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Salaries for first-year legal associates take a dip

Getting a job a big law firm used to mean a $160,000 automatic door prize in terms of median starting salaries for first-year associates. No longer. Now they'll have to do with a mere $145,000, according to new research by NALP, The Association for Legal Career Professionals, surveying 570 firms.

Those levels haven't been seen since 2007. First-year salaries continued to rise as the financial crisis hit, cresting in 2009, and have been on the wane since.

While the median is down, $160,000 first year salaries are still common at firms with over 250 lawyers in major metropolitan cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington D.C. They're just noticeably less common. The number of large firms in those cities reporting starting salaries that high dropped from 90 percent in 2009 to two-thirds in 2012. Nationwide, only 46 percent of large firms surveyed reported paying out those sums, down from 65 percent in 2009.

It's not all bad news for the fresh-faced lawyers. Overall median salaries at firms of all sizes are up from $115,000 in 2011 to $125,000, the report noted.

“Compared to the period of 2006 through 2009, when associate salaries were rising year on year at a steady clip, in the period since the recession hit the legal industry we have seen associate salaries remain more or less static,” James Leipold, NALP’s Executive Director, said in a press release.

“Among the largest firms, there has been a measurable backing away from $160,000 as a starting salary, though that level of compensation is still dominant in New York and a few other markets. Associate salaries at smaller firms have shown very modest movement, both upward and downward, over the last three years. We would not expect to see much widespread upward movement in associate salaries until the demand for legal services in North America picks up considerably from where we are today.”

Other jobs with high starting median salaries include petroleum engineer at $97,000, and physician's assistant at $74,300, according to recent PayScale data. Meanwhile, the Graduate Management Admission Council 2012 Corporate Recruiters Survey reported that an MBA pulls a $90,000 starting median salary.

The Social Security Administration most recently estimated $26,363.55 as the median American wage in 2010. The raw average wage was $39,959.30.

(Tip of the hat to Above The Law, for first reporting on the legal salaries.)

Related: Law degree loses luster amid weak economy, globalization

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