Lawyer Pay

First-year associate pay continues to rise, despite pandemic, NALP survey says

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The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t curtailed base pay for beginning associates, according to the National Association for Law Placement's survey of mostly larger law firms.

The median base salary for first-year associates was $165,000 as of Jan. 1 this year, up $10,000 from 2019, the time of the last survey, according to a NALP press release. Law firms of more than 250 lawyers accounted for about 78% of the 572 responses.

The most common starting salary for beginning associates was $190,000, accounting for 39.6% of all salaries across all firm sizes.

Median base pay for other associates ranged from $170,000 for those in their second year to $225,000 for eighth-year associates.

About 63% of surveyed law offices reported that they cut salaries for associates in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But all the salary cuts had been lifted by Jan. 1 of this year. And many larger law firms are going further by giving special bonuses to associates, which are paid in addition to year-end bonuses.

Above the Law’s “bonus tracker” lists more than 60 law firms paying special bonuses this year that typically total $12,000 to $64,000. Several law firms also paid special bonuses last year that typically ranged from $7,500 to $40,000. And year-end bonuses last year generally ranged from $15,000 to $100,000.

The NALP has this breakdown of increases in base pay according to firm size:

• In firms of 101 to 250 lawyers, median first-year base pay increased from $115,000 in 2019 to $130,000 in 2021.

• In firms of 251 to 500 lawyers, median first-year base pay increased from $160,000 in 2019 to $170,000 in 2021.

• In firms of 501 to 700 lawyers, median first-year base pay dropped from $160,000 in 2019 to $155,000 in 2021. The drop is because of differences in the firms in this category between the two years, and it doesn’t indicate that the firms were lowering salaries, according to the NALP.

• In firms of more than 700 lawyers, median first-year base pay increased from $180,000 in 2019 to $190,000 in 2021.

In an interview with Reuters Legal, James Leipold, executive director of the NALP, said one reason for the rise in associate compensation is a “very hot, very tight market for lateral associate talent.”

He also noted that when base salaries begin to rise, not all law firms adopt the new scale at once.

“It takes a couple of years to work its way through the market and part of what we are seeing is just the saturation of that $190K base settling in,” he told Reuters Legal.

The full survey is available for purchase here.

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