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What Are Realistic Salary Expectations?

Oct. 14, 2013

This time of year a number of recent graduates and 3Ls are getting job offers, and I thought it would be beneficial for everyone to take a brief look at what we're seeing in the national trends when it comes to salaries.

A few caveats before we get started: 1) this is a national analysis (though the Texas big cities tend to track pretty closely to the national numbers), 2) not every legal employer reports salaries to NALP, and 3) I have rounded in places to make the numbers cleaner so don't get too caught up in precision but rather note the broader trends and points.

If you take a close look at this graph from the National Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP), you'll see it shows the average salaries from the class of 2012 at data points separated by $5,000 each.

NALP 2012 Salary Survey

I think the most important takeaway from this graph is the very low number of employers that pay salaries between $85,000 and $155,000. I think it's natural to assume, and many do, that if the big firms are paying $160,000 and government jobs pay $45,000, that salaries will vary along a straight or slightly curved line from top to bottom. That simply isn't the case.

Another way to look at this graph is by ranking the salary numbers according to their % of reported salaries (or frequency of occurrence). When you do that it looks something like this:

NALP 2012 Salary Chart

So what do we take away from these numbers? On the up side, there's a higher percentage chance of earning $160,000 than any other single salary number. A down side is that's only 16%, which means there's an 84% chance you'll earn something less. Another down side is the next likeliest single salary number you will earn is $50,000.

We also can group salary numbers together to come up with the likeliest range your salary will fall into. Glancing down the left-hand side of the chart, you'll note that if you sum the percentages from $50,000 to $80,000, you wind up with 63%.

Finally, and to really make what I think is the key point, what are the odds you earn something greater than $80,000 (the statistical mean) if not at a big firm (earning the standard $160,000)? Adding it up you'll see the number somewhere in the 20% range. Basically, there are very few employers paying in that $85,000 - $155,000 range.

So as you consider job offers and begin evaluating employers, keep in mind that a non-big law Dallas firm offer of $70,000 isn't offensive or even out of the norm, but right in line with the current salary trends. If you can find that $100,000 or $120,000 offer (coming from 1% of employers) power to you, but realize going in it's a long shot.

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