Top-paying U.S. law firms are now offering starting salaries of $190,000, after a recent wave of raises. But the latest data on public sector lawyer pay shows starting salaries of less than a third that amount.
The median entry-level salary is $56,200 for a local prosecutor, and $58,300 for public defenders, according to the National Association for Law Placement, which released its 2018 Public Service Attorney Salary Survey earlier this month.
Among all legal services attorneys included in the survey, which also covers public interest employers such as civil rights organizations, the median entry-level pay was $48,000.
Lawyers aspiring to work in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office got some welcome news last week when District Attorney Larry Krasner raised the starting salary for prosecutors to $60,000. That puts Philadelphia ahead of the national median, and in line with salaries in New York City, where Brooklyn prosecutors start at $60,000, Manhattan at $62,500 and Bronx prosecutors at $63,000.
But Ernie Lewis, executive director of the National Association for Public Defense and former Kentucky Public Advocate, said he’s come across far lower starting salaries in his conversations with other public defenders—like $39,000 in Missouri and $41,000 in Kentucky.
“If you’re looking to land a top-dollar job you’re not going to look in the public sector,” Lewis said.
Slow Raises, Big Debt
The NALP survey also found that entry-level salary medians for prosecutors, public defenders and public interest organizations increased by about $1,000 per year over a 14-year period. And lawyers do find themselves making more over time. The median pay for a lawyer with 11-to-15 years of experience was $84,400 among local prosecutors, and $96,400 among public defenders.
In contrast, the most profitable firms that just bumped entry-level pay to $190,000 had moved to $180,000 for first-year associates in 2016, marking a $10,000 increase in entry-level pay over two years. And firms that follow the lock-step model adopted by Cravath, Swaine & Moore pay associates $340,000 in their eighth year or above.
Of course, plenty of law firms, including Am Law 100 firms, pay less than that. The median first-year salary nationally was $135,000 as of January 2017, according to NALP’s Associate Salary Survey, which is conducted every three years. That’s lower, but still over twice the median prosecutor or public defender pay.
“I think public interest and public sector-minded students have a full understanding that this is the salary environment they’re going into, and this is the only way to do that work,” said Melissa Lennon, assistant dean for career services at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, and president of NALP’s board of directors.
Still, she said, “With student debt increasing to the point where we see it now, it’s a concern to make a decent enough salary to be able to pay back your loans and have a nice quality of life.”
Christian Lang, a former associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell, and creator of Blacklines & Billables, a blog for Big Law associates, also said the low pay is an issue given the loan burden so many young lawyers carry.
“A lot of the complication these days is driven by the law school debt,” he said. “Trying to service $200,000 in debt when you’re not making a six-figure income is really difficult.”
While debt relief is available to some, public service lawyers in the middle of the pack still may be above the maximum salary to qualify—depending on the jurisdiction, Lang said. And that might cause people to rethink their careers, he said, even if they originally went to law school with a goal of working in public service.
“I do think we’ve reached a point in time where the numbers have gotten so eye-popping on the debt … that the calculus as to what [job] would be fulfilling and what you want to do gets really muddy,” Lang said.
Lewis said the pay gap between local public-sector lawyers and private practice associates doesn’t affect recruitment as much as retention. Student loan debt has become “an enormous problem” for law school grads in the public sector, he said.
“I think most recruiters for public defender agencies would say we’re seeing a lot of idealism coming out of law school,” he said. But they are “losing people after three or four years … after training them.”
He recalled a number of ways in which young public defenders working under him have made ends meet. In one memorable instance, Lewis said, the young lawyer was also delivering pizza at night. And one evening he found himself delivering to a client.
“There’s a patchwork of student loan assistance programs out there, but those are patchy and unpredictable and a lot of people fall through the cracks,” Lewis said.
Lennon noted that Temple is often seen as a go-to school in the Philadelphia region for law students that aspire to work in public service, due in part to strong alumni connections in the DA’s office. The school provides some loan repayment assistance and grants for students seeking a public sector job. So from her perspective, there’s still a healthy crop of students looking for careers in public service. But that may not be the case at other schools, she said.
Public defenders aren’t looking to be compensated like Big Law attorneys, said Lewis, but they do want to be treated fairly—in line with other public servants. At the state level, he said, individual states’ politics can affect what they pay public defenders, whereas large law firms are periodically driven to raise salaries in order to compete.
Still, he said, “I’m amazed at the high-quality of lawyer” his colleagues are able to recruit.