Law grad salaries rise as big firms up their hiring

The nation’s largest law firms hired more law school graduates in 2017, helping to boost entry-level salaries by $5,000 to a median of $70,000, according to the National Association for Law Placement.

It’s the first year salaries have increased that much in several years, and show that the employment outlook for recent law school graduates is brighter than it has been at any time since 2008.

Big firms hired more recent law school graduates than at any time since the recession, falling only 600 jobs below peak levels. That’s surprising given that the number of law students is far lower than in 2009. 

Average salaries are even higher than the median, rising from $90,305 for the class of 2016, to $95,320 for the class of 2017. Average salaries are traditionally higher than medians because of the much higher salaries paid by the largest law firms.

The most prestigious firms are paying $180,000 to entry-level associates, and 37 percent of the Class of 2017 reported that salary. Last year, only 28 percent reported a salary of $180,000. 

The median law firm salary was $117,000 and the average was $119,740. The average salary was nearly $5,000 more than the previous high in 2009.

NALP also reported that employment rates for 2017 law graduates are at the highest point since the recession. The improved job market is the result of a decrease in the number of grads, in addition to an increase in the number of jobs.

"The employment outcomes findings for members of the Class of 2017 are surprisingly strong,” said James G. Leipold, NALP's executive director. “Most notable is a bar passage required employment rate that jumped more than four percentage points from the previous year, and a private practice employment rate that has now increased for six years in a row.

While the largest law firms are hiring more, the total number of jobs at firms of any size is still off by 4,000 from the peak in 2007. The Class of 2017 secured 16,390 jobs in law firms of any size.

JD Advantage jobs fell to just 12.3 percent of graduates for whom employment status was known, lower than the rate measured at any time since 2010. This suggests that despite the growth of new JD Advantage opportunities in areas like compliance, many law graduates prefer bar passage required jobs practicing law if they can be found, NALP stated