Realistic Expectations: Starting Salaries for New Attorneys

Realistic Expectations: Starting Salaries for New Attorneys

Have the steadily increasing salaries at Biglaw put stars in your eyes? Just how many new attorneys will be bringing home the $160K bacon this year? Or more? Many people, law students included, have the impression that lawyers routinely start out at six figures. The National Association for Law Placement has made headlines with its double bell curve graph showing the distribution of full-time salaries for the Class of 2007. The graph shows the divide between large firm and other starting legal salaries. As the graph indicates, salaries in the $40,000 - $60,000 range collectively accounted for 42% of salaries.
 
Clearly, then the average salary of a First Year Associate is closer to $60,000. Although law students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their classes may be lucky enough to land jobs in top-tier firms making upwards of $120k, those in mid-size firms usually earn $55-80k, while small-firm and government jobs usually pay between $40-60k. Solo practitioners can earn even less, making hanging out a shingle a risky business without significant ties to a community. 
 
Another determining factor: location, location, location. Attorneys practicing in big cities have a higher average salary than those in smaller markets. Attorney salaries are also governed by the kind of law being practiced. According to PayScale.com’s Average Salary for a Lawyer by Practice Area report, the average annual salary of a lawyer working in corporate law, business, mergers & acquisitions is currently the highest, followed by litigation & appeals. PayScale also provides salary data by industry, which shows that “Government and Insurance stand out as the most lucrative industries for a legal eagle.”
 
Keep in mind that those attorneys making the top salaries often pay a price that entails an impact on quality of life (read: weeks of document review in a windowless room!). Regardless of what your practice plans are after graduation, keeping a realistic perspective on average salaries may help to engender more job satisfaction.