What Type of Salary You Can Expect With Your Law Degree

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 in June 2018. The firm boosted base salaries for first-year associates to $190,000, a 5.5% increase from $180,000 — the base rate previously offered by many top law firms.

The New York firm’s pay raise spawned copycat moves from many large corporate law firms to increase their entry-level lawyer salary to the same amount and also spurred salary bumps for first-year associates at smaller elite law firms.

The move by other firms to match Milbank’s entry-level salary offer is prompted 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 and professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.

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.

A few law firms that have historically offered compensation above the market rate currently boast a starting salary level that exceeds $190,000. For instance, the starting salary pay for first-year associates at the D.C.-based boutique law firm Kellogg, Hansen, Todd, Figel & Frederick, P.L.L.C is $225,000.

Law school grads who are hired by leading firms frequently not only get six-figure salaries, but also receive signing bonuses, and they might get annual bonuses. A salary survey conducted by the National Association for Law Placement and released in May revealed that the median base salary for first-year associates at U.S. law firms with 701-plus lawyers rose by $25,000 between 2017 and 2019, increasing from $155,000 to $180,000. Law offices paying salaries of at least $190,000 were concentrated in a few cities, such as Los Angeles, Dallas, New York City and the District of Columbia. However, $190,000 was the most common starting salary amount for first-year law associates, making up 29.3% of all salaries.

[See: 10 Law Schools Where You Can Pay Off Your Debt.]

Mary Kate Sheridan, senior law editor for Vault, a publication that produces law firm rankings, legal career advice, law firm profiles and guidebooks on the legal industry, says that 80 of the 100 law firms in the Vault Law 100 rankings had starting salaries of at least $190,000. Four of these 100 firms had salaries exceeding that amount, she says. Big law firms are not the only type of legal employer that pays starting salaries of $190,000 or more, Sheridan says, adding that boutique law firms often give first-year associates more responsibility than they might have at a larger firm.

Many high-paying law firms recruit recent J.D. grads from top-ranked law schools, and statistics from the U.S. News’ 2020 Best Law Schools rankings demonstrate that alumni of these schools tend to receive significantly higher salaries than their peers who graduated from lower-ranked law schools. J.D. degree recipients from the class of 2017 who completed their degree at an institution ranked among the top 17 earned $180,000 on average in the private sector, according to data submitted to U.S. News by 182 ranked law schools in an annual survey. Private institutions that rank among the top 17 law schools include Harvard Law School, Yale Law School and Stanford Law School. The list also includes the following public law schools: University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, University of Texas–Austin, University of Virginia , University of California?–Los Angeles and University of California–Berkeley.

Meanwhile, Vanderbilt University — which is tied for No. 18 in the law school rankings — also boasts a $180,000 average private-sector starting salary.

[Read: Choose the Right Law School For a Corporate Law Career.]

“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,” says Matt Moody, managing director of Empire Search Partners, a legal recruiting and consulting firm.

Nevertheless, there are five law schools not ranked in the top 20 where grads from 2017 earned an average of $180,000 in the private sector: Fordham University in New York City, George Washington University and Howard University in the District of Columbia, Boston University and Boston College.

“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 average private-sector salary for 2017 law school grads among all ranked schools that provided salary figures was $88,046, 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 2017 grad in the public sector didn’t rise above $66,000 a year. U.S. News data show the average starting salary for a 2017 J.D. grad in the public sector was around $54,500.

Searching for a law school? Get our complete rankings of Best Law Schools.

More from U.S. News

Research to Find Law School Concentrations, Scholarships

Leverage Summer Internships for Law School Applications

Maximize Summer Courses for Law School Recommendations

What Type of Salary You Can Expect With Your Law Degree originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 08/30/19: This article was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information, including statistics from the 2020 Best Law Schools rankings.

Related Categories:

Latest News

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up