Welcome to Your First Year as a Lawyer. Your Salary Is $160,000


Salaries for lawyers starting out at firms have remained flat, with an annual pay of $160,000 continuing to be the top of the market, according to a new survey from the National Association for Law Placement.

Some 39 percent of the largest firms — those with 700 lawyers or more — reported paying that amount in the association’s 2015 law associates’ salary survey. This was up from last year, when only 27 percent of the big firms reported paying their new legal hires at the uppermost level.

Harvard Law School graduates wave gavels in the air as they celebrate their commencement.

Harvard Law School graduates wave gavels in the air as they celebrate their commencement.

But the percentage was still below 2009, when nearly two-thirds of the first-year salaries were at the top point of $160,000.

The reason is not that individual firms are paying less, said James G. Leipold, executive director of National Association for Law Placement, but “as more law firms have grown through acquisition and merger, the largest law firms are not as similar to one another as they used to be.”

 

Mr. Leipold added that there were many firms with more than 700 lawyers that have many smaller regional offices, many of which don’t pay the benchmark first-year salary of $160,000. As a result, he added, “a larger percentage of large law firm starting salaries fall below that mark.”

There are certainly exceptions, with some first-year associates making more than the $160,000 figure. But, for the most part, the ceiling seems to have been stuck at that amount since 2007, when some law firms began to increase starting salaries — a practice that soon began to wane as the economy turned down.

“The simple story is that $160,000 as a starting salary at large law firms is less prevalent than it was immediately prior to the recession,” Mr. Leipold explained. “At large law firms, starting salaries of $145,000 and $135,000, and even $110,000 are common in some markets, though $160,000 is still the dominant or modal salary in large markets.”

 

In the biggest legal markets — including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington — $160,000 is the most common salary at the largest firms that reported paying first years. Only about 60 percent of the largest firms with offices in Los Angeles and Washington said they paid the top amount now — a significant drop from 2009, when 90 percent of firms said they did so.

In New York, however, “the $160,000 starting salary is almost universal,” Mr. Leipold noted. About 85 percent of firms in the city with at least 250 lawyers are paying that amount; about 90 percent of firms with 700 or more lawyers paid first-year hires that amount.

Of course, a newly minted lawyer still can take home more than the top salary: Even first-year lawyers are eligible for annual bonuses that can be in the tens of thousands of dollars at elite firms.

The association said 556 law offices from across the country responded to the survey. Over all, the national median first-year salary at firms of any size was $135,000. That is a rise of $10,000 since 2014, but the association said that fewer smaller firms responded this year than in previous years.

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