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$160K Pay for New Associates Is Still the BigLaw Norm in Many Cities, Survey Finds

Posted Sep 9, 2010 7:49 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The gap between private sector and public interest salaries for lawyers is “stark and alarming,” despite pay cuts at some large firms, according to a legal career organization.

The median first-year base salary for law firm associates is $115,000, while the median pay for entry-level public interest lawyers ranges from $42,000 for those in civil legal services to $50,000 for local prosecutors, according to a NALP press release on its new 2010 Associate Salary Survey.

The survey found that $160,000 starting pay still prevails for first-year associates at large firms in several markets, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C., although salaries of $130,000 to $145,000 are more common in those locations than in 2009.

“The $160,000 first-year salary still offered at many big firms in big cities—or even $145,000 or $130,000—is beyond what even the most experienced attorneys can reasonably expect at a public sector or public interest organization,” the press release says.

The median salary for associates ranges from $72,000 in firms of two to 25 lawyers, to $117,500 in firms of 501 to 700 lawyers, and $160,000 in firms of more than 700 lawyers. Fifty-eight percent of the largest law firms reported $160,000 starting pay. But the increasing number of large firms paying less than $160,000 indicates that 2009 was “the recent high-water mark for large law firm salaries,” the press release says.

The press release quotes NALP executive director James Leipold. "The real story on associate salaries is that they have been largely flat during the recession, and that is actually better news than we might have hoped for,” he said. "Of more importance is the persistent gap between private sector and public interest lawyer salaries that these two surveys so dramatically document. Even as some private sector associate salaries have fallen back during the recession, this gap has not diminished and is not likely to diminish in the near future."

The press release goes on to call the pay gap “stark and alarming.” Since 2004, salaries at public interest organizations have increased modestly—by not more than $15,000 and less for more junior lawyers. During the same period, typical salaries at large firms increased by $35,000, rising from $125,000 to $160,000.

NALP has previously warned that its median pay figure for law firms may skew high because more large than small firms disclose their salaries. In a press release on its 2009 salary report, NALP said the median pay for law grads in all full-time jobs was $72,000, but few earned that amount. Instead, there was a cluster of associates earning BigLaw salaries in the $160,000 range, and another cluster of law grads whose pay ranged from $40,000 to $65,000.

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