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Graduate of UPenn Law ’14
So considering the debt that you will (likely) have to take on, the natural question is how you will actually pay off your law school loans.
Quite obviously, you will be paying off your law school loans through wages from your first job. That is why jobs at “Big Law” firms are so desirable. Big Law positions pay the highest salaries to law school graduates, so the general consensus is that Big Law associates will use that salary to pay off their law school loans before moving on to a position that better suits their interests.
Ultimately, your first job out of law school doesn’t necessarily define the arc of your legal career. That said, it can go a long way toward making a dent in your loans. Additionally, where you work is a large determinant of how much you will be paid. Bigger markets like New York City or Los Angeles pay more than smaller markets.
A caveat to this is that salary, quite obviously, is not the only factor that you should consider when thinking of your first job after graduation. You will want to find a position that speaks to your interests, challenges you intellectually, and contains intelligent, hard-working colleagues.
Pursuing a job simply for the money is not an effective strategy in the long run. Therefore, working in the legal field (especially in your dream office) before law school presents a unique opportunity to see the work that attorneys actually do. It may reaffirm—or dissuade—you from pursuing a certain career path in the legal field.
With that said, here is a list of common first jobs out of law school and how much law school graduates are paid.
A. Big Law
So-called “Big Law” firms are some of the largest firms in the world. They typically represent corporations and wealthy individuals in litigation, transactional, or tax matters. Big Law firms are known for high compensation, high stress, and long hours. To get a sampling of Big Law firms, you can view the 100 most prestigious Big Law firms in America by clicking on this list.
Big Law associates are compensated extremely well. Many Big Law firms have starting salaries of $190,000 for first-year associates. This number does not include discretionary bonuses that are given to associates each year, which can be a prorated amount of $10,000 to $15,000 for first-year associates.
It is useful to look at median salaries for graduating law students who enter Big Law. The National Association for Law Placement (“NALP”) provides a consolidated summary of full-time long-term salaries of law school graduates from the class of 2017. For law firms with more than 500 attorneys (Big Law firms), the median full-time long-term salary is $180,000, with a mean salary of $171,628.
As stated above, working at a Big Law firm provides the quickest opportunity to pay off your law school debt. Actually obtaining a Big Law job, however, is another story, as many law students are competing for the few positions available.
B. Mid Law and Small Law
Big Law firms aren’t the only game in town. Law school graduates can pursue positions at smaller commercial law firms. These law firms can range from a boutique firm specializing in criminal defense to a firm that specializes in entertainment law.
These firms often offer more hands-on work than a Big Law firm and may take on similar clients to Big Law firms. They often offer a more positive work environment and more work-life balance. That said, these jobs are as difficult (or even more difficult) to obtain than Big Law positions. Unlike Big Law firms, smaller firms don’t recruit on campus, so law students have to hustle to obtain these jobs.
Also, a more relaxed working environment and more work-life balance come at a cost, namely your salary. The NALP data for the class of 2017 shows the smallest law firms to firms with 251 to 500 attorneys offer a median salary of $58,000 to $180,000. Some boutiques may pay even higher than the traditional Big Law first-year salary of $180,000, but this depends on the specific firm.
C. Solo Practitioner
Law school grads who want to take full ownership over their careers may opt to “hang a shingle,” meaning that they start their own legal practice. These solo practitioners can specialize in any area of law, like family law, employment law, or criminal defense. Becoming a solo practitioner isn’t for everyone and there can be immense challenges to starting your own firm. That said, if you are able to overcome the challenges, your professional income is theoretically unlimited.
Not many law graduates start their careers as solo practitioners. The NALP data shows that only 408 out of 33,966 class of 2017 grads (approximately 1.2 percent) chose this path. Unfortunately, NALP does not provide the median salary of solo practitioners.
D. Judicial Clerkships
A good number of law students choose to clerk with a judge immediately after graduation. Clerkships are great opportunities to work closely with judges in courts ranging from a small court in your state to the U.S. Supreme Court. As a clerk, you work with your judge and other clerks to research case law and write briefs and opinions on matters that are before your judge.
As far as salary, however, clerkships aren’t at the top. The median clerkship salary is $56,748. That said, keep in mind that law grads aren’t pursuing clerkships for the money. The ultimate intention is to gain legal writing and research experience by working closely with a judge. The monetary rewards emerge later, whether that is through a large clerkship bonus from your new law firm or by becoming a talented litigator who eventually becomes a Big Law partner.
Government legal jobs can range from an assistant U.S. Attorney or local prosecutor to an attorney working for a certain committee in the U.S. House of Representatives or U.S. Senate.
Most government attorneys don’t go into this line of work for the salary. (NALP data for the class of 2017 shows that government salaries have a median salary of $60,000.) Rather, they become government attorneys for the overall mission and for giving back to their country. Government attorneys also have the opportunity to pay off some of their loans through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
F. Public Interest / Nonprofit
Public interest and non-profit attorneys represent organizations or groups of individuals that advocate for some cause. Some simple examples include attorneys for Legal Information for Families Today, a New York City-based nonprofit that provides legal information and advice to litigants in family court; public interest law firms, whose primary mission is to assist underrepresented people or causes; or attorneys for human rights organizations like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch.
The median salary for public interest and non-profit legal positions for law school grads is $50,000. Like government positions, however, these attorneys aren’t taking these jobs for the money. They are pursuing a higher mission. And like government attorneys, public interest and non-profit attorneys may be eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
The NALP data provides a category of “business” positions that law school graduates obtain. Business is an extremely broad category and can include a variety of positions. Some of those positions can include consulting, investment banking, working as an in-house attorney for a corporation, or working for a family or small business. Business includes both legal and non-legal positions. NALP states that “business” includes “most employers that are not law firms, schools, or government organizations, as well as most instances of being self-employed (other than having set up your own solo law practice), including contract work for multiple firms.”
The median salary for business positions, according to NALP, is $75,000. Compared to the median Big Law salary, however, the variance is quite large. Your particular salary for a business position will depend on the actual position itself, the market, and where the business is located.
Education includes teaching positions at any level, from elementary schools to higher education. These positions may either be in the public or private sector and include teaching, non-teaching, or administrative positions. It is not a popular career choice for law school grads. According to the NALP data, 486 law school grads out of 33,966 (approximately 1.4 percent) became educators.
The median salary for first-year educators is $50,000. As with government and public interest positions, educators aren’t prioritizing salary when making their career position.
These are the most common first-year positions for law school grads. The opportunity to pursue a given career path depends on many factors, including your law school, your 1L grades, your interviewing skills, and your network. As with everything, you must consider employment outcomes when making your law school decision. If you wish to become a Big Law attorney, for instance, you will want to attend a “Top 14” law school in or near a large city. If you want to become a local prosecutor in your hometown, however, it may not be the best decision to attend the most prestigious (and expensive) law school in the country.