Distribution of Law School Graduate Starting Salaries

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During recessions, interest in graduate school rises as people lose their jobs or otherwise decide to go back to school for better prospects. Are you thinking about law school? I’ve thrown the idea around, as I think estate law would be a growth area. Well, check out these stats from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) first.

The NALP found the national median starting salary for full-time law jobs for the Class of 2009 was $72,000 and the average was $93,454. After adjusting for the fact that many smaller law firms don’t report salary details (and also tend to pay less), it found the adjusted average salary to be $85,198. But you should also consider the distribution of the salaries as well, shown below.

Distribution of Reported Full-Time Salaries — Class of 2009

From this Law.com article:

That’s because salaries are clustered in two areas — a phenomenon known as the bimodal distribution curve. One cluster is in the $40,000 to $60,000 range and the other around $160,000. The lower range tends to include attorneys in public interest and government jobs, while the higher cluster includes associates at large law firms.

This means that after three years of law school and probably accumulating more student debt, lots of new grads are still far away from six-figure salaries. For the Class of 2009, 1 out of 4 are working temporary jobs. Going to law school primarily for the money can be a long road.

What about after the entry-level? This article quotes the Department of Labor as stating that the median lawyer makes $113,000 per year, and those in the 25th percentile make $76,000 per year. Certainly, many people still make solid livings as lawyers. I know a lot of other JDs that are doing things unrelated to law as well, and most of them are doing alright. However, I don’t know if they would have still gone to law school again if given a redo.

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  1. Now worries, I would make sure I’m in upper spike. Just like Lake Wobegon, right?

  2. Also bear in mind that the upper spike jobs are (1) only marginally available with any regularity to students at the most elite of law schools, and (2) short-term jobs in nature. That spike represents the largest national (and international) law firms, all of which have an up-or-out mentality and grueling billable hours requirements.

    Most new associates who start at those firms are gone within 4 years (either because they can’t take it anymore or are pressured to leave). Usually < 10% stay on to eventually make partner, and even partnership these days is not the tenure-equivalent position it once was.

  3. The other deceiving fact is that the few law school grads who manage to accomplish a $100k+ salary are also those living in areas like NYC or DC where cost of living is very high. These associates typically last 4-5 years at most and are then replaced by cheaper, younger, more hard working talent. Transitioning from corporate tax issues or other big money litigation to small town attorney is practically impossible and these guys are forced into years of looking for another similar job while doing document review for $20/hr. Everyone needs to understand that law school is not an easy way into the comfortable middle class. Law school is hard and expensive. Attorneys work very long hours and are very replaceable and rank among the most stressed and burnt out individuals in the work place. Furthermore, firms are downsizing left and right and work traditionally done by attorneys is now done by paralegals and contract employees (w/ JD’s) who cost next to nothing. Mean salaries for law grads in Connecticut and Massachusetts are closer to $60k which of course is being bumped up by those 2-4% associates at big law firms. These numbers also do not account for the attorneys completely out of work. The other myth is that a JD is a very diverse degree and it will score you a job anywhere – FALSE! In fact a law degree is a turn off to employers who think you will either jump ship first chance you get or will want a higher salary just because you are big shot lawyer. Then figure that bar dues (whether you work as a lawyer or not) are quite high and must be paid each year.

  4. Graduate near the top of your class, pass the bar and you’ll be in the top spike. I dated a woman while she was in law school. She graduated near the top and got offers from top firms. Some of her friends didn’t graduate near the top and didn’t get the offers.

  5. Jonathan,

    Wrong, wrong, wrong. A lot of JDs are not doing alright. You’re going to accumulate six figures of debt going to law school and your chance of landing a job after law school is not good. I am from the Class of 2009 and I’ve seen so many peers unemployed or doing contract work while trying to balance six figures of debt that is non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. What the statistics above also aren’t telling you is that it’s incredibly competitive even to get those jobs making $40,000 to $60,000 a year in the public interest. I know plenty of people that would kill for those jobs. The supply of lawyers is too high. There’s a big movement in the legal world trying to educate people about the risks of going to law school and why it’s probably a bad idea. I don’t know if your post is just conveniently timed or if you are posting in response to those concerns.

    The New York Times recently chronicled the growing “law school scam” movement:


  6. This distribution looks off. The peaks are on the right spots on the x axis, but the relative heights are wrong. This distribution looks right for Harvard or some other good school, but if you take all law graduates the left peak is WAY higher than the right. Big law doesn’t really hire from middling or low end schools, and that is where the bulk of graduates comes from.

  7. Actually, the estate planning side of the law may more or less vanish if Congress ends up repealing the estate tax.

  8. law student says

    Jake is correct; the numbers here are very skewed. The vast majority of recent law school graduates are not seeing salaries of $50,000. Many don’t ever find legal jobs. Law school costs $50-75k/year (x 3 years) for most people. It’s not a financially wise decision for those not at the very top schools.

  9. I graduated from law school last June and I am luckily making $400K+. And if my investments and business go well it will be much more. (thanks to my money blog and many others!)
    How? I never worried about what my salary would be as a lawyer during law school and continued to work in many part-time jobs to survive in the city. (um.. may I say… while my rich friends were being lazy in my eyes.)
    Thinking back, they are all being paid back now even though my grades sucked and I didn’t end up in biglaws.
    I am not bragging my accomplishments. But, I think people should open their eyes beyond numbers and averages that don’t mean anything to each person. It is your own efforts and risk-takings that make difference, not law schools.

  10. My favorite part of all of this is all the lawyers out there that were pompous enough to think that they would automatically receive to 6 figure salary because it was owed to them for graduating law school…

  11. @J 400k+ a year out of school? Hmmm….

    Anyway, living in DC I know a lot of attorneys. And it is not good to be an attorney right now. Fresh grads are not getting work. Others are doing document review for very little pay. The “lucky” ones who have regular jobs are being worked to death. One friend graduated at the top of her class at GW and, despite having good internships during school, only managed to get a $60k a year job with the gov’t after 6 months of searching ($60k does not go very far here).

    I used to want a JD of my own… now I’m glad I stayed in engineering.

  12. Law school "trial run" says

    One thing I never see mentioned in all the law school “value” discussions is the phenomenon of law schools shopping for high LSAT scores by giving high LSAT scorers full-ride scholarships. If you get a 166 or higher (I got a little higher), you can go to many second tier schools and pay $0 for tuition. I’m doing it right now!

    The higher your LSAT after 165 (and to a lesser extent, the higher your GPA is, above 3.2), the higher up the law school rankings (which are total BS, but that’s another story altogether) you can get a full-ride scholarship to.

    Note that almost all of the time, these full-ride scholarships require you to get good grades in the first year of law school in order to keep the scholarship in the second and third years of law school (or at least OK grades to keep some healthy portion of it).

    Any smart kid who gets out of undergrad (without debt) and has no idea what the hell they want to do, or is at least intrigued by law school, can delay making any real decision for at least a year if they take the LSAT and do well. They can go to a second tier or better law school for a year without paying tuition. At most, they borrow $20k (in Federal Stafford loans) for living expenses. (Maybe mom and dad provide another $5-10k in a mix of cash and non-cash gifts… Bonus!) If they really like law school and do really well, they can transfer to a better law school. If they do OK, they stay at the same law school and get the degree at a massive discount. If they do poorly, they can go look for a job and just say in their interview that they had a change of heart; that they learned a lot in law school but it just wasn’t their thing. Then they can get a couple of years of work experience and consider an MBA. (Maybe the company will pay for it… Bonus!)

    One thing… 166 on the LSAT is 93rd percentile. 168 is 96th. 170 is 98th. This free trial run isn’t for everyone. The good news is that the LSAT is *supremely* learnable (trainable?). Go take a practice one. (You can purchase dozens of actual past exams.) If you score in the upper 150s (or especially anything better than 160), it’s worth studying how to take the exam. You can easily add 6-12+ points.

    I’m not saying this will always work or is the best idea for everyone. It’s just something that isn’t ever brought up in discussions about law school value.

  13. @LawSchool”Trial”Run

    I think you’ve probably hit on the only sensible approach to law school, if one absolutely must go at all.

    There are still many challenges:

    (1) While you may get your degree on the cheap (or free!), by doing so you will still be paying the price of having severely limited initial legal job opportunities. Those jobs that you might be able to get are most likely to be restricted to the local market surrounding the school, and in the lower half of the income curve, because legal hiring is very prestige driven and only the elite schools have national reputations.

    (2) It’s difficult to know what level of first-year accomplishment justifies quitting. The lower the rank of the school, the more likely you’ll get a full ride, but likewise the better you have to perform in order to maintain decent post-graduate job prospects. E.g., if you’re at a the 10th ranked school, you’ll probably be fine if you’re not in the bottom quartile. At the 20th ranked school, if you’re in the top quartile you’re probably on track to land something, and at the top 60th rank school, you probably won’t feel secure with the portability of your degree unless you can claim you’re one of the top 5 STUDENTS. If you’re interested in a portable degree that will get you a decent job outside of your school’s natural market, there quickly reaches the point where the performance requirement becomes so extreme (e.g., you pretty much have to get a royal flush of “A” grades as a first year in classes with mandatory-curves), that even the smartest of people might not pull it off (who hasn’t had a bad test once in a while?).

    The only useful measure of your first year performance is your transferability. That is, if you apply (and are accepted) to a top 10 school from your lower tier school, then presumably you are on track to secure a decent legal job with at least marginal portability. Otherwise you should probably quit if your priority is to be at the top side of the earnings curve or want to work elsewhere. If you’re willing to accept a degree with limited portability and pay-prospects, of course, there’s nothing wrong with staying put on the cheap. Otherwise, quitting is the only option that makes sense.

    But few want to view themselves as quitters — particularly after making new friends, possibly moving to a new locale, maybe enjoying the academic feel of the law, etc. This is one of those super hard decisions that requires utmost discipline (probably akin to buying more and more long positions in real estate as part of your diversified portfolio rebalancing while you watch that sector gradually crash).

    (3) And if you have the grades to transfer and want better chances at the higher-paying jobs or a more portable degree, transferring still carries its own burden. Should you transfer, your degree portability improves dramatically, but so does the competition (you’ll be among far smarter people) and so does the cost (you will likely be paying full sticker price at the elite school for the remainder of your education).

    As I see it currently, law is best for those who have low expectations or desires. Such a person should know with certainty what geographic market they want to work in (as in what city). They should then go to whichever school in that market (a) that offers them a full ride and (b) where they will be most likely to perform very highly based on their intelligence relative to their peers. Then such person should work hard, not attempt to leave, and be willing and entirely satisfied with accepting one of the very limited < $50,000 law jobs available to them in insurance defense, as an ambulance chaser, or in some other "common" legal field. Otherwise, my advice would be to avoid law school.

  14. Jack McDermott says

    It is amazing how many folks default to law school when they don’t know what they want to do with their life.

    I know literally hundreds of lawyers and am 1 myself and have to say that I’m shocked several times a month with the almost complete dissatisfaction with the choice to even go into law.

    I hear a lot: “I loved learning about the law but absolutely hate the practice of it.”

    One of the reason the the “10% retention rate” exists at firms is that people get disillusioned or burned out and look for another career.

    I strongly warn anyone from going to law school. Seriously. Yes, it’s a broad brush but better to be safe than sorry.

  15. I’d have to agree that people need to look long and hard at the NY Times article. 30K a year in tuition for non existent jobs leaves indentured servants working low paying jobs for a long time and or so debt ridden, there’s minimal honor left for pro bono work.

  16. For purposes of full disclosure, I am a practising lawyer who enjoys his job. Nevertheless, I stronly agree with the comments which warn against rushing into law school. I am constantly asked for my opinion about going to law school by friends and family. I always provide the same answer and warning:

    1) all rigorous study/education is worthwhile from the perspective of gaining knowledge;
    2) legal education will provide critical skills and useful tools;
    3) many lawyers never practice law but wind up using the legal background to work in business or other fields;
    4) the legal profession, despite the lawyer jokes, plays an important role in a democracy and a market economy;
    5) UNFORTUNATELY, many students go into law without understanding the demands and disadvantages of the profession;
    6) Hollywood and public perceptions contribute to the inaccurate and rosy perception of lawyers;
    7) large numbers of lawyers are disaffected and regret going to law school;
    8) potential lawyer students should compare notes with as many laywers as possible and try to shadow a lawyer for a day to get a true picture of what they may be getting themselves into;
    9) the economic prospects for lawyers will continue to be negative so long as universities keep adding law schools without regard for the over supply and growing armies of unemployed lawyers that are graduating;
    10) prospective students should try to do a cost benefit analysis of their options and think through the consequences of potentially enormous law school debt

    Similar questions could also be asked about other kinds of graduate level education?

  17. Funny, most of my family went to law school. All of my college roommates did too. They’re all doing very well and they’re in secure, high paying jobs.

    I went to business school instead of law school. I put in 60-70 hour weeks and I’m on call 24/7 for my employees and customers. My blackberry is attached to my hip always and has been for about 7 years. There is no end in sight to this. My family, who work as lawyers for the county, make more than I, get far more PTO, work fewer hours, take longer, more frequent vacations, have no outside work duties, work in an environment where getting laid off or fired is nigh impossible and they have a pension guaranteed after 25 years of service (which pays 90% of their highest salary).

    For them retiring at 50 or so is a real option. Then they can go teach law or do whatever. They don’t bother with 401k and every year they get a raise of at least 3% automatically – not including other perks like comp time and every holiday known to man.

    Tell me again why law school is a bad idea?

  18. @Jon M
    Demand & Supply. I am very needed in the market so I take two well-paying full-time jobs. 😉
    And I am not freshly out of school system. Worked a few years before law school.
    I knew long before I can’t compete with white males even with top 25 law school degree. So, I did many trials to find my way.
    As many commented above, I hope law graduates realize there are a lot of ways to use their very useful degree and stop lamenting about distribution of starting salaries. Of course, I hate the system that makes you owe so much money and become greedy, but, it will takes less time to pay back (if I work my ass off) than to change the system before my kids want to go to law school.

  19. Jack McDermott says

    Wow. Was was that last post and what is it talking about? Honestly, I have no idea if it’s pro or anti obtaining a law degree.

    “I knew long before I can’t compete with white males even with top 25 law school degree.” This kind of thing is best served being posted elsewhere rather than on this blog. Senseless race baiting has no place around here.

  20. The facts are what they are: not enough jobs, more legal jobs being shipped overseas, too many lawyers, too many law schools, not enough high salaries to justify the expenses/3 years of your life not making money/a high burn-out/depression rate amongst practicing attorneys, and the fact that unless you can get into a top 40 program or finish in the top 10% of your non-top 40 program you will find law school to be a bad investment……yet everyone keeps thinking they will be the exception to the rule. Odds are you won’t be…..

  21. I have never met a laywer who admitted to liking his job

  22. Dave, I know many. They actually love what they do. Weird as it’s just a reminder of how few of us get to actually dig what we do on a daily basis.

  23. “Standard deviation” – it would tell all the story without so many words.

  24. With such a bimodal distribution, I doubt a standard deviation would tell much of the story at all.

  25. I am a freshman in college. I am thinking about going into the field of accounting. I feel like accountants don’t make a very high salary. I know that a salary isn’t the only thing I should be worried about, but it is important to me. I want to enjoy my career while also having a decent living. What else can I do with a degree in accounting besides being an actual accountant?

    Please only answer if you know what you are talking about. I need some serious input.

  26. “….I feel like accountants don’t make a very high salary….”

    This has been said ad nauseum but here we go again.

    1) Go to a top ranked school (even if you transfer for the last two years)
    2) Study-study-study, do your best. LEARN
    3) Never ever fall for the “it isn’t the money” lie – its ONLY about money
    4) Keep your eyes open, try to get into a company where you can LEARN,
    get EXPERIENCE and start networking.
    5) LEAVE when the money does not match your performance.
    6) NEVER EVER mix business with personal life.
    7) A job is _ONLY _ for generating ever increasing income – nothing else.
    8) Learn to be completely selfish. Managers and Senior Executive WILL
    cheat you if you are not attentive and strong.
    9) Take whatever you-can-get while obeying the law 😉
    10) Remember, the HOTTEST women want the men that make the most
    money and give them the toys they want. Love is for the POOR.
    Even the most devoted wife will jump into the sack with any good looking
    guy that is broke. Be prepared to be humiliated and used.

    Live you life as if your life depends on it – IT DOES.

    The moment you start caring about someone else and THEIR career
    is the day yours goes down the drain.

    MONEY is the only thing.
    People can be bought.
    Loyalty has a price.

  27. surfscape says

    I have been in the eternal debate: grad school vs law school.
    I graduated from a decent college and wanted to make a difference; went into the environmental industry, and have succeeded: I work for a top 15 environmental company fighting pollution.
    I have been in the workforce a few years and want to move on to a brighter future, aka i no longer care and want to sell my soul for money.
    I have been toying with the idea of law school. I have no family, immense amounts of time, very smart and only want to make money.
    Upon reading various forums, law and grad, employment prospects are scarce no matter where I decide to go. I agree with ed’s post above. Do I fit the mold of a lawyer and should I go to law school?

  28. Wow. Ed, are you a lawyer?

    I mostly agree with your 1 through 5, though I’d change #3 to the effect of “College is about getting a job”, which I think is similar in spirit to what you have, and #5 to “Leave when your rate of learning slows down”.

    The rest is, in my opinion, a recipe for a very empty and miserable life. Hang in there man, things can get better. Don’t let the garbage of the world drag you down to their level.

  29. @jack mcdermott

    Racial discrimination is an additional factor that minorities are sometimes subjected to with when applying for jobs- a factor that many white males are able to bypass and forget about. This is a factor that may be intimidating for some when evaluating their prospects for a high starting salary in law, and therefore, I find J’s comment relevant.

    The negation of the relevance of racial discrimination in relation to JD starting salaries only reinforces its existence and your tone of belittlement to her comment, ironically, reinforces what she was referring to.

  30. Jack Mdermott says


    Firms that have high starting salary legal positions (as in those noted in the blog entry above) are anything but retreats for white males – particularly for incoming classes & laterals. You should really do your homework before making such baseless and inflammatory claims. Diversity is a huge focus area for any AmLaw 100 firm. I’ve now worked at, and recruited on behalf of, 3 of them and talked to scores of recruiters for others and the name of the game is diversity.

    LOL at that last run on sentence. Again, the article is about how most law school graduates are falling short of their salary goals & the pie in the sky $$$ promises. MOST GRADUATES. As in, not just minorities but MOST. Save your sanctimonious lectures. They’ll have more effect that way.

    Once again, amazing that race is injected again into a discussion that has no relevance to it whatsoever.

  31. Dr. Rosen Rosen says

    ed is either a rich narciscistic asshole who’s mommy and daddy didn’t love him enough or is poor, self-loathing, and wishes he were smarter/better looking/funnier (or all three).

    Plenty of sucessful people, however you define that – money, love, happiness, all of the above, find loyalty and people who care about them and vice versa without a monetary “price.” Life is what you make of it – perception is reality.

  32. Ed knows what’s up.

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