Where Legal Salaries Are Headed in 2017

By Charles A. Volkert III, Esq.

As law firms and corporate legal departments increasingly compete for professionals with in-demand skills, they’re raising the bar when it comes to the starting paralegal salary and lawyer salary that job seekers can expect. There is a good reason for this trend: Competitive compensation allows employers to not only recruit the best legal talent on the market but also retain key staff members.

Still, it’s not easy to know where a moving target like competitive compensation is headed. To thrive in the current job market, both legal professionals and the executives who manage them need to make a concerted effort to understand emerging trends and shifts in the field. The Robert Half Legal 2017 Salary Guide offers insight that can help inform hiring and career decisions.

Trends shaping the legal jobs market

2017 is the year of the specialist, as employers continue to seek individuals with knowledge and expertise in hot practice areas. This is important for job seekers to know, too. The Salary Guide forecasts that midlevel legal professionals with backgrounds in real estate and lease administration will command a healthy lawyer salary or paralegal salary, as will those experienced in litigation/eDiscovery, compliance and contract administration.

But this talent is not so easy to find. Nearly seven in 10 of U.S. lawyers interviewed by Robert Half noted it is challenging to find highly skilled legal professionals. As a result, law firms and corporate legal departments are expected to ramp up recruitment and retention efforts. Naturally, offering a competitive lawyer salary or paralegal salary is key, but that’s not all. Another Robert Half Legal survey found that the top retention incentives for legal professionals are: interesting assignments, flexible scheduling and career development opportunities. 

In-demand skills and expertise

Even as employers are expected to increase average starting salaries in 2017 -- with legal salaries expected to increase 3.6 percent over 2016 levels -- they’re also looking to make cost-effective hires. This is why midlevel legal professionals are in high demand: Supervising attorneys or managers want workers who can dive right into their legal jobs, assume full caseloads and pursue new business opportunities, yet do not require the higher lawyer salary or paralegal salary of a veteran employee.

As for paralegal jobs and desired skills, employers prefer professionals with four-year degrees and a certificate of completion from an ABA-approved program. Those with four to six years of experience can see their starting paralegal salary increase as much as 5.2 percent for legal jobs in small to midsize firms, the Salary Guide forecasts.

Regardless of education or experience levels, all legal support professionals will need solid hard skills, such as proficiency in practice management software and eDiscovery technology. In keeping with the trend of making cost-effective hires, employers are increasingly asking support staff to take on hybrid paralegal/legal secretary roles.

Higher salaries for lawyers

  • Starting salaries for lawyers with four to nine years’ experience at a small-to-midsize law firm (10 to 35 lawyers) are expected to increase 6.9 percent from 2016, to the average range of $114,750 to $183,000 annually.
  • First-year associates at large law firms (more than 75 lawyers) are expected to earn between $123,750 and $151,750, a 6.2 percent increase over 2016 projections.
  • Starting salaries for in-house counsel with four to nine years’ experience at midsize companies ($25 million to $250 million in revenue) are projected to rise 5.0 percent, to the range of $139,750 to $206,250 annually.

Legal support salaries to increase

  • At small-to-midsize law firms, paralegals with four to six years’ experience should see average starting salaries rise by 5.2 percent, to the range of $55,750 to $70,000 annually.
  • The greatest gains in starting salaries are expected for legal secretaries with three to six years’ experience at small-to-midsize law firms. These professionals should see salaries in the range of $45,750 to $57,500 per year, a 3.8 percent increase from 2016.
  • Law firm administrators/office managers at midsize law firms (35 to 75 lawyers) can expect average starting salaries of $78,000 to $116,500 annually, a 3.7 percent increase from 2016.
  • Senior/supervising paralegals with seven-plus years’ experience at midsize companies are expected to earn starting salaries of $68,000 to $93,750 annually, a 4.0 percent increase from 2016 projections.
  • Legal secretaries with three to six years’ experience at midsize companies can anticipate starting salaries of $50,750 to $62,750 annually, a 3.7 percent increase from last year.

Legal specialists in demand

  • Litigation support/eDiscovery directors with 10-plus years’ experience should see the greatest gains, with starting salaries increasing by 8.9 percent, to the annual range of $110,500 to $141,500.
  • Compliance managers with seven to nine years’ experience can expect base compensation to increase 6.9 percent on average, to the range of $98,500 to $127,250 annually. 
  • Contract managers can expect average starting salaries to rise by 5.4 percent, to the range of $83,250 to $129,750 per year.
  • Compensation for lease managers is projected to increase 5.1 percent, to the annual range of $68,750 to $86,500.

Whether you’re a tenured manager or a legal professional scanning available legal jobs, the reality is that law firms and corporate legal departments are offering more competitive salaries to attract the industry’s top talent. Use the Robert Half Legal Salary Center to help you plan, prepare and succeed in the coming year.