The availability of legal jobs for new law graduates fell last year but pay generally held steady, according to the latest salary analysis from NALP, formerly the National Association for Law Placement.

The national median starting salary for full-time law jobs in 2009 was $72,000 and the average was $93,454 — virtually identical to 2008 salary figures, according to a report released on Thursday.

NALP conceded that those figures may not present the true picture, however, because they don’t account for the fact that salary information for larger law firms is much more widely available than for smaller firms. Fewer than half of small firms report salary, according to NALP. Averaging reported salaries alone skews the figure higher because large firms tend to pay more.

So NALP has devised a new salary measure that gives added weight to what small firm data were available: adjusted average salary. NALP found that the adjusted average starting salary for 2009 law graduates was $85,198, compared the unadjusted $93,454 figure. For full-time law firm jobs, the adjusted mean was $102,959, compared to the unadjusted mean of $115,254.

NALP didn’t recalculate its 2008 figures to reflect the new methodology.

“As a matter of consumer information, especially for students who are considering applying to law school, the adjusted mean provides a better benchmark than the unadjusted mean, because it accounts for the larger number of lower salaries that are not reported,” said NALP executive director James Leipold.

While salary averages are helpful for tracking changes over time, they aren’t particularly helpful in predicting the starting salary for a new law graduate, Leipold said. That’s because salaries are clustered in two areas — a phenomenon known as the bimodal distribution curve. One cluster is in the $40,000 to $60,000 range and the other around $160,000. The lower range tends to include attorneys in public interest and government jobs, while the higher cluster includes associates at large law firms.

As NALP reported in May, jobs were much harder to come by for 2009 law graduates. The 88% of graduates who found employment after nine months represented a nearly 4% drop from the recent peak in 2007. However, a much higher percentage of 2009 graduates are in temporary jobs, which masks a weakness in the employment market. Additionally, a higher proportion of recent graduates than in the past are working in jobs that don’t require a law degree — 71% of 2009 law grads had jobs that required a J.D., compared to 75% the previous year, NALP found.

“Just as an average starting salary cannot describe the likelihood of a particular starting salary for any one law school graduate, there is no single set of statistics that can predict employment opportunities for a single graduate,” Leipold said. “Consumers of legal education and those who study the legal employment market need to consider the broad array of factors that influence the initial outcomes for new lawyers.”

Karen Sloan can be contacted at