NYC associates earn highest salaries

New associates in New York City still outpace their counterparts in other cities, even if the additional salary does not make up for the higher standard of living.

First-year associates in large New York City firms have a median income of $160,000, with Washington, D.C. a close second at $157,500. The median in Atlanta and Charlotte was $135,000, and in a number of markets including Minneapolis, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Detroit, medians were in the $107,000 to $115,000 range.

“Where you work matters,” said James Leipold, NALP’s executive director. “[A salary of] $160,000 in New York City doesn’t go nearly as far as $145,000 would in other markets. The raw number is not what matters — it’s the whole financial picture. What is [the individual’s] debt structure? What is the cost of living? And what is the salary that you’re going to get in that particular market?"

The prevailing salary for first-year associates in firms of more than 700 lawyers was $160,000 in the Northeast. The median was $145,000 in the West, $125,000 in the South, and $110,000 in the Midwest.

Contrasts between large and smaller metropolitan areas are also evident. For example, in large metropolitan areas with populations of more than 5 million, the median first-year salary in firms of 501-700 lawyers was about $141,000; in metropolitan areas of fewer than 1.5 million, the median was $100,000.

The survey also examined the changes of median starting salaries over the 20-year period in large metropolitan cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, new York and Washington D.C., at firms with 250 or more attorneys. Washington D.C. saw the biggest change, with salaries increasing from $71,750 to $157,500, a 120 percent increase. Chicago and Los Angeles followed close behind with 109 percent and 107 percent increases respectively.

Of the four cities examined, New York saw the smallest change with an 88 percent increase from $85,000 to $160,000 over 20 years, though their starting salary in 1995 was the highest of all four cities by over $13,000.

“It is evident that New York was the first market to reach the $160,000 mark in 2007, and the only one to stay consistently at that level,” the survey explains. “Recent fluctuations notwithstanding, salaries in all these markets except New York have at least doubled. Salaries in New York have not doubled because the median was considerably higher than in the other three markets in 1995.”

A large jump in medium salary in the largest firms occurred at the turn of the century when median first-year salaries increased from $85,000 in 1999 to $110,000 in 2000. After 2000, there appears to be a decline in salaries. For example, from 2002 to 2003, first-year median salaries moved from $90,000 to $85,000 in firms with 101-250 attorneys. 

“Some medians appear to decline; this is mostly a result of variation in the respondent pool from year to year, particularly in the largest size category, which has grown considerably over the life of the Associate Salary Survey,” NALP explains. “However, starting in 2009, some firms in some markets reduced salaries.”

The recession is likely to blame for changes in salary around 2009. The most notable change is a $15,000 decrease for the largest firms. The medium was $145,000 in 2009 and dropped to $130,000 in 2010. These numbers jumped back to $145,000 in 2013 only to decline once again, to $135,000 this year.

“Finally, the figures also suggest that this 20-year time period can be divided into three segments: the period prior to 2000 and before the run-up to $125,000 starting salaries in large firms; a period of a half-dozen years where that level was sustained; and then a period starting in 2007 and continuing to the present during which many large firms in large markets moved to a $160,000 starting salary,” the survey said. “Associate Salary Survey findings indicate that 2006 appears to be something of a transition year.”

More detailed associate salary results by city and region for associates through the eighth year, are found in the complete 2014 Associate Salary Survey report, now available from NALP’s bookstore for $160 plus shipping and handling.