It’s no secret that new associates at large firms in big cities earn the highest salaries, but a $160,000 annual paycheck doesn’t tell the whole story.

New lawyers in private practice in Dallas, Houston and Atlanta earn lower median salaries but enjoy more buying power than associates in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco, according to the National Association for Law Placement.

For the first time, NALP has released to the public its buying power index, a chart that compares the buying power afforded by the median starting salaries reported by new attorneys in 70 cities. The index reveals how far the median starting salaries go in different locations due to differences in costs of living, and provides a way for people to do a head-to-head comparison between cities.

NALP has compiled the index for years as part of an annual salary publication it sells, but decided to make it available for free on its Web site this year, said Executive Director Jim Leipold. “We’ve always thought it should be of use to students,” he said.

The index uses the $160,000 median starting salary in New York as a benchmark. Despite that high salary figure, 41 cities enjoyed a higher buying power index than New York, meaning that the reported median salaries in those cities (which were all $160,000 or below) afforded more buying power.

For instance, Dallas has a buying power index of 2.2, which means that the reported median salary of $150,00 actually affords more than twice as much buying power as does a $160,000 salary in New York. Another way to look at the disparity is that new associates at a Dallas firm would need to earn just $67,870 a year to wield the same buying power as their counterparts in New York.

Medium-sized cities such as Birmingham, Ala.; Newark, N.J.; Menlo Park, Calif.; and Kansas City, Mo., tended to land high on the index, meaning associates’ money goes farther. Several smaller markets, including Baton Rouge, La.; Long Beach, Calif.; and Southfield, Mo., landed near the bottom of the index.

Albany, N.Y., had the lowest buying power of all the cities listed on the index, at 0.63. New lawyers in Albany reported a median salary of $50,000, but would need to earn $79,850 annually to have the same buying power as new associates in New York.

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