The Bimodal Salary Of Starting Lawyers

We post this for a few reasons:

(1) Because too few applicants know this — this is actually what starting salaries look like for those right out of law school. The graph below is pretty self explanatory. Note the extreme spike(s) (thus technically making it a trimodal distribution) at the far right end. In a regular salary distribution, these spikes might be shorter but much more spread out. But for law graduates, they are broader at the lower salary ranges. This again is not a concept that many know, especially those not in the legal field.

Note that the average starting salary for a new attorney is somewhere in the $90,000-$100,000 range — but very few new lawyers actually make this amount (less than 5%); many more make between $50,000 and $70,000, and then a portion make a typical biglaw salary (over on the right side of the graph), largely concentrated in graduates from top law schools.

(2) Because we also want you to see, for comparison, what it looked like in 1991:

So what does this mean?

While we hate to speculate too far out, the general sense is those two spikes on the right side of the more recent graph will both get notably shorter in the next year or so. In other words, the vast proportion of graduating lawyers will only shift further left on the salary distribution — fewer people will get the biglaw jobs.

What is the good news?

Unlike during the Great Recession, this shift shouldn't last as long. There are several reasons for that. One is that money is moving, and thus deals are being done. The severe problem in the Great Recession was the lack of deals. Two, law firms still remember how they overcorrected during the Great Recession, and were soon thereafter left with no mid-level associates (which is where firms start to actually make money).

Finally, firms have made adjustments in many ways because of the Great Recession. In a sense, they have been preparing for the next one – for the very reason that they ideally don't have to make the same cuts as last time.

In summary

Salary freezes and cuts are already occurring. But they shouldn't be as long-lasting as during the Great Recession. On a personal note, I was a dean of career services during the Great Recession. It was a very painful period for many of my students. Those who remained upbeat almost always found employment, though, and many are absolutely thriving in their careers today. Let's hope this legal hiring momentum change is not very long lasting.

– Mike

Graph sources