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1. 800. 973. 1177

Which Legal Jobs Will Pay the Most? [by Jim Dunlap] Specializing now can prove lucrative over the course of a legal career.

As law school debt mounts, it’s natural for

first-year associates in private practice, legal

right now,” he said. “The salary wars we saw

students to begin thinking about which legal

specialization has little or no bearing on start-

for a couple of years were based more on the

practice area can provide the quickest way to

ing salaries. Although a compensation pecking

transactional side rather than litigation, but

pay off financial obligations. But most experts

order may develop among more senior associ-

litigation has stayed active while the corporate

say that it doesn’t seem to matter - at least

ates, the culture in most law firms dictates

side has turned around.”

until later in your career.

that everyone starts even in terms of salary.

There is little data comparing compensa-

“Starting salaries are pretty much the same

assessment of intellectual property salary

tion in the various legal practice areas. Even

across the board regardless of specializa-

potential. NALP found that IP attorneys earn

the National Association for Law Placement

tion,” said Gihan Fernando, assistant dean for

around $25,000 more on average at the junior

(NALP), which publishes an annual survey of

career services at Georgetown University Law


legal salaries, does not break those figures

Center in Washington, D.C. “Down the road,

out according to practice specialty areas.

there is probably some variation, but firms

Nancy Zehner, head of The Artemis Group

pretty much pay new associates the same

Ltd., a New York City-based recruiting firm,

regardless of their specialty area.”

said J.D.s with prior experience and profes-

The NALP survey agreed with Jameson’s

Most legal career professionals, however,

sional qualifications in a particular legal spe-

say that in private firms, first-year associates generally receive the same starting salary re-

Several industry professionals said the typical

cialty area may receive extra compensation

gardless of the practice area to which they are

everyone-starts-out-even philosophy for sal-

for their background at offer time.

assigned. A few years into their career, there

ary compensation in most private firms begins

may be variations by specialty, but those are

with first-year associate offers. “For the first

“If somebody came in having been a bank-

typically determined more by overall economic

four years at major law firms, people are

ruptcy trustee in a prior life, for instance, they

factors and their impact on the areas of legal

more or less at lockstep,” said David Winston,

might be given a sign-on bonus [to work in

expertise most in demand at the time.

a principal in the Chicago, Ill.-based Winston

a firm’s bankruptcy division],” Zehner said.

& Green recruiting firm. Diane Downs, career

“And, that sign-on may be up to $30,000,

The good economic news for J.D.s is that

services director at the University of Chicago

depending upon the individual’s qualifications

despite a nervous economy and some law

Law School, agreed with Winston, saying,

and what the market is doing at the time.”

firm layoffs - particularly in the big technol-

“Law firms are pretty lockstep - even bonuses

ogy markets - private-firm starting sala-

are calculated formulaically.”

Eden Kusmiersky, director of career services at the University of Southern California School

ries for 2001 grads remained stable for the second year in a row. In firms of 500 or more

While most observers agree that law firm first

attorneys, the median was $118,000, while

years are typically created (or paid) equally,

tion typically has no impact on a first year’s

smaller firms (two to 25 attorneys) showed a

regardless of specialization, there can be

starting salary.

mean of $53,000 to start, according to NALP’s


2002 Associate Salary Report. The mean for

of Law in Los Angeles, agreed that specializa-

“Now, if a student has an LL.M. in tax, for in-

starting salaries in all legal jobs nationwide

“Intellectual property has certainly had a

stance, that’s a different candidate, and firms

was $55,000, compared to $51,000 for 2000

premium to it for a number of years,” said

will probably compensate that candidate at a


John Jameson, a principal in the Beverly

little higher rate to start,” she said. Winston

Hills, Calif.-based Jameson Ziskind LLC legal

said his experience indicates there is one

Law school career services professionals

recruiting firm. On the flip side, “Being a

specialty area that tends to be significantly

and legal industry recruiters agree that for

corporate lawyer is not a good marketplace

lower paid in terms of both starting salary and


continued on back


1. 800. 973. 1177

future earnings.

has turned around.”

over and above their academic performance.

“Insurance defense firms tend to pay less

Said Zehner, “It’s really dependent on what

“One of the most important things students

than corporate mergers and acquisitions and

the market is doing. There are certain cyclical

can do - in any market, but particularly in a

most everything else, because of the nature of

areas such as bankruptcy - if there’s a stron-

down cycle - is start developing business,”

their clients,” Winston said. “But for big major

ger need, maybe the firm will compete and

Zehner said. “That can be friends, people

firms with no insurance defense practice, the

negotiate more [in terms of salary]. Maybe

they meet, anyone. Increasingly, lawyers are

salaries are about the same, although some IP

when bankruptcy levels off, corporate and real

being called upon to be entrepreneurs. If they

firms pay more.”

estate, for instance, will be up.”

can demonstrate that, they are much more in

While starting salaries tend to be equal for

The University of Chicago’s Downs noted that

demand.” all practice areas, many firms use signing

some specializations may not offer skyrock-

And, as USC’s Kusmiersky pointed out, stu-

bonuses to lure top candidates, regardless of

eting salaries and bonuses, but may offer

dents who have carefully studied the market

specialization. Particularly in large firms, that

something just as valuable - security. “Some

and targeted a particular specialty area may

policy continues as associates rise through

areas offer better job security, like tax, ERISA

be in for a surprise.

the ranks of seniority as a way to reward per-

- because they’re so hard to learn - and bank-

formance and productivity in addition to the

ruptcy,” Downs said.

“Even students who do get offers in a particular area sometimes don’t end up working

typically lockstep salary increases. For in-house attorneys, some industries offer

there once they actually join the firm,” she

“A lot of firms use bonuses rather than start-

considerably more in terms of compensation,


ing salary,” said Robert Smith, assistant dean

according to Zehner.

for career services at Duke University Law

This story appeared in the October 2002 edi-

School in Durham, N.C. “That can be wide

“When it comes to the highest paying areas in-

tion of The National Jurist, www.nationaljurist.

swings - many thousands of dollars. That con-

house, there’s a pretty clear pecking order,”


tinues through the years - it’s one way firms

she said. “The financial services industry pays

let the stars know who they are.”

best - much better than retail or entertainment companies. Patent lawyers, especially

The Artemis Group’s Zehner said while

with an electrical engineering major, are

salaries remain equal throughout the practice

very strongly in demand - the best experi-

areas, there is considerable fluctuation in

ence these days is electrical engineering or

terms of bonuses.

somebody with a pharmaceutical or chemical engineering background.”

“We’re seeing more variation in sign-on bonuses,” she said.

While the economy will continue to dictate starting salaries and long-term compensation

It is also fairly common for firms to offer sign-

in many cases, most recruiters and advisors

ing bonuses to J.D.s who have completed a

say students should pursue the specialty area

judicial clerkship.

that appeals to them, and the rewards will take care of themselves.

Although intellectual property is projected to maintain its strength of the past decade,

“The best advice literally would be to try and

despite declines in transactional work, most

find the area that turns them on the most,

observers say the hot - and more lucrative

most recruiter Jameson said. They will love it,

- practice areas will vary with the economy.

will do well at it and will command the highest salaries as a result.”

“It’s totally based on the time flow of the economy,” Jameson said. “In a recession,

Zehner suggested that law students can begin

bankruptcy is in demand. A few years ago, the

enhancing their marketability and compensa-

corporate side had a premium to it, but now it

tion potential while they are in law school,


Which Legal Jobs Will Pay the Most?  
Which Legal Jobs Will Pay the Most?  

Specializing in legal career now can prove lucrative over the course of a legal career. Students start thinking about which legal practice a...