what even the most experienced attorneys can reasonably expect at a public interest organization.

For the first time in 2018, the Public Service Attorney Salary Report is available as an interactive web tool, including visualizations readers will be able to modify to meet their needs. These visualizations include tools for comparing salaries across geographic regions, salaries across different types of organizations, and salaries reported in 2018 with those reported in response to the 2014 survey. The report may also be downloaded as a static PDF.

Different stakeholders in the public service legal community may use this report for many different reasons: to set salary scales, to negotiate compensation structures with unionized attorneys, to lobby government funding appropriators or charitable funders for additional resources, to educate law students about public service careers, and so forth.

The full report, including access to the interactive web tool, tables with salaries by region, community population size, and organizational type, and additional information on health and dental insurance and retirement plans is available online at www.nalp.org/bookstore for $50; the report is free to PSJD subscriber schools, their students, and their alumni. A list of subscriber schools can be found at https://www.psjd.org/subscriber-schools.

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