Median salary at largest firms drops

The latest salary survey is out and while some salaries for new graduates appear lower, they are, in fact, flat.

The nation's largest firms, those with more than 700 attorneys, reported a median salary of $135,000, down from $160,000. But the drop is a reflection of more law firms reporting data in that size range, as opposed to salaries dropping.

“I was surprised that the aggregate data fell so much but I understand why,” said James Leipold, NALP’s executive director. “It’s not that firms are paying less, it’s that the list of law firms surveyed are different.”

Leipold said through mergers and acquisitions, regional law firms with 700 or more lawyers are becoming more common. 

The number of entry-level lawyers earning $160,000 at large law firms has dropped significantly during the last five years, as more firms grow and move into that range. In 2009, nearly two-thirds of entry-level salaries were $160,000, while that figure clocked in at only 27 percent this year.

“Many law offices that are part of large firms, particularly those in the largest markets, continue to pay $160,000,” Leipold said. “But the data since 2009 clearly show that the large firm market now also contains many firms that do not pay $160,000. In some ways the data simply reflect the growing cohort of large firms and its shows that they are not a monolithic entity. In many markets starting salaries of $145,000 or $135,000 or even less are the norm.”

Despite the drop in median salary, large law firms have increased their salaries at a greater pace than other firms during the last 20 years. 

Law firms with more than 250 attorneys have increased median associate salaries by 93 percent from $70,000 in 1995 to $135,000 in 2014. Small firms (those with less than 25 attorneys) increased by only 51 percent from $45,000 in 1995 to $68,000 in 2014. Inflation was 56 percent during that same time period. 

NALP found that mid-sized firms, those with 26-50 attorneys, saw the biggest increase in median associate salaries. Firms of this size saw a 110 percent increase from $50,000 in 1995 to $145,000 this year.

Firms with 51 to 100 attorneys saw an 85 percent increase and firms with 101-250 attorneys saw a 79 percent increase.

The National Association of Law Placement reports that the overall national median first-year salary at firms of all sizes is $125,000, the same figure since 2012.