Most of the top Atlanta law firms have now joined the trend to raise starting salaries for Atlanta associates to $145,000.  Without adjusting for inflation, that is exactly ten times my starting salary as a prosecutor thirty years ago. Of course, spiraling starting salaries lead to hourly billing requirements that leave no time for a personal life, compression of salary increases for experienced associates, and probably billing for a lot of unnecessary legal work to meet  quotas. Predicatably enough, there are law students and associates anonymously whining that it isn’t enough and that they can’t afford $600,000 houses on first year associate salaries. My heart bleeds for their hardship.

I don’t care how much money big law firms throw at bright kids with no experience straight out of law school.  Neither do I care how much the Atlanta Falcons pay Michael Vick.  The real scandal is when you compare those law firms’ starting salaries with the salaries of judges who are responsible for running the court system:

  • Median salary for law school deans and senior professors: $230,000
  • Median salary for top 10% of attorneys outside law firms: $227,500
  • First year associates at top Atlanta law firms:  $145,000
  • U.S. Court of Appeals Judges: $175,000
  • U.S. District Court Judges: $165,000
  • Georgia Supreme Court Justices: $158,000
  • Georgia Court of Appeals Judges: $157,000
  • Fulton County Superior Court Judges: $151,459 (with local supplement)
  • U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judges: $142,300
  • U.S. Magistrate Court Judges: $142,300
  • Median salary of Georgia Superior Court Judges: $133,000 (with local supplements)
  • Base state salary for Georgia Superior Court Judges: $113,470
  • Fulton County State Court Judges: $126,221

When a distinguished judge with 30 or 40 years of experience is paid about the same as, or less than, a 25 year old just out of school, we have a problem.  When judges see their law clerks leave after a year or two to make more than the judge makes, we have a problem. 

The solution is not to restrict the operation of highly competitive free market forces, as the big law firms say they are reacting to client expectations and a limited pool of top law school graduates.  Rather, it is to make judicial salaries competitive.  Nor is it appropriate to suggest, as one wag has done, that all judges should just "marry rich" so they can live well despite the non-competitive judicial salaries.  It is important to pay judges enough that private practice lawyers in their prime years can afford to go on the bench and still send their kids to college. With the crisis in judicial compensation, it is amazing that we have as many good judges as we do.

At the federal level, Chief Justice Roberts has called the inadequacy of judicial salaries a "constitutional crisis."  In Congress, there is now bipartisan support for legislation to remedy this situation. S.1638, the Federal Judicial Salary Restoration Act of 2007. Supported by the ABA, this bill provides for a 50% increase in current federal judicial salaries — i.e., $247,800 for district and the Court of International Trade judges; $262,700 for appellate judges; $304,500 for Associate Justices; and $318,200 for the Chief Justice of the United States. Magistrate and bankruptcy judges’ salaries, which are statutorily set at a level equal to 92% of a district judge’s salary, also will increase proportionately. The Board of Governors of the State Bar of Georgia recently passed a resolution calling on Georgia’s congressional delegation to support this bill.

At the state level in Georgia, there is a similar effort to raise judicial salaries enough to attract successful attorneys from the private sector. The Commission on Judicial Compensation has proposed raising the state base pay for all Superior Court Judges to $136,164, the median pay for Superior Court Judges with local supplements to $155,700, the Court of Appeals to $188,400, and Supreme Court to $189,600.

This is not a matter of pampering attorneys who get to be called "your honor" and have everyone laugh at their jokes.   It is a matter of preserving the independence of a competent judiciary, staffed by people who could make a lot more money in private practice and are above letting the trappings of judicial office go to their heads.


The Shigley Law Firm  represents plaintiffs in wrongful death and catastrophic injury cases statewide in Georgia, and in other states subject to the multijurisdictional practice and pro hac vice rules in each state. Ken Shigley was designated as a "SuperLawyer" in Atlanta Magazine and one of the "Legal Elite" in Georgia Trend Magazine. He is a Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, Chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Liability Institute and former chair of the Georgia Insurance Law Institute. He particularly focuses on cases arising from truck wrecks and accidents (tractor trailers truck wrecks, semi truck wrecks,18 wheeler truck wrecks, big rig truck wrecks, log truck wrecks, dump truck wrecks.