Associate Salaries, Biglaw, Money, NALP

The Salary Scale: Never Has Stagnant Looked So Sweet

On January 22, 2007, Above the Law reported that Simpson Thacher & Bartlett raised starting associate salaries in New York to $160,000.

That was almost four years ago — 1,326 days ago, to be exact (2008 was a leap year). But here we are, in the fourth quarter of 2010, and a new NALP report is telling us top Biglaw salaries in New York have re-established themselves at $160K. Partner profits haven’t generally remained stagnant for four years, at least at certain firms. Law school tuition certainly hasn’t remained stagnant for four years. But the upper end of associate compensation has been stuck in the mud. Back in 2007, I could go to a movie for $10.50. Now it goes all the way up to $11! I’m outraged!

I’m not actually outraged (well, I am about movie prices, but that’s because at $11 you’d think something besides Inception wouldn’t blow). And you won’t find too many associates outraged that their compensation hasn’t kept pace with growing partner profits at some firms. That’s because most associates are recovering from the terror of layoffs and salary deflation. NALP explains it this way:

NALP’s 2010 Associate Salary Survey shows that, although the $160,000 salary for first-year associates still prevails at large firms in a number of markets, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC, in other markets, such as Boston and San Francisco, the median has dropped back to $145,000, reflecting salaries ranging from $110,000 to $160,000.

Sorry about your tiny pink paycheck, Boston and San Fran.

For the rest of us, let’s take a look at the full salary scale according to NALP’s research…

Again, what you’re about to see is nearly identical to what you’ve seen in terms of Biglaw associate salary since firms adopted STB’s move to $160K. The firms can afford to pay associates this much, despite the fact that some Biglaw firms spent most of 2009 trying to convince their associates that they were worth even less:

Have you ever stood and stared at it, marveled at its beauty, its genius? Billions of people Thousands of lawyers just living out their lives…

Of course, these numbers are just averages. Perhaps your firm is still one of the stragglers that hasn’t gotten the “firms that would consider themselves prestigious are paying $160K again” memo? A reader outlines a way to check up on your firm using the NALP data:

* Go to the NALP directory:
* Click Advanced Search, pick all firms in NY, NY.
* Highlight all six pages.
* Click the report icon.
* Click salaries.
* Report will display with all firms’ salary info.

Have at it.

But there’s something else in the NALP numbers that we don’t want to miss. As many of you know, highlighting the big $160K dream sometimes obscures the reality of the hardscrabble, $50K-salary-servicing-six-figures-of-debt, tough existence many lawyers face. While the salary scale is pretty impressive for those lucky enough to get private sector jobs with big firms, check out the NALP numbers for people who aren’t able to get that kind of a job:

All you people in law school talking about being public interest lawyers, are you really going to be happy making $53K and change five years after you graduate? I hope you don’t enjoy things like bug-free linen and taking people out on dates.

So we’ll say it again, please look at NALP’s bimodal salary distribution curve. Talking about salaries without talking about the curve is like talking about cocaine without talking about heart palpitations. The high is kind of fun, but the low is six feet underground.

Did I say “high”? I meant “plateau.” Because that’s what we have here. A nice little associate compensation plateau.

But it’s not a bad place. It’s a good place to catch our collective breath and thoughts… and then prepare for the long march of “NY to 190!”

Some Associate Salaries Retreat from Their High But Remain Far Ahead of Salaries for Public Service Attorneys [NALP]
$160K Pay for New Associates Is Still the BigLaw Norm in Many Cities, Survey Finds [ABA Journal]
Q: When Will We Hear Cries of ‘NY to $180′? A: Not Anytime Soon [WSJ Law Blog]

Earlier: Breaking: Simpson Thacher Raises Associate Base Salaries!!!
NALP Gives More Information on Expected Lawyer Salary

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