First-year associate salaries rise at large law firms

When it comes to first-year associates’ salaries, history has again repeated itself.

Even though some of the nation’s largest law firms made news for increasing first-year salaries to $190,000 in 2018, hardly all firms followed suit, according to the National Association for Law Placement’s (NALP) 2019 Associate Salary Survey report, which was released recently.

That’s also what happened in 2017, when some firms upped the starting first-year salary to $180,000.

And that’s what happened in 2007, when the first-year salary went up to $160,000.

It normally takes a couple of years for the hike to become more prevalent — yet hardly universal. Additionally, the top salaries are mostly awarded to associates working in larger cities, such as New York and Los Angeles.

“As with other associate base pay hikes in the past, while the press focus is usually on how quickly law firms race to meet a market change like this one, the data reveal that there are in fact many large law firm offices that are still not paying $190,000 as a base first-year salary,” said NALP’s executive director James Leipold, in a news release.

This year’s report shows, however, that the $190,000 starting salary was the most often reported. It accounted for nearly 30 percent of all reported first-year salaries. It was not enough, though, to make it the median, even in the largest firms.

The median at the largest firms — those of 701+ lawyers — was $180,000, up from the $155,000 two years ago. That was the biggest statistical increase, at 16 percent.

Other firms, according to NALP, did not report a similar kind of hike.

NALP reported: “Some modest growth was seen in firm sizes of 251-500 lawyers, with median first-year base salaries moving from $150,000 in 2017 to $160,000 in 2019 (6.7 percent increase). Median first-year base salaries in 2019 for firm sizes of 51-100 lawyers ($115,000), 101-250 lawyers ($115,000), and 501-700 lawyers ($160,000) were flat or relatively flat compared to 2017.

NALP also noted that the increase in the largest firms came at the same time that Big Law reported its most successful earnings cycle ever.