Compensation has long been a primary motivator becoming an attorney. It is well known by now that lawyers tend to make six-figure salaries, many of them right out of the gate. At major “Big Law” firms, first-year law associates can bring in well above $100,000. Just how much is the subject of many a conversation, as the salaries at differently sized firms will vary greatly. Geography plays a big part as well. Firms in small towns will likely not make as much as those in New York, California, or Florida.
The overall compensation package for incoming attorneys is a well-worn subject, but one must return to it annually, at a minimum. This is done to determine what the going rate is, how newer lawyers feel about their compensation, and what can be done to attract and retain the best new legal professionals. With that said, let’s take a look at the salaries for lawyers in three major states, in terms of the size of the law firm, average take-home, and the factors affecting said rates.
Paycheck Variation For First-Year Law Associates
According to salary and employee review website Glassdoor, the average annual gross income for first-year law associates is actually well over six figures, at $151,026. This is the national average, of course, so the numbers will vary wildly depending on the state and size of the firm in question.
In New York City, the initial rate for attorneys is a bit higher, at $168,632. Somewhat surprisingly, the first-year salary is even higher than that in California. In Los Angeles, new associates make nearly 14% higher than the national average, coming in at $171,581. Lastly, in Miami, Florida, lawyers typically take home about $130,929, which is actually almost 13% lower than the national average.
Keep in mind, of course, that these figures are based on total, overall averages, not taking into account anything but attorneys working in their first year out of law school. For more detailed numbers, one would need to look into the size of the firms themselves. Naturally, it stands to reason that the largest firms sign the biggest paychecks, with smaller law firms unable to match those numbers based on sheer volume of casework.
In 2016, The New York Times reported that one of the nation’s largest firms — Cravath, Swaine & Moore — would raise the salary for their first-year law associates from $160,000 to $180,000. The National Association of Law Placement (NALP) confirms $160,000 as a highly common number for associates to average entering their first year with a firm a full two years earlier, in 2014.
NALP goes on, however, to report that, moving forward, that figure should not be expected by all first-year law associates at every firm in the country. This is again due to the nature of averages and the inconsistencies of expectations when dealing with statistics based on such a wide-ranging and variable employment landscape.
For instance, NALP shows the difference in salary range from those firms with only a handful of lawyers all the way up to those with several hundred or more. Nationally, firms with 2-25 attorneys average as low as $68,000 for first-year law associates, while firms in excess of 700 lawyers offer $125,000 annually for new associates. While these figures are national averages, they do show the incredible range in take-home for new legal professionals.
And Here Comes The Billable Hour
As seen above, these numbers are quite different than those expected of first-year law firm associates in major cities like New York City, LA, and Miami. Individuals living in high-cost states can anticipate making more than their counterparts in cities and states with a lower cost of living. You may note, though, that the dreaded “billable hour” hasn’t even come up yet, and with good reason.
Billable hours do not make a salary. In other words, a new associate is guaranteed a certain amount of money per annum, regardless of hour billed. This may seem counterintuitive, but to the seasoned attorneys reading this, it will come as no surprise.
Billable hours for first-year attorneys are a tricky subject. Yale Law School crunches some hypothetical numbers and reports that the average or target or minimum billables for associates varies, but it usually finds itself somewhere between 1700-2300 hours per year. Making a long series of assumptions about the nature and means of an attorney’s work, they come up with the following: while an attorney may spend as many as 3,058 hours at work, they will likely “only” bill about 2,201 hours.
All this goes to say that first-year law associates can stand to make quite a bit of money in their initial salary, but they will also be expected to make that much and more for their law firm. When it comes to salaries, nothing is a sure thing before the contract is signed. That said, there is at least one certainty for all new attorneys: hard work.