Professional Salaries

May 19th, 2016 / By

How much should a professional worker earn? The Department of Labor (DOL) recently decided that salaried professionals who work full-time should earn at least $47,476 per year. Under the Department’s new overtime rules, salaried workers earning less than that amount will be entitled to overtime pay for extra hours. A real professional, in DOL’s eyes, earns at least $913 per week–or $47,476 for a year of full-time work.

Hold your excitement: This salary test will not apply to lawyers, because DOL counts lawyers as professionals no matter how little they earn. See 29 CFR 541.600(e); 29 CFR 29 C.F.R. 541.304. Employers are free to continue working their lawyers for long hours and low pay. It’s worth considering, however, what this rule tells us about societal expectations for professional pay. If professionals earn at least $47,476 per year, how do lawyers stack up?

Salaries for New Lawyers

NALP has not yet published salary information for the Class of 2015, but data are available for the Class of 2014. Given the contraction of entry-level lawyering jobs in 2015, it is unlikely that salaries for that latest year are much higher.

In 28 states, at least a quarter of new lawyers earned less than the Department of Labor’s minimum “professional” salary of $47,476. Salaries in some of those states were appallingly low. In Kentucky, for example, a quarter of new lawyers earned no more than $38,500. In Florida, a quarter earned no more than $41,400.

In four states (Kentucky, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Vermont) even the median starting salary fell below DOL’s threshold for professional salaries. More than half of the new lawyers working in these states earned less than $47,476 per year.

NALP’s salary report includes only salaries “for full-time jobs lasting at least a year.” We can’t blame these low salaries, in other words, on part-time work or temporary positions. Those jobs undoubtedly paid even less.

Equally worrisome, only 68% of the graduates who secured full-time, long-term jobs reported their salaries to NALP. This underreporting, as NALP recognizes, produces salary figures that are “biased upward.” How many of the graduates who failed to report their salaries were earning less than $47,476? The number was probably significant.

How About Doctors?

DOL categorizes doctors, like lawyers, as professionals regardless of salary. The lowest paid doctors, however, meet DOL’s professional salary threshold. For academic year 2014-2015 (the most recent figures available), the twenty-fifth percentile salary for first-year residents was $49,376. Even in the South, where stipends were lowest, the twenty-fifth percentile salary was $48,024.

These are modest salaries paid to doctors who are still in training. Doctors know that if they stay the course, they will earn much higher salaries after completing their residencies. But even as beginners, doctors earn salaries that qualify as “professional” under DOL standards.


With time, most lawyers earn more than $48,000 per year for full-time work. The DOL’s new overtime rule, however, offers a sobering perspective on starting salaries for many law school graduates. Some of those new lawyers earn handsome wages, but others earn less than the DOL considers minimum compensation for professionals.



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