Newly Minted Lawyers Can Find Sweet Spots in U.S. Labor Market

Buildings stand in the skyline of Austin, Texas,. U.S., on Friday, June 6, 2014. Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg
By Laurel Brubaker Calkins, Big Law Business

This year’s crop of law school graduates can expect to earn about what last year’s earned: Median starting salaries clock in at $135,000 this year, dead even with last year’s rate, according to a new study by the National Association for Law Placement.

But law school graduates lucky enough to snag posts at mega-firms in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco can expect to pull down as much as $180,000 this year, which caps the rate for first-year associates anywhere in the country. The only catch is that the high cost of living in the big coastal cities means these jobs aren’t necessarily the best deals. 

Graduates willing to build careers in less obvious places or with smaller shops, in second or third-tier markets, such as Austin or Philadelphia, are likely to find there’s more bang for the buck in these cities — even if their gross salary is lower than what associates in Manhattan or San Francisco make.

Here are some facts: NALP’s nationwide data shows first-year associates who choose cities with populations of less than 1.5 million earn higher median incomes at firms that have between 251 and 500 lawyers ($120,000) than they do at firms with up to 700 attorneys ($115,000). In these smaller cities, the outposts of even larger firms pay even less ($106,000).

Young lawyers who want stay in the Northeast but avoid cities with more than 1.5 million residents can expect median starting salaries of $125,000 this year, NALP data shows. The same thing holds true in mid-sized cities across the American West, which NALP defines as roughly the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific, where first-year associates can also command $125,000 median salaries in markets of less than 1.5 million people.

Specifically, where can this year’s crop of first-years look to stretch their paychecks furthest? We cross-referenced NALP’s salary data with CNN’s cost-of-living calculator, to obtain a sense of just how far money goes in various cities.

In the chart below, the first column represents the median starting salary for newly minted law grads in that city. The second column shows how the $180,000 median income of a first-year associate at a large Manhattan firm compares with colleagues starting out in the rest of the country. For example, if you’re currently making $180,000 and living in Manhattan, if you moved to Austin, you’d only need to make $76,129 to maintain your current standard of living. So if mountain biking and the blues are your thing, maybe it’s time to consider taking the Texas bar?


City:     Median Starting Salary:   Cost of Living vs Manhattan:

Austin, TX         $180,000                $76,129


Dallas, TX         $180,000                $76,847


Houston, TX        $180,000                $78,043


Charlotte, NC      $155,000                $76,767


Wilmington, DE     $155,000                $84,659


Newark, NJ         $150,000                $101,160


Seattle, WA        $145,000                $110,168


Philadelphia, PA   $142,500                $95,341


Atlanta, GA        $135,000                $80,035


Denver, CO         $135,000                $87,130


Miami, FL          $135,000                $89,442


Phoenix, AZ        $125,000                $76,289