I’ve been critical of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) in the past, but you have to give them credit for at least one thing: they have been tirelessly trying to make people understand that most lawyers do not make $160,000 a year straight out of law school.
In fact, NALP has been at the forefront of educating prospective lawyers on the dangers of focusing on “average” starting salaries. The average is meaningless. The median is just slightly more helpful, and NALP has been begging people to pay attention to the bimodal salary distribution curve that tells the true story of how much lawyers are likely to get paid.
And the bimodal curve is only useful if you are actually lucky enough to secure full-time employment. If you have to work part-time, God help you…
NALP is now telling us that 25% of 2009 law school graduates are working temporary jobs. And we already know that a number of full-time lawyers are working in public interest jobs. While those people still count as “employed upon graduation” by law schools eager to rope in the next generation of
tuition dollars valued students, their salary expectations have nothing to do with the golden, $160K dream. From a NALP press release (gavel bang: ABA Journal):
According to James Leipold, NALP’s executive director, “As a matter of consumer information, especially for students who are considering applying to law school, the adjusted mean provides a better benchmark than the unadjusted mean, because it accounts for the larger number of lower salaries that are not reported. Nevertheless, the overall mean for starting salaries, whether adjusted or unadjusted, is best used to measure the rise and fall of aggregate salaries over time, and not the likelihood of earning a particular salary when graduating from law school. As the distribution of starting lawyer salaries makes clear, very few new law school graduates earn anything close to the mean. Instead, many graduates will earn much more than the mean salary, and many more will earn much less.”
We like James Leipold, so we’re willing to help him out. Here is the bimodal salary distribution curve for the class of 2008. Please look at it and try to understand what it means:
UPDATE: And here, courtesy of NALP, is the salary curve for the class of 2009 (which looks roughly similar):
A lot of wanna-be lawyers claim that they don’t even want to make $160K. Fine. But understand the curve. If you don’t make $160K, it’s not likely that you’ll make just a little bit less — say, $120K. It’s not likely that you’ll make the average; it’s not even likely that you’ll make the median. If you don’t win the $160K lottery, chances are you’ll be clumped into the left-hand side of the curve, earning somewhere between $30,000 and $60,000 a year. That’s the kind of pay that a lot of people can get without three years of post-graduate education and six figures of debt.
And that’s fine. It’s wonderful… if you really want to be a lawyer.