We understand that your choice of a career path depends on a variety of factors, including compensation (salary and benefits). In addition to pursuing work that fits your values, interests, and personality, it is important that your total compensation package allows you to achieve your own financial goals and live comfortably. Follow these steps to help you figure out the compensation you may need and what you may be able to expect from various public interest settings.
As a first step, we encourage getting as complete a picture as possible of your own expenses based on the cost of living in the precise region where you are looking to work. HLS’s Office of Student Financial Services (SFS) has compiled various planning tools and tax resources, including a personal finance tool, to help you see your full financial picture. Each person’s circumstances are unique, however, and SFS and OPIA advisers are available to discuss these factors in more detail through individual advising appointments.
Next, it’s important to have concrete information about the compensation you could expect in the career path(s) you are considering. Though the information below focuses on potential salaries, we encourage you to weigh the total compensation package provided by an employer, including benefits like health insurance; retirement savings options; paid holidays, vacation days, and/or other personal time off; transportation stipends or discounts, and more. Recognize that taxes, as well as deductions accounting for the employee’s share of benefit costs, will lower your take-home pay. Finally, consider the potential financial impact of employer policies around parental leave and other types of paid or unpaid leaves.
To the extent possible, we encourage you to focus not only on immediate post-graduate salaries, but on salary trajectories over time. This information can be gleaned from a variety of sources, some of which are listed here.
General Information for Legal Salaries
- The latest NALP Public Service Attorney Salary Report provides salary information on four types of organizations: general-service civil legal services organizations, public defender offices, local prosecuting offices, and public interest organizations that focus on issue-specific missions. The information is provided on a nation-wide basis with additional analysis by geography and population.
- SFS has aggregated information about average public interest salaries based on graduates who participate in the Low Income Protection Plan (LIPP). This does not include clerkships (although clerks are eligible for LIPP if they will pursue public interest work after completing their clerkship).
The information provided below regarding fellowship funding reflects amounts in Summer 2023.
- Most post-graduate fellowships secured by HLS graduates are 1-2 years and pay in the $50-$65K range annually.
- Some funders, like Equal Justice Works (EJW), will require host organizations to pay the difference between the fellowship’s base salary and the organization’s own base salary for someone of similar experience. Some host organizations will choose to do this on their own for equity purposes.
- HLS-funded project-based fellowships include, among others: Public Service Venture Fund ($50K); David A. Grossman Fund Fellowship ($55K); and the Harvard Law Review Fellowship ($65K).
- There are a wide range of non-HLS project-based fellowships. Popular among HLS students and alums are the Skadden Fellowship Foundation ($63K, with an additional $2K to attend relevant legal conferences) and EJW ($62K).
Most federal salaries are calculated using the General Schedule (GS) scale. The calculation of a salary on the GS scale involves the grade, the step within the grade, and, depending on geographic location, a possible adjustment for specific localities to help compensate for the higher cost of living in more expensive cities throughout the country. The GS scale is updated annually. More detailed information can be found on the Office of Personnel Management website and by using the online salary calculator.
- By way of example, most DOJ Honors Program attorneys enter at the GS-11 step 1 level (if directly out of law school) or at GS-12 (if entering after a one-year clerkship or fellowship). A small number enter at GS-13, and a very few enter at GS-14 (with three full years of clerkship/fellowship experience). Most DOJ Honors attorneys can then expect their salaries to bump up quickly for the first few years before leveling off a bit.
- Some exceptions to the GS payscale include the following:
- AUSA salaries are determined in accordance with Administratively Determined Pay Plan Charts.
- Capitol Hill salaries are determined by each office rather than by any set pay schedules. More information can be found on Legistorm or in this report from the Congressional Research Service on House staff salaries over time.
- The Judiciary Salary Plan (JSP) covers attorneys in federal public defender organizations.
- Certain federal financial regulatory agencies pay their employees higher salaries than the GS scale amount. There may also be meaningful differences in benefits offered by these agencies. Such agencies include the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve Board (FRB), the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Many of these agencies will have their specific salary structure available on their webpage. See, for example, OCC Salary Structure and FRB Salary Structure.
- The Senior Executive Service (SES) pay scale is used for career senior executives in Federal Government.
- Salaries for military personnel vary based on factors including rank, time in the military, and location. Information about basic pay and allowances, as well as pay charts, can be found on the Department of Defense and Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) websites. It should be noted that most allowances are tax-exempt, including the significant Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), as well as the Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS). Though timelines for promotion vary by branch, most newly commissioned JAG officers enter at the O-2 rank and promote to O-3 shortly after initial training.
Each state, territory or locality will pay its employees in accordance with its own salary schedule. Popular destinations for HLS graduates include: Massachusetts, New York, California, and Illinois. You may also find unofficial discussions online that help illuminate locations’ salary structures, but be careful to check these against official sources, if possible.
Private Public Interest Law Firms
There is tremendous variation in salaries at Private Public Interest Law Firms (PPILFs). Starting salaries in such firms range from $55K-$175K, with many falling in the $80-$120K range. Importantly, compensation at these firms often includes bonuses, which can greatly increase a lawyer’s total annual earnings. Bonuses may be a guaranteed amount or may be calculated as a percentage of the firm’s revenue for that year.