James Leipold, executive director, The National Association for Law Placement (Diego M. Radzinschi)
Lucky associates at one law firm in Atlanta are making a whopping $180,000 in their first year on the job, according to the National Association for Law Placement Inc. But they are hardly the norm.
The median Atlanta starting salary remained at $135,000 as of Jan. 1 for the 11 firms participating in NALP’s annual associate salary survey. The figure didn’t budge from NALP’s prior report, despite the round of pay raises that swept Atlanta’s largest firms last summer, led locally by King & Spalding and Alston & Bird.
The raises bumped up starting salaries from $135,000 to $155,000 at the city’s largest firms, with corresponding increases up the associate pay scale. But lower salaries at some Atlanta firms appear to have kept the median in check. The NALP presents the firms’ data in the aggregate, without naming any firms. Nationally, more than 500 firms participated in the survey, with large firms of 251 or more lawyers making up 70 percent of the responses.
According to the NALP survey, released June 1, starting salaries at the 11 firms reporting pay for Atlanta ranged from a low of $90,000 up to a high of $180,000 for associates at one unnamed firm—matching the starting pay for elite New York firms set last year by Cravath, Swaine & Moore.
That kept median starting pay at $135,000 (with median eighth-year pay at $176,500)—even though 40 percent of the respondent firms reported paying the new top starting salary of $155,000 or more.
Atlanta’s largest firms all jumped on the pay raise bandwagon last year, including Troutman Sanders, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, Eversheds Sutherland, Morris, Manning, & Martin and Smith, Gambrell & Russell.
Several Am Law 100 and 200 firms also matched the pay increases in their Atlanta offices, including Baker & Hostetler, Holland & Knight, Seyfarth Shaw and Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice.
Local litigation boutique Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, which has fewer than 50 lawyers, also raised its pay scale, matching the new $155,000 floor.
But even though plenty of Atlanta associates benefited from a $20,000 or more raise in the pay scale, plenty of others didn’t.
Even looking solely at firms in the NALP data with more than 251 lawyers, the pay range for Atlanta first-years still ranged from $92,000 to $180,000. In other words, just because a firm is large, doesn’t mean it’s paying at the top of the market.
That is in line with the national trend, according to NALP executive director James Leipold.
“It is the same answer as the national picture,” he said in an email. “The set of responses we got from Atlanta firms is a good representation of the spread of the starting salaries in Atlanta.”
“It’s not what I expected to see,” Leipold said in an announcement earlier this month unveiling the national pay survey results. “After all of the publicity surrounding the move to $180,000, I fully expected to see the national median starting salary for law firms [to] move upwards, but what the data reveal is that for the most part only the largest firms in the largest legal markets made that move, and while many offices are paying $180,000 to start, many are not.”
Top firms increased starting pay from $160,000 to $180,000 in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and other large legal markets.
But nationally, the median pay spread for the more than 400 firms of all sizes responding to the NALP survey was not much different than Atlanta, ranging from $135,000 for first-years to $185,000 for eighth-years.
And the Atlanta associates making $180K to start? The odds are they work for either Jones Day or Paul Hastings, two firms that pay Atlanta associates on their national pay scale. Hunton & Williams also pays slightly above the Atlanta scale, with a first-year salary of $160,000, according to data filed with the NALP.