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Public sector attorneys still earn significantly less than private sector lawyers

October 22, 2012

Most public sector lawyer salaries have kept pace with inflation but remain significantly lower than salaries at private law firms, according to the “2012 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report” by the National Association for Law Placement.

The report indicated that most public interest starting salaries have risen between 23 percent (for public interest organizations) and 29 percent (for public defenders) while the consumer price index has increased about 22 percent during the same eight-year period.

According to the research, the median entry-level salary for a legal services attorney is just under $43,000, and an attorney with 11 to 15 years of experience can expect to make about $65,000.

Beginning public defenders earn a median salary around $50,500, while public defenders with 11 to 15 years of experience will be paid a median salary of $78,600.  

Entry-level prosecutors post a median salary of $50,000, and that progresses to almost $77,000 for those with 11 to 15 years of experience.

Salaries for attorneys in public interest organizations with issue-driven missions, such as women’s or civil rights issues, start around $54,000 and rise to about $75,000 with 11 to 15 years of experience.

These wages compare to a median first-year salary of about $80,000 at a law firm of 50 or fewer attorneys, almost double the salary of an entry-level attorney at a legal services organization. Moreover, starting salaries at many large firms in major metropolitan areas are near $160,000, beyond what even the most experienced attorneys can expect at a public interest organization.

James Leipold, executive director at NALP, stated that while salaries for public attorneys have risen with inflation, they have not risen enough to entice lawyers to practice in the public sector.

He noted that over the past eight years, “the cost of legal education and the average amount of law student debt have both risen at a much higher pace, which means that despite favorable changes in the federal loan repayment options available to law school graduates working in the public interest, there are still significant economic disincentives at play as law students consider whether or not to pursue public interest legal careers.”


 

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