First-year associate salaries increase sharply since 2021

The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) has released its 2023 Associate Salary Survey report, showing  the overall median first-year associate base salary as of Jan. 1, 2023, was $200,000, up $35,000 (+21.2%) from 2021, when the survey was last administered. Law offices in firms of more than 250 lawyers accounted for about 81% of the 694 survey responses, up from 78% in 2021.

“The past two years saw a red-hot recruiting market where associates scored multiple pay raises and commanded unprecedented leverage as firms desperately tried to add and retain lawyers,” said Nikia L. Gray, NALP’s executive director. “Although the market has since turned 180 degrees, the added pressure of the so-called talent wars at the time appears to have caused these pay increases to cascade throughout the market at an accelerated pace. While normally it takes the highly publicized raises at the largest firms two or more years to move through the market, NALP’s latest Associate Salary Survey shows that salaries increased dramatically across the industry, regardless of firm size or location.”

By firm size, first-year salaries increased across the board since 2021. Despite much of the press coverage that has been focused on salaries in larger-sized firms, in terms of percentage growth, salaries were up the most in firms of 100 or fewer lawyers — where the median first-year salary grew from $120,000 in the 2021 survey to $155,000 in 2023 (+29.2%). In actual dollars, firms of 501-700 lawyers saw the largest increase, with the median first-year salary growing from $155,000 in 2021 to $200,000 in 2023 (+$45,000). Although firms of more than 1,000 lawyers were the only firms in which the median first-year salary was $215,000 in 2023, it nevertheless seems that those large firm salary increases, coupled with rising inflation, may have put pressure on smaller firms to increase their salaries as well.

It is important to note that because the respondent pool for the survey 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 analyses 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 the size of a law firm changing, and fluctuations in the distribution of respondents play a role in determining changes in median salaries within the report.

Key findings include:

• Although several firms announced first-year associate salaries of $215,000 in early 2022, the overall median salary for all firms (regardless of size) was $200,000, and therefore was still shy of that amount by $15,000 in 2023. Only in the largest firms of more than 1,000 lawyers did the median first-year salary reach $215,000, accounting for 75.0% of all first-year salaries in this firm size.

• Across all firm sizes, a $215,000 salary was the modal, or most frequently occurring, first-year associate base salary reported, accounting for 42.7% of all salaries.

• Geography continues to have a considerable impact on salary differences across regions, cities, and states. This year’s report contains analyses for 26 individual cities, as well as additional states and regions not encompassed by those cities. These analyses reveal a wide spectrum of law firm compensation, with median first-year salaries by city ranging from $145,000 to $215,000.

• Eleven cities now have a median starting salary of $215,000: Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles/Orange County, New York City, San Diego, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and the Washington, DC area.

• NALP’s analyses also include regional salary data for locations outside of the 26 individual cities included in the report. Starting salaries of $215,000 are found far less frequently in offices in these smaller U.S. cities and towns. For locations outside of the 26 major cities included in the report, the highest median first-year associate base salary was in the Northeast ($170,000), followed by the Midwest and West, both at $165,000. The lowest salaries were in the South, with a median first-year salary of $135,000.

• The median weekly salary for second-year summer associates grew from $3,075 in 2021 to $3,550 in 2023 (+13.4%).

The report provides information about associate and summer associate salaries by firm size, region, and metropolitan area population; detailed salary analyses for 26 major markets; analyses of salaries for offices using a levels-based compensation system; base salaries for Class of 2023 associates by firm size and city; salaries for intellectual property lawyers, salaries for law clerks and staff attorneys; and more. To purchase a copy of the 2023 Associate Salary Survey report, visit