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Time, Place, and Manner

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Lawyer Pay: 1996 vs 2011

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Pop quiz, what's the median starting salary at a firm law firm with 251+ attorneys?

If you've been following all the salary reporting shenanigans, you're going to read that a couple times before answer, but there's no trick here. We're talking about median salary of people who land Big Law jobs.

The answer is $130,000, according to some recently released NALP data. Only firms in NYC, DC, and LA had medians of $160,000, so even landing a golden ticket in Big Law won't nab you that huge salary. You need the right firm - in the right city.

The NALP data goes deeper though, comparing median starting salaries by firm size in 1996 through 2011.

Here are the 1996 and 2011 numbers (in 1999 NALP merged the two smallest sizes):

2-10: $35,000

11-25: $41,500 -> $73,000

26-50: $52,000 -> $86,000

51-100: $58,500 -> $91,000

101-250: $60,000 -> $110,000

251+: $70,000 -> $130,000

43% increase at the bottom, 86% increase at the top. And anyone who knows anything about time and money knows these numbers are useless unless adjusted for inflation. So, let's see what happens if we do that using the Bureau of Labor Statistic's CPI calculator:

2-10: $35,000

11-25: $60,000 -> $73,000

26-50: $75,200 -> $86,000

51-100: $84,600 -> $91,000

101-250: $86,800 -> $110,000

251+: $101,200 -> $130,000

So, we still see some gains, but not as much. The 26-50 club went up 14.4%. The 251+ club saw a 28.5% increase.

In the mid-1990s, tuition at a top law school was about $20,000 a year, and now it's around $45,5000 (though a few have breached the $50k mark). [Volokh] What does that look like adjusted for inflation?

$20,000 in today's money is $28,900. So, while starting pay has increased anywhere from 14.4% - 28.5%, tuition has gone up a whopping 44.5%.

But wait, there's more! And by more, we mean less.

NALP also compared the 1996 and 2010 pay for prosecutors and judicial clerks.

First the raw numbers:

Prosecutors: $33,000 -> $49,000

Clerks: $35,000 -> $51,900

And now the inflation adjusted numbers:

Prosecutors: $45,900 -> $49,000

Clerks: $48,600 - > $51,900

That's an increase of 6.8% in pay for prosecutors and clerks, with a 44.5% increase to the cost of getting the degree.

Plenty of law professors still ham on about what a winning proposition a law degree, but one thing is for certain, a law degree ain't the good investment it was 15 years ago.

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