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Law salary and career progression benchmarks

Frances Chan

Careers Commentator
If you’re looking to pursue a career in law, then let's jump into law career progression & salary in detail.

The typical career at a law firm in Australia, from summer clerk to partner

If you’re looking to pursue a career in law or are currently in law school, then you’re in luck. Demand for lawyers in Australia has been unprecedented.

Your career ladder as a lawyer will look a little different depending on the firm you join. But you can expect to start as a clerk during your studies and become a Lawyer after graduation. 

A few years later, you’ll progress to Associate and after that Senior associate. You may then spend some time as Special Counsel before reaching the finish line: Partner!

Legal salaries vary widely depending on the city you’re in and the tier of the firm you’re working for.

The bar graph below shows the base pay you can expect, with the lower limit being the average (mode) salary at small firms in Melbourne or Brisbane and the upper limit being the average (mode) salary at top firms in Sydney

Typical remuneration structure for roles in the legal career track, from lawyer to partner.
Source: Mahlab Recruitment

Besides base pay, firms also give bonuses between 12% and 15%. The amount of bonus you receive depends on the following factors:

  • Your performance: This refers to whether you met all your billable hours, put out good work, brought business into the firm, and so on.
  • Your position: As you move up through the ranks, your bonus increases.
  • The job market: Currently, firms are suffering from a shortage of talent, so bonuses are on the rise.

Putting together all the information above, we get the following bird’s-eye view of a typical career progression timeline at a law firm.

Typical career progression timeline at a law firm, from lawyer to partner
Source: Mahlab Recruitment’s 2022 report (Private practice)

Just keep in mind that career progression depends on your individual circumstances and larger economic factors. For example, the path to partnership had become as long as 15 years in 2019, but by 2022, many firms started fast-tracking promotions to retain talent.

So there’s no way to tell exactly how long it will take to progress through each stage of your career at a law firm. But we hope this gives you a general idea of what a career trajectory might look like. 

Now, let’s look at each of these career milestones in detail

We'll cover:

  1. Clerk
  2. Graduate Lawyer
  3. Associate
  4. Senior Associate
  5. Special Counsel
  6. Partner
  7. Exit Options
  8. Getting Started


What it is

A “clerkship” is basically an internship at a law firm for penultimate year law students. By being a clerk, you’ll get hands-on experience working at a commercial law firm. 

Firms hire most of their graduate lawyers from their pool of clerks, so you may even come out of it with a full-time offer!

Clerkships usually happen during students’ summer and winter holidays, which is why you’ll see firms recruiting for “summer clerks,” “winter clerks,” “seasonal clerks,” “vacation clerks.”

What you’ll do

Depending on the firm, a clerkship can last anywhere from one month to over three months. During the first couple weeks, you’ll undergo basic training, learn about the company, and meet the team(s) you’ll work with for the rest of your clerkship.

After this initial orientation, you’ll start working. On some teams, you’ll get to attend client meetings and shadow senior lawyers in court, whereas on other teams, you might do research and proofread contracts.

Longer clerkships offer rotation programs, letting you get a taste of different practice areas such as:

Most firms also give clerks plenty of opportunities to be mentored. For example, you’ll probably be paired with a “buddy” (usually a former clerk or a junior lawyer) who’ll help you learn the ropes. You may even get to meet some partners over coffee!

To learn more about what clerks do, check out these first-hand accounts:


How much you’ll earn

Prosple’s graduate salary report shows that clerks earn between $52,400-$57,400 (pro rata) or around $4,400-$4,800 per month. Depending on the firm, you may also enjoy benefits such as a clothing allowance and relocation assistance.

Check out some clerkship opportunities around Australia below


Graduate Lawyer

What it is

If your summer clerkship was preparation for a law firm career, being a graduate lawyer is your first real step into the profession. Depending on the firm, you can expect to be a graduate lawyer for 1-2 years and you may be called a “Graduate,” “Law Graduate,” or “Graduate Associate.”

After you complete your Practical Legal Training, your title may change to “Lawyer.”

What you’ll do

As a graduate lawyer, you’ll start with a couple weeks of orientation and then do rotations across multiple legal practices so you and the firm can figure out what practice group is most suitable for you.

You can expect to spend 2-6 months at each practice group, and at a global firm, you may even have the chance to do an international rotation!

Depending on the team you’re rotating through, you may perform tasks, such as:

  • Compiling evidence for court cases
  • Drafting and analyzing legal documents
  • Researching laws and regulations
  • Providing legal advice to both corporate and pro bono clients
  • Assisting companies with due diligence, compliance, and closings of transactions

The tasks you do aren’t the main point though. Firms know that first-year lawyers need a lot of support, so graduate programs are mainly a chance for you to learn and grow. 

You’ll learn from senior lawyers on your team and also continue building your legal expertise through various opportunities for training and professional development.

Check out first-hand accounts of what it’s like to be a graduate lawyer at major law firms:

If there are any other companies you’re curious about, search for them here!

How much you’ll earn

Our graduate salary report shows that graduate lawyers earn between $60,500-$69,200 in Australia, with the average pay being $65,805. 

It is not common for graduates to make bonuses, but the good news is there are quite a few law firms among the 100 highest paying graduate jobs in Australia. Here are the top 15 that currently pay the most at $90,000-$100,000 in base pay:

  1. Allens
  2. Chamberlains Law Firm
  3. Gilbert + Tobin
  4. Allen & Overy Australia
  5. Arnold Bloch Leibler
  6. Ashurst
  7. Baker McKenzie
  8. Clayton Utz
  9. Clifford Chance
  10. Corrs Chambers Westgarth
  11. Herbert Smith Freehills
  12. King & Wood Mallesons
  13. MinterEllison
  14. White & Case
  15. DLA Piper

Your pay also depends on your city. Salaries at top firms vary the most, with those in Sydney and Melbourne paying a 5-10% premium over equivalent firms in Melbourne and Brisbane. When it comes to mid-tier and small firms, the pay gap narrows, with salaries in Sydney and Brisbane just 5% more than in Melbourne.

Find graduate law programs to apply to around Australia below:


What it is

When you complete your rotations, you’re offered a permanent position in one of the practice groups you worked in. Depending on the firm, you may be called an “Associate,” “Lawyer,” “Solicitor” or “Junior Associate.” Whatever the title, you will probably spend the 3rd-5th year of your legal career in this role

What you’ll do

As an Associate, you’ll finally settle into one practice group. Expect to work a lot, as that’s how you’ll prove yourself! 

You may also be sent on a secondment. This is when you work in-house for a client company. Secondments help law firms better understand their clients and develop industry knowledge.

Check out this interview of an Associate at Clifford Chance.

How much you’ll earn

At the associate level, the pay scale is pretty straightforward. Salaries are determined based on the number of years you’ve been at a firm. Here are typical pay ranges:

  Top Firm Mid-Tier Firm Small commercial firm
2nd Year  95,000-$105,000  $85,000-$90,000  $65,000-$70,000
3rd Year  $105,000-$115,000  $100,000-$110,000  $75,000-$80,000
4th Year  $155,000-$160,000  $130,000-$140,000  $95,000-$100,000
5th Year  $165,000-$170,000  $150,000-$165,000  $130,000-$140,000

Mode associate pay at Australian law firms according to Mahlab Recruitment

Bonuses are scarce for entry-level (e.g. 2nd or 3rd year) associates, but become more common for mid-level (e.g. 4th or 5th year) associates. This is because mid-level associates are more likely to be poached by other firms who will tempt you with higher salaries and handsome sign-on bonuses – currently $5,000-$15,000 for lawyers in their 4th year and beyond! So your firm will probably give you some sort of bonus to keep you from jumping ship.

It’s hard to say how much you can expect given limited data on associate-level bonuses, but it’ll definitely be under 10% of your base salary. (We say under 10%, because only 34% of lawyers from Top 20 firms received bonuses of 10% or higher in 2021 according to Beacon Legal – and since these higher bonuses likely went to higher-level lawyers, it’s safe to assume that associates got under 10%.)

Senior Associate

What it is

Senior Associates are basically the middle managers of the legal profession. Unlike before, where you mainly did as told, being a Senior Associate involves actively managing other lawyers.

The process for becoming a Senior Associate is more complicated than previous promotions – it’s not just a milestone you reach by working a certain number of years.

You’ll usually need to be nominated and approved by different partners within the firm, and being successfully appointed to Senior Associate means your firm recognizes both your technical expertise and your leadership and client management skills. 

The good news is, more and more lawyers are being promoted to senior associate positions in just four years as opposed to five. 

What you’ll do

The primary job of a Senior Associate is project management – you make sure everyone stays on track to completing a project on time and within budget.

You are also responsible for managing the junior lawyers on your team. This involves delegating tasks to them and checking the accuracy of their work on top of mentoring and supporting them in other ways.

You’ll also report back to your partner and client on any progress made.

How much you’ll earn

According to Mahlab Recruitment, here are typical pay ranges for Senior Associates in Australia:

Year of Senior Associateship Top Firm Mid-tier Firm Small Commercial Firm
1st Year $165,000-$170,000 $150,000-$165,000 $130,000-$140,000
2nd Year $200,000-$210,000 $160,000-$175,000 $140,000-$150,000
3rd Year $220,000-$230,000 $175,000-$200,000 $155,000-$165,000
4th Year $240,000-$240,000 $190,000-$220,000 $160,000-$175,000

Mode senior associate pay at Australian law firms according to Mahlab Recruitment

Lawyers with 3-8 years of experience are the most sought after, so as a Senior Associate, you’ll have no trouble finding well-paid exit options (which we’ll get into later). 

From a talent retention perspective, this means you’ll definitely receive some bonus. Recent numbers are hard to come by, but Mahlab’s 2018 report does mention that “Senior associate star performers’ bonuses can be up to 20% of base salary”!

As a Senior Associate, you’ll also have an easier time asking for flexible working arrangements. As Senior Associates increasingly value work-life balance, firms are stepping up perks like hybrid work – even remote work – on top of additional paid leave and opportunities for part-time work.

Special Counsel

What it is

At many firms, “Special Counsel” is a stepping stone to Partner. An increasing number of firms promote Senior Associates to Special Counsel instead of Partner. 

But what makes Special Counsels special? Well for one, you occupy a unique position – neither associate nor partner.

You’ll also be in the company of a diverse group of senior lawyers. With 10+ years of experience, Special Counsels are generally leaders in their field – highly technical and specialized. Examples of people who become special counsel include:

  • Consultants who advise the firm on niche areas of law
  • Former government lawyers transitioning to private practice
  • Senior lawyers hired from other firms and being vetted for partner
  • Foreign lawyers
  • Semi-retired lawyers

Plus, Special Counsels aren’t all interested in making partner. Many choose to stay put to enjoy a better work-life balance and avoid the risks and responsibilities of partnership.

What you’ll do

What you’ll do really depends on what you make of the Special Counsel role! If you are gunning for partner, then you’ll likely try out more partner-like tasks to prove your worth. You’ll especially want to show that you can bring in more business for the firm and successfully manage relationships with clients.

Other than that, you can expect to do mostly the same things you did as a Senior Associate (i.e. managing junior lawyers), but with more resources and opportunities for training and specialization.

How much you’ll earn

Here are typical pay ranges for Special Counsels in Australia:

  Top Firm Mid-tier firm Small commercial firm
Pay Range  $260,000-$280,000  $210,000-$240,000  $170,000-$195,000

Mode special counsel pay at Australian law firms according to Mahlab Recruitment


What it is

Traditionally, a Partner is someone who owns a part of the law firm. However, this isn’t always true anymore! Let’s quickly go over the different types of partners.

Equity vs. non-equity partners

The past decade has seen the rise of a new kind of partner – the “non-equity partner” who does not own a stake in the firm. As of 2020, at least 30% of partners in the country’s biggest firms were non-equity partners. 

Here’s how equity and non-equity partners compare to one another:

  • Equity partners buy an ownership stake in the firm and their income mainly comes from dividing up the profits. They’ll usually make a lot more money than their non-equity counterparts, but this comes with increased responsibilities and business development pressures – not to mention greater risks.
  • Non-equity partners don’t own a part of the firm or derive income from its profits. Instead, they earn salaries, which is why they’re also known as “salary partners,” “salaried partners,” and “income partners.” While they rarely have much say in how the firm is run, they get to use the prestigious partner title without all its responsibilities and risks. 

You can expect to remain a non-equity partner for up to three years, which should be enough time for you to build up your own book of business which will help you when you’re promoted to equity partner.

A few more complexities to keep in mind:

  • Equity partners are not created equal. Some own a lot more of the firm and therefore have a lot more control over it. Also, while profits used to be shared equally among partners, more and more firms are dividing profits based on merit.
  • Depending on the size of the firm, partnership may be broken into different levels, with “junior partners” reporting to “senior partners” who then report to “managing partners.”

Partner vs. Director vs. Principal

You may have heard some firms calling their partners by other names. This is because a law firm executive can only be called a “partner” if the firm is set up as a “partnership” – a business that is jointly owned by two or more people. 

In recent years, some firms have moved away from the partnership model. In this case, since ownership of the business is no longer split among partners, their executives are called  “Directors” or “Principals.”

What you’ll do

As a partner, you’re basically the company’s representative to the outside world. So interfacing with external parties will be the bulk of your work. This may mean showing up in court or having endless meetings and calls with clients – after all, they’ll feel more assured talking to a partner than to an associate!

You’re also responsible for bringing in new business, so you’ll need to do research on potential clients and meet with them to sell your firm’s services.

In addition, you’re in charge of making sure your team prepares the research and legal documents requested by your client. This means briefing your team on your clients’ needs and reviewing their work before sending any recommendations and finalized documents back to your clients.

Don’t expect to work shorter hours than before! You may have greater say in your schedule, but you’ll still have a lot of work. This is not to mention the constant pressure to prove yourself – as a junior partner, you’ll need to hustle and make sure you stay visible for future promotions, and higher-level partners also need to keep bringing in new business for the firm.

How much you’ll earn

As an equity partner, you’ll earn three types of income: a base salary, bonuses, and a share of the profits. Since profit sharing will be your principal source of income, there isn’t an average range. For reference, equity partners at the top 25 firms likely earned over $1 million in 2022.

According to Empire Group, salaried partners earned $240,000-$400,000+ in Sydney, $250,000-$350,000+ in Melbourne, and $200,000-$300,000+ in Brisbane.

What percentage of lawyers make partner?

You may wonder how many fresh grads actually make partner. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to figure this out. 

The ideal solution is to look at the number of graduates a law firm took in 10-15 years ago and see how many lawyers they promoted to partner this year. Unfortunately, data from so long ago is hard to find, so you may need to make do with more recent numbers. 

For example, the Australian Financial Review found that the firm HWL Ebsworth Lawyers added 14 partners to its firm in 2022 and also accepted 135 graduates. You can then (very crudely) conclude that about 10% of their graduates eventually make partner.

Here are the percentages for the top 10 graduate employers in the field:

  1. Clayton Utz -  3% (2/78)
  2. Norton Rose Fulbright -  5% (5/96)
  3. HWL Ebsworth - 10% (14/135)
  4. Allens - 11% (13/122)
  5. Corrs Chambers Westgarth - 17% (12/70)
  6. MinterEllison - 19% (19/100)
  7. Ashurst -  22% (17/77)
  8. King & Wood Mallesons - 23% (18/80)
  9. Herbert Smith Freehills -  26% (19/74)
  10. Hall & Wilcox -  29% (14/49)

Other factors you may want to consider:

  • Ratio of principles to employees: The higher this ratio (also known as “leverage”), the greater your chances of making partner. You can check this report which estimates this ratio across 200+ firms in Australia.
  • The average age of partners at firms: The higher the average, the longer the path to partnership and the more likely you’ll move to another firm while you wait to be promoted. King and Wood Mallesons, Madgewicks, and Seyfarth Shaw are three firms which are known to have younger partners.

Exit options

If you burn out part way through your time at a law firm, you’re not alone! The long hours are not for everyone, and many lawyers consider other options at some point. Luckily, your legal expertise sets you up for countless opportunities outside private practice

Going in-house

Going in-house is the most popular option for lawyers seeking better work-life balance. This means joining a company’s legal team, where your title will likely be “in-house counsel.”

A fundamental difference between this and private practice is that instead of serving multiple clients, you serve only one – your employer. As a result, you’ll need to fully understand the business so you can figure out all its legal needs.

Junior and mid-level lawyers leaving a law firm for an in-house counsel job can expect a salary increase. To learn more about going in-house, check out our guide on this topic: “Planning your law career path in in-house and corporate.”

Working in government

Working in government is another popular exit option. While salaries tend to be lower than in the private sector, working as a government lawyer is usually more stable.

Some lawyers also find government work more meaningful than private sector work. After all, instead of serving individuals and corporations, you serve the public interest! 

As a government lawyer, you can work for a variety of elected officials and government agencies. Depending on your post, you may be asked to draft legislation, to research local and national laws, or to investigate violations of the law.

Joining a not for profit 

If you’re looking for ways to give back to the community or serve the less privileged, there is also the option of joining a not for profit organization. 

You won’t make as much as you would in government or private practice, but as a lawyer, you’ll still be on the higher end of the not for profit pay scale.

Starting your own law firm

Did you know that over 80% of law firms in Australia are “sole practices”? This means they’re owned and run by one lawyer who gets to be their own boss!

If you want to explore this option in the future, make sure you build good relationships with your clients and colleagues. They will be the primary source of business for your future firm.

Because of the diverse range of sole practices, it’s hard to generalize about salaries. But if you’re leaving a big law firm to go solo and you’re bringing some corporate clients over with you, it’s safe to say you’ll be making a decent salary.

Finding work abroad

This isn’t so much an exit option per se, but it is an option for Australian lawyers to move to the UK or US. We all know a change of environment is sometimes all we need! 

The US and UK are experiencing shortages in legal talent, so salaries are high. For example, if you jump ship to a firm in the US after just three years of experience, you could make as much as a junior partner in Australia. You’d also get to jumpstart your career, as the cases you’d work on overseas are usually more complex and sophisticated.

If you want to keep this option on the table, specialize in a legal practice that carries over to other countries, such as transaction law.

Getting started

Ready to put your law degree to use in the real world? Check out clerkships and graduate programs that are open right now.

Also check out the profiles of the top 10 graduate employers in Australia in 2022: 

  1. HWL Ebsworth
  2. Allens
  3. MinterEllison
  4. Norton Rose Fulbright
  5. King & Wood Mallesons
  6. Clayton Utz
  7. Ashurst
  8. Herbert Smith Freehills
  9. Corrs Chambers Westgarth
  10. Hall & Wilcox

We wish you the best start to your legal career!

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