New law school grads may have dollar signs in their eyes when they see Big Law raises going into effect around the country. But for those preparing to enter a clerkship, it’s a different story.

A survey of several Courts of Common Pleas around Pennsylvania showed starting salaries for judicial clerks that are less than a quarter of what top-paying law firms offer their first-year associates.

While statewide appellate courts pay slightly better and have greater potential for raises than the counties, their starting salaries are still less than one-third of those in the top Big Law firms.

In Philadelphia, the state’s largest jurisdiction by population, those at the “Law Clerk I” level start at $41,282, with a step raise each subsequent year for three years. After that, if they are promoted to Law Clerk II, they are paid $51,793, with a maximum potential salary of $57,339 after three more years.

In Allegheny County, the annual salary for law clerks is $47,218, with a pay raise of 35 cents per hour for those that reach eight years of service. There are also periodic cost-of-living raises, chief deputy court administrator Christopher Connors said.

Clerk salaries in the state appellate courts start a little higher—$55,091 for the Superior and Commonwealth courts, and $57,881 for Supreme Court. And there is a greater potential earning capacity too: At the highest levels, those at “Judicial Clerk 4″ in Superior Court can make $145,513; “Judicial Clerk 3″ in the Commonwealth Court makes $119,755; and “Judicial Clerk 4″ in the Supreme Court makes $168,868.

Publicly available job listings from other counties in the state show a range of pay: $35,526 in Bradford County; $38,548 to $50,548 in Lycoming County, depending on experience; $38,734 in Mercer County; and $47,039 in Cambria County.

Not only are those pay scales lower than that of Big Law—where the top-paid first-years now make $190,000 per year—but they’re lower than other typical public sector law jobs. According to the National Association for Law Placement, the median entry-level salary is $56,200 for a local prosecutor and $58,300 for a public defender.

A Stepping Stone

Peter Morin, district court administrator for Mercer County, said the number of applicants for law clerk positions has dropped off in recent years, though it hasn’t caused a problem in filling vacancies. The court hires two law clerks each year, he said, and has a total of four. He said Mercer County surveys the salaries other counties offer when determining its pay scale, and that it falls roughly in the middle of the pack in Pennsylvania.

“We used to get about 20 applications, now maybe only five or six,” Morin said. He pointed to two contributing factors: a better economy making more law firm jobs available to new graduates, and shrinking law school graduating classes.

But the contrast between law firm and clerk pay might not be as strong in communities outside the big cities, where small and midsize firms are offering less to new grads than Big Law is able to, said Maria Comas, director of career services at Duquesne University School of Law.

“Their salaries are more similar to a clerkship … not the same, but more similar,” she said. 

Comas said state and county clerkships have remained attractive to Duquesne students, and that 10 to 15 each year typically go that route after graduation. Salary has to be a part of their calculus, she said, but these positions also offer unique experience and connections, she said.

“If someone clerks for a year or two out of law school, that’s generally having a judge vet their work during that time,” Comas said. “It certainly opens doors for them.”

Cerys St. John Richter, director of the Office of Career Services at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, also said students seem consistently interested in clerk positions.

While clerking, “you get a good look at different aspects of the law in practice,” she said. “It’s a really good way to start your legal career.”

Given the growing issue of student debt after graduation, she said, “Financial concerns are a part of most people’s calculus.” But that exists no matter what type of position they are pursuing, she said.

While many of the courts’ pay scales cover up to eight years of clerkship, these jobs are often a stepping stone in a young lawyer’s career, Richter noted, so the salary concerns aren’t permanent.

Morin, of Mercer County, said the same. A typical clerk stays one or two years, he said, and then moves on.