$160,000 Associate Starting Salaries on the Decline

In a recent survey by the National Association of Law Placement (NALP) and a corresponding American Lawyer article by Karen Sloan, starting salaries for associates are declining at large law firms of 700+ lawyers. While this drop is less prevalent in New York and various other markets, on the whole it seems to be the trend. Prior to the recession, associate salaries had been on a steady year-to-year rise. By 2009, $160,000 had become the standard top dollar figure adopted by nearly all large firms. However, this is no longer the case as nationally as median starting salary for large firm associates is now $145,000.

In fact, the numbers vary significantly by region. Sloan notes that in the 21 cities studied by the NALP, “salaries of $160,000 were more common at large firms in the Northeast and on the West Coast, while large firms in the Midwest tended to pay new associates a median of $125,000 and large firms in the South paid $135,000.” To provide a frame of reference, 90% of large firms in L.A. and D.C. paid $160,000 in 2009, however that number is now below 70%.  New York, on the other hand fared much better, with 87% of large firms still paying $160,000, as did 75% of firms with 251-700 lawyers. At the same time, median starting salary in cities like Seattle or Minneapolis, have fallen to $120,000 and $110,000, respectively.

For smaller firms across the country, the outlook is slightly better. Contrary to expectation, firms with 251-500 lawyers reported an increase in starting pay from $125,000 to $135,000. Overall, median starting salaries for all law firm jobs rose from $115,000 last year to $125,000 in 2012. For small shops of 2-25 lawyers the median was $70,750. Interestingly, the findings among mid-size firms are less clear. Research actually suggests that large firms of 700+ paid the highest at $145,000, while firms of 251-500 lawyers actually paid a median of $10,000 higher ($135,000) than firms of 501-700 ($125,000).

Overall, the verdict seems to be that associate starting salaries are not as high as they once were. Certain markets like New York, L.A., and D.C. have fared better than others, but top dollar salaries of $160,000 are becoming less common across the country. Experts see this continuing to be the case for the foreseeable future, with expected stagnancy until the demand for legal services changes significantly from where it is now.