Which Legal Jobs Will Pay the Most?

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As law school debt mounts, it's natural for students to begin thinking about which legal practice area can provide the quickest way to pay off financial obligations. But most experts say that it doesn't seem to matter - at least until later in your career.

There is little data comparing compensation in the various legal practice areas. Even the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), which publishes an annual survey of legal salaries, does not break those figures out according to practice specialty areas.

Most legal career professionals, however, say that in private firms, first-year associates generally receive the same starting salary regardless of the practice area to which they are assigned. A few years into their career, there may be variations by specialty, but those are typically determined more by overall economic factors and their impact on the areas of legal expertise most in demand at the time.

The good economic news for J.D.s is that despite a nervous economy and some law firm layoffs - particularly in the big technology markets - private-firm starting salaries for 2001 grads remained stable for the second year in a row. In firms of 500 or more attorneys, the median was $118,000, while smaller firms (two to 25 attorneys) showed a mean of $53,000 to start, according to NALP's 2002 Associate Salary Report. The mean for starting salaries in all legal jobs nationwide was $55,000, compared to $51,000 for 2000 graduates.

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