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Legal Salaries: Median Salaries for Attorneys

Don’t assume that all lawyers make a lot of money. Some do, most don’t. Legal salaries are driven largely by where you work. Private sector employers pay much better than government or public interest employers. The prestigious law firms located in the nation’s largest cities pay the best: it is not unusual to have a six-figure starting salary in New York City or San Francisco. The top Minneapolis firms offer starting salaries to the best and the brightest new lawyers in the range of $75,000 to $95,000.

Not bad, huh? Do you see dollar signs flashing before your eyes? If you do, perhaps you should think instead about how much a cot costs, because it will come in handy for those frequent late nights in the office.

The truth is, you will work for those bucks. A large law firm expects a commitment of your time and loyalty, meaning that, for many firms, you put the firm and its clients first. It is not unusual to work late nights, weekends, and holidays. As a new associate, you are at the bottom of the hierarchy, any you’ll remain there for at least 2-4 years, until you have established yourself in the firm, and younger folks have joined that you can now dump your “dog” cases on.

Developing a client base is something that you will have to do both in and outside of your firm. Client development hours are often in addition to your required work hours. Consequently, free time will remain at a premium for a long time if you choose to work at one of these prestigious firms. For that reason, many people leave large law firms after a few years. The attrition rate is quite high, as lawyers seek alternatives that will provide them and their families a more balanced lifestyle.

Government law jobs are a decidedly mixed bag. On the one hand, they are much easier on families, since the hours tend to be regular, and nights and weekends are rare. On the other hand, they are hard to get, particular at this time when national, state, and county governments are cutting back on staff due to budget shortfalls. Government jobs present different kinds of challenges, too: lack of staff, lack of adequate supplies, too many cases, too much bureaucracy, and the like. Public defenders do work that is often personally fulfilling and extremely frustrating at the same time. Like public defenders, prosecutors have huge caseloads and limited public funds for their offices. Agency attorneys work 9 to 5, but depending on the agency, the work can be repetitive and boring.

Public interest law jobs are perhaps the most personally rewarding, but of course they are the lowest paying—significantly lower than private and government jobs. There is a tremendous need for legal counsel for the poor, but many students find that they simply cannot pursue such low-paying jobs upon graduation. Recognizing this fact, law schools increasingly are offering student loan forgiveness programs to their graduates. These programs vary from place to place, but generally the school uses a fund of money to make the monthly student loan payments of an attorney who takes a public interest job. The amount of money granted as well as the length of the forgiveness period vary; often it depends on what one earns in salary from the non-profit. If you are interested in public interest work, but will need to take out loans to pay for law school, you should carefully investigate schools’ loan forgiveness programs during the application process. Some schools are more generous than others and more supportive of public interest work.

With that introduction, let’s talk about salaries. What does a lawyer make? Happily, the National Association of Law Placement (NALP), a non-profit group representing legal employers, bar associations, and law schools, regularly surveys employers to ascertain current salaries and hiring trends. Take a look at its latest conclusions:

Median Salaries for Attorneys by Type of Organization and Years of Experience

Years of Experience Civil Legal Services Organizations Public Defenders Local Prosecuting Attorneys State Prosecuting Attorneys Public Interest Organizations
Entry-level $34,000 $39,000 $40,000 $40,574 $36,656
5 years $40,000 $50,000 $52,000 $47,700 $46,313
11-15 years $51,927 $65,000 $69,255 $68,139 $64,000

Source: 2004 Public Sector and Public Interest Report. �2005 NALP.

15-Year Overview - Median Starting Salaries by Firm Size — 1990-2004

Year Firm Size (Number of Attorneys)
All Sizes 2-10 11-25 26-50 51-100 101-250 251-500 501+
1990 $50,000 $30,000 $40,000 $45,000 $53,000 $60,000 $70,000 $70,000
1991 $50,000 $30,000 $40,000 $48,000 $55,000 $61,000 $70,000 $70,000
1992 $47,500 $30,000 $40,000 $48,000 $54,000 $60,000 $70,000 $70,000
1993 $48,000 $30,000 $40,000 $48,000 $54,000 $61,750 $70,000 $70,000
1994 $50,000 $32,000 $40,000 $48,000 $55,000 $60,080 $70,000 $70,000
1995 $50,000 $32,500 $40,000 $48,000 $55,000 $62,000 $72,000 $72,000
1996 $50,000 $34,000 $40,000 $49,000 $55,000 $62,000 $74,000 $77,000
1997 $55,000 $35,000 $42,000 $50,000 $58,000 $67,000 $79,000 $80,000
1998 $60,000 $37,000 $43,500 $52,000 $62,000 $72,000 $85,000 $90,000
1999 $70,000 $40,000 $46,000 $55,000 $70,000 $80,000 $92,000 $97,000
2000 $80,000 $40,000 $50,000 $60,000 $76,000 $99,500 $125,000* $125,000*
2001 $90,000 $43,000 $52,000 $62,000 $80,000 $100,000 $125,000* $125,000*
2002 $90,000 $45,000 $52,500 $65,000 $80,000 $100,000 $125,000* $125,000*
2003 $80,000 $45,000 $55,000 $65,000 $80,000 $95,000 $125,000* $125,000*
2004 $80,000 $48,000 $55,000 $65,000 $76,000 $100,000 $116,000 $125,000*
% Change, 1990-2004 60% 60% 37% 44% 43% 67% 66% 79%

* The median for these categories is technically $125,000 based on a ranking of all reported salaries. However, because about half of the reported salaries were $125,000, the concept of a modal, or prevailing, salary is more useful. 

Source: Employment Report & Salary Survey reports/Jobs & JD’s reports for the Classes of 1990-2004. �2005 NALP.


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