Huge gap remains between public interest and law firm attorney salaries, NALP reports

There continues to be a huge gap between private sector and public interest lawyer salaries, according to a new report by the National Association of Law Placement (NALP).

Associate salaries at law firms were largely flat between 2009 and 2010, although median salaries in some markets fell back. During this same period, salaries for lawyers working in the public interest have also been largely flat. But the contrasts remain stark and alarming, notwithstanding salary decreases at some large law firms.

For example, the median salary for a fifth-year associate ranges from $90,000 to almost $190,000 depending on firm size. In contrast, attorneys with similar experience at public sector and public interest organizations can expect salaries of roughly $50,000 to $60,000. The $160,000 first-year salary still offered at many big firms in big cities — or even $145,000 or $130,000 — is beyond what even the most experienced attorneys can reasonably expect at a public sector or public interest organization.

NALP's 2010 Associate Salary Survey shows that, although the $160,000 salary for first-year associates still prevails at large firms in a number of markets, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC, in other markets, such as Boston and San Francisco, the median has dropped back to $145,000, reflecting salaries ranging from $110,000 to $160,000.

The overall median first-year salary was $115,000, and ranged from $72,000 in firms of 2-25 lawyers to $117,500 in firms of 501-700 lawyers, and $160,000 in firms of more than 700 lawyers, with the latter figure accounting for 58 percent of reported first-year salaries in firms that size, and also representing the high.

NALP's 2010 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report, a biennial report that provides salary information for both entry-level and experienced attorneys at public sector and public interest organizations, serves as a companion piece to NALP's annual Associate Salary Survey.

According to this new report, the median entry-level salary for an attorney at a civil legal services organization is $42,000; an attorney with 11-15 years of experience can expect a salary of about $62,000. The median entry-level salary for public defenders is about $45,700; with 11-15 years of experience, the median is about $76,000. The salary scale for local prosecuting attorneys is slightly higher, starting at $50,000 and progressing to $81,500 for those with 11-15 years of experience. Finally, salaries for attorneys in public interest organizations with issue-driven missions — such as those dealing with women's or environmental issues — start at $45,000 and rise to about $71,000 with 11-15 years of experience.

It is also evident, based on comparisons to findings in previous reports, the first of which was in 2004, that salaries at public interest organizations have increased only modestly since then — by not more than $15,000, and less for more junior attorneys. Although these changes are in line with those at small law firms, during this same period the typical first-year salary in a large firm in a major market increased from $125,000 to as much as $160,000.

“The 2010 Associate Salary Survey makes it clear that associate salaries have come down in a small but measurable way, more so in some markets than others, but they have not come down nearly as much as we thought they might at the height of the recession,” noted James Leipold, NALP's executive director. “The real story on associate salaries is that they have been largely flat during the recession, and that is actually better news than we might have hoped for." Leipold went on to say, "Of more importance is the persistent gap between private sector and public interest lawyer salaries that these two surveys so dramatically document. Even as some private sector associate salaries have fallen back during the recession, this gap has not diminished, and is not likely to diminish in the near future.”