Least Important Research Ever: BigLaw Starting Pay Still $160k

By William Peacock, Esq. on September 18, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The National Association for Legal Professionals, which tracks employment statistics and salaries of lawyers, issued a press release today that will have few, if any implications for anyone. After the median starting salary dipped last year to $145,000 for firms with more than 700 lawyers, it "rebounded" to $160,000 this year.

Is that a sign of a thriving industry on the rebound? No. Not at all.

What percentage of law grads work at firms with more than 700 lawyers? We don't have any numbers, but we'd venture a guess that it is somewhere in the neighborhood of less than one percent. (We are the 99 percent! Occupy BigLaw!) Median starting salaries aside, every other bit of recent BigLaw news, at least for associates, has pointed towards further decline.

Smaller Summer Associate Classes

Earlier this month, we lamented the decrease in BigLaw summer associate class sizes, with 84 percent of firms decreasing class sizes by an average of 46 percent since 2007. Only eight firms have increased class sizes, and the increases have been by a modest average of 13 percent.

As we all know, the path to a BigLaw associate gig begins with a summer associate gig. Work the summer, prove your worth, pray for an offer after graduation. Fewer summer associates points to plans for decreased hiring in the future.

Mixed Post-Grad Hiring News

Back in July, NALP noted that BigLaw hiring was up 27 percent over the last two years! Of course, that was an increase over the mid-recession slash-and-burn of associate hiring. Back in 2009, firms hired 5,100 people. Last year? 3,600. Statistics vary widely when you use selective endpoints.

Meanwhile, three major firms shuttered offices and announced layoffs, including Weil Gotschal's casualties (110 support staffers and 60 associates).

The Reality of the Landscape

In April, we took a look at NALP's numbers for the entirety of the classes of 2011 and 2012. It wasn't good. Half of all 2011 graduates made less than $60,000 if they found work. Though NALP was still processing 2012's numbers, unemployment was up 1.4 percent at that point for the class of 2012.

Trumpeting the rise in salaries of the chosen few that end up in BigLaw, while BigLaw hiring seems to be trending downward, and the industry as a whole has no jobs, is like showing that the U.S. economy has recovered because Mark Zuckerburg is a billionaire. The truth is, grads are still struggling, schools are still churning out tens of thousands of new lawyers, and nearly everyone is hurting.

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