Opening Statements

What Goes Around?

Posted May 1, 2010 2:50 AM CDT

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It wasn’t that long ago when graduating law students could almost count on a six-figure starting salary. Now it’s more likely that they’ll graduate with a six-figure debt.

Is it true? We asked ABAJournal.com readers two questions:

• How much student debt did you have at law school graduation?
• What was your starting salary at your first law job?

More than 1,900 of you answered. Here’s a sample of the responses:

I graduated in 1996 from a top-15 law school in California. I took about a year off, then took the California bar exam. It took me several months to land a job once I moved back to California—in hindsight, I had terrible interview skills. I finally got an offer at a small PI firm in Orange County. Annual salary: $30,000. I started in December 1997 and lasted there eight months. —Gabe

My starting annual salary at a big NYC law firm in 1970 was $15,000, which is less than what we today pay (including bonus) starting associates per month. —Horace

My first full-time salaried position was with New York state (but located in NYC) and paid $48,000 in 2005. —Esq.

I started at $60,000 in 2006 as an associate at a 20-attorney firm in a largish Midwestern city. That was not including a bonus, but the bonus was pretty skimpy the first year. —Sua Sponte

I graduated in May and took my first job in a small-to-medium-size Midwestern city for $27,500 a year. It sucks, but when you’re staring bills square in the face with a wife, a child and one more on the way, you do what you have to. —Matt

I graduated in 2007, did an LLM right after law school (huge mistake), and took six months to find a doc review job. Doc review paid $26 an hour and $39 an hour for overtime. After the doc review industry dried up, it took me another four months to find a job with a small bankruptcy firm that pays $35K a year. I also receive a monthly performance bonus between $500 and $1,000. —arm

In 1982, as the junior associate, I earned $18K. There was the boss who ran the firm and a more senior associate (by two years) in Dodge County, Wis. I did family law and everything else that the more senior associate didn’t do in his criminal law practice. Fresh out of law school, it was fine. I lobbied for a $2K raise the next year because the boss bought the more senior associate a car lease and I bought my own car. That was “back in the day” when the boss didn’t hold us to billable hours. —Warren Kraft

$6,435 in 1962, a GS-9 in the federal government pay scale, which was the rate in the honors program for a newly graduated attorney. I thought it was a fabulous salary because I was married with two kids and this matched my income as an O-3 in the Navy. —Ron

I graduated in 1994 and was fortunate enough to land a job as a clerk for our state’s top appellate court. I was being paid the then-incredible salary—to me at least—of $36,000 per year. On top of that, I got to work with some of the best judges on one of the most highly respected state courts in the nation. I would have done it for free. And I’d do it for free again now! —Chris

$26,000 a year as a prosecutor in Fort Lauderdale in 2000. When I opened my first paycheck, my wife started to cry. Three months later, I was working as a securities attorney in Boca Raton for $40,000. —J. Bull

It seems so long ago that I started with what was then a “large” law firm in the Midwest (16 lawyers) at a salary of $12,500 a year; the extra $500 was a recognition that I graduated top of my class and order of coif. That was 1971. (A firm in the Northwest had offered me a similar salary, so that was not just a number common to the Midwest.) If memory serves me right, it took me more than 10 years to work my way up to where today’s starting salaries have soared. —Art Smith

When I get one I’ll let you know. —A.J.

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