Flash back six years: “New York to $190,000” was the mantra for law students hopeful that the go-go times for large law firms would translate into even higher starting salaries for new associates.
It didn’t happen. The recession took a heavy toll on firms and job opportunities for new grads at large firms dried up. In fact, starting salaries at large law firms have remained essentially flat since 2007, according to research by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP).
The median salary for new associates at firms of 700 or more attorneys in 2013 was $160,000—where it has been for nearly all of the past five years. The only exception was 2012, when the median dropped to $145,000.
Still, the $160,000 median doesn’t tell the full story, because fewer new associates are actually earning that generous salary. Only 56 percent of new associates at large firms pulled in that amount, compared with almost 66 percent in 2009, NALP found. That means that 2009 remains the high point for starting associate salaries.
“The story is really one of no change, or at least not much change,” NALP executive director Jim Leipold said. “Compared to the period between 2006 and 2009, when associate salaries were rising year on year at a steady clip, in the period since the recession we have seen associate salaries remain more or less static.”
Stagnant salaries have also been the norm at smaller firms, and the median salary for new associates among firms of all sizes was $125,000—the same as last year— NALP found.
It doesn’t look as though the picture will change much for lawyers beginning their careers this fall. Close to half of the firms with 700 or more attorneys told NALP they expect to pay new associates $160,000, while the median expected salary came in at $147,500. For firms with 251 to 700 lawyers, the anticipated median is $145,000, an increase from $135,000 last year.
“At the largest firms in the largest markets, a starting salary of $160,000 remains the norm, though its prevalence has ebbed and flowed a bit over the last several years,” Leipold said. “Associate salaries at smaller firms have shown very modest movement, both upward and downward, over the last four years, also remaining essentially flat. And there is nothing about the current market that suggests starting associate salaries will be moving up any time soon.”