You have just gone through the money-suck that is a legal education. Let’s say this is a perfect world and you get to work wherever you want. No limitations. As long as it is in America. Where do you go? A huge law firm in New York City? A small nonprofit working with foster youth in Oakland?
Now let’s say you want to make the most money possible. Where would you re-locate then? The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) has the answer for you in its recently released annual salary report for practicing attorneys.
A total of 560 law offices of all sorts representing 27 cities responded to the survey. The top salary given by respondents was $180,000. The most common figure given was $160,000. As you might expect, the best strategy for making major cash-money is to go to a large law firm in a large market in the Northeast (Boston and New York, I am looking at you).
Regionally, the top median salary reported came from the Northeast at $160,000. The numbers reported from other regions were $145,000 in the West, $125,000 in the South, and $110,000 in the Midwest.
The highest median came from law firms with 251 to 500 employees at $160,000. The lowest median salary was in the law firms with 2 to 25 employees and stood at $68,000. The median salary across all sizes of law firms for first-year associates is currently $125,000. This number has remained the same since 2012. So, if working at a law firm is your thing, and you don’t care about money, try a firm of seven people in St. Louis or San Antonio, perhaps.
A CHANGING LANDSCAPE
At first glance, the study seems to fuel the news tsunami of legal job market woes. The prevalence of $160,000 starting salaries at law firms with 700+ employees has dropped from two-thirds to 27% in the past five years. The $160,000 figure has been the same since 2007 when it was raised from $145,000. The national median for first-year associates at large law firms is $135,000—the lowest since 2006.
But the study suggests this could all be the result of a decrease in homogeneity among large law firms. Mergers, acquisitions and growth have been increasing among large law firms resulting in 700+ employee law firms being divided into smaller regional offices. So the salary landscape for first-year associates is not necessarily on the decline—just shifting. Yes, the number of $160,000 salaries is less, but so is the amount of offices of 700+ employees in large markets. Additionally, at around one-fourth, the $160,000 figure is still the most commonly given.
PUBLIC SERVICE JOBS STILL GET THE SHORT END OF THE SALARY STICK
Back to our hypothetical. What if you are a do-good type of attorney? You did the Peace Corps right before entering law school. And your goal is to help this world we live in. You will probably be in debt for forever, right? Afraid so. First-year attorneys working for public interest law offices had a median salary of $46,000. And civil legal service lawyers have a median first-year salary of $44,600, representing the lowest paid attorneys.
The difference between potential paths taken out of law school are staunchly different. After five years, a civil legal service lawyer can expect to make around $51,000 a year. A fifth-year associate at a law firm with 251-500 employees can expect to make about $210,000. What’s more, the highest paid public service attorneys are public defenders who, after 15 years of work, can expect to make $84,500. After eight years, the highest paid lawyers at a 251-500 employee law firm will be making about $235,000. Half the years working as an attorney, nearly three times the salary.
The good news is money is not decreasing. It might be getting spread around more, but it is still there.
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