First Year Lawyer Salaries: A 2023 Guide

Written by Sharon Miki6 minutes well spent
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Graduation caps and dollar bills indicating first year lawyer salary

No matter how much you love the practice of law, the fact remains that money also matters—especially if you’re new to the profession and thinking about your first year lawyer salary. 

Whether you’re a law student or a recent graduate just starting out (perhaps also handling the costs of your legal education), understanding the scope of potential first year lawyer salaries can give you realistic expectations for how much you can earn. 

But what is the average salary for a first year lawyer in the US right now? How much money can you reasonably strive to bring home as a new attorney? In the following guide, we’ll discuss how much first year lawyers typically make in the US—and the key elements that play into salary for recent graduates.

So, taking both the average base salary and average additional pay into account, the estimated total pay for a first year attorney in the US is approximately $89,644 per year.

Keep in mind that the average salary for a first year lawyer depends on multiple factors, such as your geographical location, firm size, and the type of legal work you do (more on this later), 

First year lawyer salaries and job prospects 

A group of first year lawyers sitting around a table

Even before landing your first legal job, you want to consider the bigger picture for current and future salaries and job prospects. Fortunately for lawyers in the US, the legal field is expected to grow. 

Specifically, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook projects growth and good prospects for lawyers now and in the years to come, driven by continued demand for legal services paired with a need to replace lawyers who are leaving their roles (for different occupations) or leaving the labor force (for retirement). 

According to the BLS, employment of lawyers will grow 10% from 2021 to 2031—which is faster than the average for all occupations. When it comes to employment prospects, the BLS projects that there will be an average of 48,700 job openings for lawyers each year over the 10-year period.

Factors impacting first year lawyer salaries 

While it’s useful to know the general job prospects and average salary for a first year lawyer in the US, every firm, location, and role is different—and the specific salary for first year lawyers varies depending on your situation. 

Here are some of the key factors that impact salary for recent graduates.

Salaries and location

Location is a major driver when it comes to income potential for lawyers. The state (and sometimes even the city) influences average lawyer salaries for attorneys at all stages of their careers. Knowing the typical rates for your geographical location can help you better understand your potential first year lawyer salary. 

In addition to looking at the salary ranges for first year lawyer jobs in your area, you can also look at Clio’s 2022 Legal Trends Report. The Legal Trends Report offers data on hourly rates by state for lawyers (DC and New York top the list at $424 and $378, respectively), along with adjusted rates by state, which reflect the cost of living for each state (DC tops this list too at $359, while Delaware takes the second spot at $351).

To quickly compare hourly rates by state, you can also check out Clio’s hourly rate calculator, which pulls from aggregated and anonymized billing data from legal professionals working across all states. 

Salaries and law school

A first year lawyer signing a document

For many students, factors like tuition cost, location, and law school rankings are top of mind when assessing potential law schools, but your school of choice may also be a factor in the equation when considering your first year earning potential. 

As this OnlineU analysis of alumni salaries one year after graduation shows, graduating from certain law schools may open up higher-paying positions when you become a lawyer. 

For example, while the analysis suggests that attending Ivy League schools like Columbia University (which ranked highest in median salary at $193,362) may offer new law grads higher earning potential, it also shows that certain public universities like UVA Law also show high alumni salaries (the median salary for UVA law grads after one year was $185,710).

No matter where you go to law school, you can always look for ways to help yourself stand out from your classmates when it comes time to get your first lawyer job. When looking for ways to set yourself apart, don’t underestimate the power of skills that go beyond the scope of traditional legal knowledge. 

Learning useful “soft skills” and having tech proficiency goes a long way with some firms, and you can work on these skills even prior to graduation. Clio’s Academic Access Program (CAAP), for example, offers free Clio access to students in clinical and classroom settings—so you can develop tech skills, gain experience, and prepare for the future of law before joining a firm.

“The biggest impact of having Clio in our clinical programs has been that our students have grown comfortable managing cases from start to finish using one seamless platform,” notes the University of North Carolina’s Doug Edmunds, Clio Certified Consultant + Academic. “From document management to client engagement to time keeping, Clio has helped them understand that the practice of law today can be more efficient and effective when the right technology is in place.”

If you’re a law student, you can sign up for CAAP here.

Salaries and practice area

Another factor that often impacts earning potential is your chosen practice area. As the 2022 Legal Trends Report outlines, the average hourly rates for lawyers varies by practice area, with more specialized roles typically drawing in higher rates—which likely means higher salaries. 

Here again, Clio’s hourly rate calculator is a useful tool: Use it to easily compare rates in your chosen state by practice area.

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And, if you’re considering becoming a lawyer in a specific practice area, Clio’s How to Become a Lawyer hub is a useful place to find more information on becoming a particular type of lawyer. The comprehensive guide covers eight practice areas, from immigration law to criminal law and beyond.

Salaries and law firm 

Lastly, the law firm that you join is a key factor when it comes to your first year lawyer salary. Typically, larger law firms offer higher salaries than smaller law firms. However, working for a larger law firm does not always guarantee higher pay, and other factors can influence overall compensation over the longer term.

While it’s true that the biggest entry-level salaries tend to come from “Big Law” firms, new lawyers at small law firms may start with lower pay, but their salary can then scale rapidly as their career advances over time. We cover this in more detail in our piece on what it’s like to work at a law firm.

Final thoughts on first year lawyer salaries

As the above sections demonstrate, factors like geographical location, the law school you graduated from, your chosen practice area, and the law firm your work for all have important roles in determining how much you will make in your first year as a lawyer. 

By considering all the variables, you can be prepared to make informed choices when it comes to the direction you take when you start your legal career—ideally finding a position that fits your informed expectations and budget. 

And, even if you start out making less than you wanted to from the get-go, you can always look for opportunities to scale your salary as you advance in your career—especially as the job prospects in the legal industry continue to grow.

For further insights on the state of the legal profession, be sure to check out Clio’s Legal Trends Report

Categorized in: Business

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