First year lawyer salaries: The Average Starting Salary of Law School Students | Work
The Average Starting Salary of Law School Students | Work
By Jim Woodruff Updated September 24, 2018
Law school graduates have the prospect of earning very attractive incomes during their careers. However, the average starting salary right after graduating law school is heavily dependent on the location and size of the law firm. Starting salaries are significantly different among jobs in the public and private sectors.
New law school graduates typically find jobs with large law firms. They assist senior lawyers with collecting information, doing research, writing and performing casework. Entry-level attorneys interpret and analyze regulations and rulings to develop arguments and strategies for presentation of cases. They help other attorneys by collecting evidence to initiate legal actions and develop game plans for defense.
Law schools require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree and to take the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, before applying. While no particular undergraduate degree is necessary, it is helpful to take courses related to the field that the student wants to pursue as a lawyer. For example, someone interested in environmental law might consider majoring in environmental science. A Juris Doctor, or J.D., typically requires three years of law school. If a student wants further specialization, he could take additional courses, such as bankruptcy law or environmental law. After receiving a J.D., graduates must pass the bar exam in the state where they plan to work.
For all private-sector law firms, the median starting salary in 2016 was $68,375 according to an annual survey from US News & World Report. These salaries ranged from a high of $180,000 to a low of $45,000. The National Jurist reports that the median salary for first-year associates at law firms with less than 50 employees was $90,000 and for firms with over 75 lawyers, starting salaries ranged from $126,500 to $168,250.
Lawyers going into public-sector jobs in 2016 received much lower starting salaries, according to an analysis from US News & World Report. The median starting income for public jobs was $53,500. These jobs had a salary range of $34,250 on the low side to a high of $71,200.
According to a 2017 survey from the National Association of Law Placement, the median starting salary in all firms in the private sector for a new lawyer was $135,000. That means that half of new lawyers earned more and half earned less. For law firms with over 500 employees, the median starting wage was $160,000. However, these high incomes are concentrated at large firms in the major cities of New York, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles. These high salaries are mostly offered to graduates from top-ranked law schools like Yale, Stanford, Harvard, the University of Chicago and Columbia University.
Law schools are producing more graduates than there are jobs available, which is reducing median starting salaries for small law firms and for students graduating from lower-ranked law schools. Even after a law school graduate is hired, a new lawyer must advance on a career path within the firm or be forced to leave. This is a common practice known as “up or out.”
Years of Experience
Law school graduates can expect steady increases in income as they gain more years of experience.
- 0-5 years: $70,000
- 5-10 years: $98,000
- 10-20 years: $119,000
- 20 or more years: $139,000
Job Growth Trend
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the job market for lawyers will grow 8 percent through 2026. However, competition will stay intense because law schools are graduating more students than the number of jobs coming available. Some law school graduates have taken temporary assignments because they were unable to find full-time employment. A graduate’s willingness to relocate improves the chances of finding a job. But, taking a job in another state requires the graduate to pass the bar exam for that state.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Lawyers: Outlook
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment and Wages-Lawyers
- National Association of Law Placement: Findings From the 2017 Associate Salary Survey
- Study.com: Education Requirements for Becoming a Lawyer
- Payscale: Attorney/Lawyer Salary
James Woodruff has been a management consultant to more than 1,000 small businesses. As a senior management consultant and owner, he used his technical expertise to conduct an analysis of a company’s operational, financial and business management issues. James has been writing business and finance related topics for work. chron, bizfluent.com, smallbusiness.chron.com and e-commerce websites since 2007. He graduated from Georgia Tech with a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering and received an MBA from Columbia University.
First Year Lawyer Salaries: A 2023 Guide
No matter how much you love the practice of law, the fact remains that money also matters—especially if you’re new to the profession and thinking about your first year lawyer salary.
Whether you’re a law student or a recent graduate just starting out (perhaps also handling the costs of your legal education), understanding the scope of potential first year lawyer salaries can give you realistic expectations for how much you can earn.
But what is the average salary for a first year lawyer in the US right now? How much money can you reasonably strive to bring home as a new attorney? In the following guide, we’ll discuss how much first year lawyers typically make in the US—and the key elements that play into salary for recent graduates.
How much do first year lawyers make in the US?
According to Glassdoor, the average salary for a first year attorney in the United States is $81,186 per year as of September 2022. In addition to base salary, many first year lawyers also receive additional pay via bonuses, commissions, and tips, which Glassdoor estimates at about $8,458 per year.
So, taking both the average base salary and average additional pay into account, the estimated total pay for a first year attorney in the US is approximately $89,644 per year.
Keep in mind that the average salary for a first year lawyer depends on multiple factors, such as your geographical location, firm size, and the type of legal work you do (more on this later),
First year lawyer salaries and job prospects
Even before landing your first legal job, you want to consider the bigger picture for current and future salaries and job prospects. Fortunately for lawyers in the US, the legal field is expected to grow.
Specifically, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook projects growth and good prospects for lawyers now and in the years to come, driven by continued demand for legal services paired with a need to replace lawyers who are leaving their roles (for different occupations) or leaving the labor force (for retirement).
According to the BLS, employment of lawyers will grow 10% from 2021 to 2031—which is faster than the average for all occupations. When it comes to employment prospects, the BLS projects that there will be an average of 48,700 job openings for lawyers each year over the 10-year period.
Factors impacting first year lawyer salaries
While it’s useful to know the general job prospects and average salary for a first year lawyer in the US, every firm, location, and role is different—and the specific salary for first year lawyers varies depending on your situation.
Here are some of the key factors that impact salary for recent graduates.
Salaries and location
Location is a major driver when it comes to income potential for lawyers. The state (and sometimes even the city) influences average lawyer salaries for attorneys at all stages of their careers. Knowing the typical rates for your geographical location can help you better understand your potential first year lawyer salary.
In addition to looking at the salary ranges for first year lawyer jobs in your area, you can also look at Clio’s 2022 Legal Trends Report. The Legal Trends Report offers data on hourly rates by state for lawyers (DC and New York top the list at $424 and $378, respectively), along with adjusted rates by state, which reflect the cost of living for each state (DC tops this list too at $359, while Delaware takes the second spot at $351).
To quickly compare hourly rates by state, you can also check out Clio’s hourly rate calculator, which pulls from aggregated and anonymized billing data from legal professionals working across all states.
Salaries and law school
For many students, factors like tuition cost, location, and law school rankings are top of mind when assessing potential law schools, but your school of choice may also be a factor in the equation when considering your first year earning potential.
As this OnlineU analysis of alumni salaries one year after graduation shows, graduating from certain law schools may open up higher-paying positions when you become a lawyer.
For example, while the analysis suggests that attending Ivy League schools like Columbia University (which ranked highest in median salary at $193,362) may offer new law grads higher earning potential, it also shows that certain public universities like UVA Law also show high alumni salaries (the median salary for UVA law grads after one year was $185,710).
No matter where you go to law school, you can always look for ways to help yourself stand out from your classmates when it comes time to get your first lawyer job. When looking for ways to set yourself apart, don’t underestimate the power of skills that go beyond the scope of traditional legal knowledge.
Learning useful “soft skills” and having tech proficiency goes a long way with some firms, and you can work on these skills even prior to graduation. Clio’s Academic Access Program (CAAP), for example, offers free Clio access to students in clinical and classroom settings—so you can develop tech skills, gain experience, and prepare for the future of law before joining a firm.
“The biggest impact of having Clio in our clinical programs has been that our students have grown comfortable managing cases from start to finish using one seamless platform,” notes the University of North Carolina’s Doug Edmunds, Clio Certified Consultant + Academic. “From document management to client engagement to time keeping, Clio has helped them understand that the practice of law today can be more efficient and effective when the right technology is in place. ”
If you’re a law student, you can sign up for CAAP here.
Salaries and practice area
Another factor that often impacts earning potential is your chosen practice area. As the 2022 Legal Trends Report outlines, the average hourly rates for lawyers varies by practice area, with more specialized roles typically drawing in higher rates—which likely means higher salaries.
Here again, Clio’s hourly rate calculator is a useful tool: Use it to easily compare rates in your chosen state by practice area.
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And, if you’re considering becoming a lawyer in a specific practice area, Clio’s How to Become a Lawyer hub is a useful place to find more information on becoming a particular type of lawyer. The comprehensive guide covers eight practice areas, from immigration law to criminal law and beyond. You can also take our “What Kind of Lawyer Should I Be?” quiz to help you decide.
Salaries and law firm
Lastly, the law firm that you join is a key factor when it comes to your first year lawyer salary. Typically, larger law firms offer higher salaries than smaller law firms. However, working for a larger law firm does not always guarantee higher pay, and other factors can influence overall compensation over the longer term.
While it’s true that the biggest entry-level salaries tend to come from “Big Law” firms, new lawyers at small law firms may start with lower pay, but their salary can then scale rapidly as their career advances over time. We cover this in more detail in our piece on what it’s like to work at a law firm.
Final thoughts on first year lawyer salaries
As the above sections demonstrate, factors like geographical location, the law school you graduated from, your chosen practice area, and the law firm your work for all have important roles in determining how much you will make in your first year as a lawyer.
By considering all the variables, you can be prepared to make informed choices when it comes to the direction you take when you start your legal career—ideally finding a position that fits your informed expectations and budget.
And, even if you start out making less than you wanted to from the get-go, you can always look for opportunities to scale your salary as you advance in your career—especially as the job prospects in the legal industry continue to grow.
For further insights on the state of the legal profession, be sure to check out Clio’s Legal Trends Report.
We published this blog post in May 2023. Last updated: .
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