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Young Lawyers.Business of law (iStock)

Philadelphia law firm salaries are once again in the news. Repeating ­practices from a decade ago, the largest firms in New York raised ­first-year ­starting ­salaries from $160,000 to $180,000. Large Philadelphia firms are now feeling the pressure, demonstrated by Dechert’s decision to match the raises initiated by white-shoe Wall Street firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore. The publicity generated by the astronomically high salaries suggests to outsiders that the legal profession continues to be an exceedingly well-paying career option. It also creates an expectation that large law firm jobs paying salaries of $180,000 are the norm. To the contrary, the vast majority of lawyers, both experienced and fresh out of law school, will not work for law firms ­paying $180,000 to first-year associates. They will instead work at small and medium-sized law firms, government agencies, and in the nonprofit sector.

It has become the norm for large law firms to publicly disclose their salary scales to organizations such as the National Association of Legal Professionals and within marketing materials. Beyond that, blogs ­focusing on “BigLaw,” such as “Above The Law,” frequently report ­inside ­information on associate salaries and bonuses. While associate salaries at large law firms are essentially public information, salaries for attorneys at small and ­medium-sized law firms are generally a mystery. Many ­lawyers are quick to point out that they are also remarkably different than those at large law firms. How then do attorneys ­exploring opportunities at small and medium-sized law firms, particularly attorneys beginning their careers out of law school, determine their worth?

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