The New York Times reports that big New York City law firms have raised the starting salaries for kids just out of law school to $145,000.  (Large Atlanta firms raised starting salaries to $115,000 earlier this year.)  The $145,000 starting salary figure is striking to me because, without adjusting for inflation, it is exactly ten times my starting salary when I graduated from Emory Law School 29 years ago.  It’s difficult to imagine how a new law school graduate could be worth that kind of salary, with the possible exception of a new patent lawyer with a Ph.D. in a particularly hot field of science or engineering. 

A more startling comparison is with judicial salaries: federal appeals court judges, $175,100; federal district court judges, $165,200; federal bankruptcy and magistrate judges, $151,984. Almost all state trial and appellate judges are paid less.  While in a free market compensation levels are not always fair, rational or based on merit, there is something fundamentally offensive about paying new law school graduates about the same as seasoned judges with 30 or 40 years experience.

One effect of spiraling associate salaries may be to increase the tendency of large firms to over-litigate cases that should be resolved, in order to maximize billable hours. But that is nothing new.  I’ve seen platoon billing at big firms for many years.

These absurdly high salaries for new grads with no practical experience in the practice of law necessarily warp the economics of law practice.  While enabling the chosen few to rapidly pay down their tuition loans, I expect the range of unintended consequences for law firm economics and the economics of law practice generally will be largely negative. However, I feed my family by representing ordinary individuals and families, and get paid solely on the basis of productivity, I will watch this pattern with bemused detachment and leave the heavy analysis to others.

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.