The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) http://nalp.org conducts a periodic public service salary survey. The 2018 edition shows that public service attorney salaries have risen only modestly since 2004 the first year of NALP’s survey. Attorneys who provide civil legal services have the lowest median entry-level salary, earn the smallest increases in salary based on experience, and have seen the slowest growth in salary levels over the past 14 years. Practice experience earns only relatively modest salary increases: The median entry-level salary for a legal services attorney is $48,000; at 11-15 years of experience the median is $69,500. This does not take inflation into consideration. If inflation is factored in, 2004’s $48,000 is the equivalent in 2018 purchasing power of $64,031.09 in 2018. Thus, practice experience is worth virtually nothing in the eyes of the compensation arbiters.
Pay for public defenders and local prosecuting attorneys is somewhat higher, starting at about $58,000 and $56,000, respectively, and increasing to about $96,000 and $84,000, respectively, for those with 11-15 years of experience.
A total of 347 organizations participated in the survey.
The report categorizes salary outcomes both geographically and based on the nature of the responding organization. For example, entry-level salaries at civil legal services organizations are notably higher in the Northeast, with a median of over $58,000. Among local prosecuting attorneys, salary scales are higher in the West. The report also includes information on the types of benefits responding organizations provide their attorneys.
The report, taken in tandem with its law firm companion piece — NALP’s 2017 Associate Salary Survey — highlights well-understood, but nonetheless sobering distinctions between public sector/public interest salaries and law firm salaries. The median first-year salary at a law firm of 50 or fewer attorneys was about $90,000 in 2017, not quite double the salary for an entry-level attorney at a legal services organization. The median first-year salary for firms with 51-100 attorneys was $115,000. Moreover, the $180,000 starting salary paid at many large firms in big cities, and the recent move to $190,000 on the part of a number of firms, is beyond what even the most experienced attorneys can reasonably expect at a public interest organization.
The gap between public service legal salaries and the private sector is beginning to look like the chasm between what corporate CEOs earn vs. their workers. The income and wealth gap between the two sectors has never been so huge. Moreover, given the student debt burden that today’s graduating law students incur, there is no way public service can attract the kind of attorneys it needs.
The NALP press release https://nalp.org/uploads/PSASR_7-9-18_FINAL.pdf includes extensive tables of survey information. The full report, including access to the interactive web tool, tables with salaries by region, community population size, and organizational type, and additional information on health and dental insurance and retirement plans is available at https://nalp.org/bookstore for $50; the report is free to PSJD subscriber schools, their students, and their alumni. A list of subscriber schools can be found at https://psjd.org/subscriber-schools.