What Type of Salary You Can Expect With Your Law Degree

 Farran Powell

Many prestigious law firms are now offering top law school grads even more money for entry-level salaries.

Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP, a New York-based law firm with more than 500 attorneys, announced a pay hike for new lawyers this June. The firm boosted pay for first-year associates to $190,000, a 5.5 percent increase from $180,000 – the base rate offered by many large firms over the past few years.

The New York firm's pay raise spawned copycat moves from many large corporate law firms to raise their entry-level lawyer pay to the same amount. Over the past two months, more than 75 law firms have matched Milbank's first-year associate salary, says Matt Moody, senior law editor at the Vault, a New York-based company that provides career information.

The move by other firms to match Milbank's entry-level salary offer is spurred by competition to attract junior lawyers from the same pool of top-tier graduates.

"The firms feel that in order to attract the best candidates, their particular market requires those salary adjustments. The hikes are primarily in the larger markets – New York and Washington, D.C., but are now also spreading to Atlanta," says Wendy Collins Perdue, dean of the University of Richmond School of Law and the current president of the Association of American Law Schools.

Some of the large law firms matching Milbank's salary include Sullivan & Cromwell LLP and Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, which are both in New York; and Covington & Burling LLP in the District of Columbia.

Moody says there are few smaller boutique law firms offering this higher pay to junior lawyers. They include Duval & Stachenfeld LLP in New York, Hueston Hennigan LLP in Los Angeles and Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensingn P.C. in Houston.

Many high-paying law firms recruit recent J.D. grads from top-ranked law schools. In U.S. News' 2019 Best Law Schools ranking, law school degree grads from the class of 2016 who completed their degree at an institution ranked among the top 15 earned $180,000 on average in the private sector, according to data submitted to U.S. News by 179 ranked law schools in an annual survey. Private institutions that rank among the top 15 law schools include Harvard Law School, Yale Law School and Stanford Law School; the list also includes four public law schools: University of Michigan—Ann Arbor, University of Texas—Austin, University of Virginia and University of California—Berkeley.

"If you're at Harvard, Columbia or NYU, you have a much better chance of landing a job at a big law firm that pays a $190,000 starting salary," Moody says.

But there are two law schools not ranked in the top 15 where grads from 2016 earned an average of $180,000 in the private sector: Fordham University in New York and George Washington University in the District of Columbia.

"Fordham does send a lot of grads to big law firms that make that good salary," in part because of its location in New York City, Moody says.

The typical salary for 2016 law school grads among all ranked schools in the private sector was nearly $85,000, U.S. News data show.

Salaries in the private sector are much higher than the amount attorneys can expect in the public sector. Even among the 15 highest-ranked law schools, the entry-level salary for a 2016 grad in the public sector didn't rise above $65,000 a year. U.S. News data show the average starting salary for a 2016 J.D. grad in the public sector was around $53,500.

"At a time when private sector starting salaries at the largest law firms are on the move as well, the gap between large law firms and public service salaries is highlighted," said James Leipold, executive director at the National Association for Law Placement, in a July press statement on the earning power of public service salaries.

According to a recent survey by the NALP, public service attorneys have seen pay increases, but salaries are more modest in comparison to the high salaries junior lawyers earn at large national firms. The research found that the typical entry-level salary for a public defender increased by more than 15 percent between 2014 and 2018, rising to $58,300 in annual pay.

Prospective and current law students can compare salary data in the interactive graphic below for law schools ranked in the top 144 of the 2019 Best Law Schools rankings.

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Farran Powell
04 February, 2018
07 December, 2017