Are you considering a career as a lawyer?
If so, you’ll want to know exactly how much lawyers actually earn. To answer this question effectively, we’ll need to look at the various factors that come into play to determine the level of pay you can expect in this field.
Now it’s important to recognize that the amount of money you will make as a lawyer will depend on many different factors.
- The type of law that you are practicing.
- The sector that you are practicing in.
- The size of the institution that employs you.
- The geographical location of your firm.
So, let’s take a closer look at the question “How Much Do Lawyers Make?” and how each factor has an influence.
- The Different Types Of Law
- The Numbers
- Law School Graduate Salary Expectations
- So, You Want To Be A Lawyer?
- Final Thoughts
The Different Types Of Law
The type of law you practice can have a huge influence on how much money a lawyer makes. Certain types of law are catered to much larger clients, for example, wealthy individuals and corporations.
These would be areas of the law that involve things like mergers and acquisitions, intellectual property litigation, and securities law. Other types of law are more focused on individuals, for example, family law, criminal law, and immigration law.
Where you find the real money…
It should generally go without saying that the larger clients and corporations are more capable and willing to pay much higher rates. This is down to the fact that you are, in turn, making them a lot more money.
Dealing with smaller individual clients will mostly mean lower earnings as they normally don’t have the same level of economic resources. You’ll often be providing them a service that gets them out of legal trouble and won’t necessarily be making them any money at all.
The sector you choose to work in is also going to be a big player in how much money you will earn as a lawyer. The sector you are in refers to what part of the legal market you’re working in. For example, is it a law firm? Is it in-house at a corporation? Is it a non-profit, a government agency, or even academia?
Generally speaking, if you are working in the private sector, you can expect to earn more than if you’re employed in the public sector. Working at a law corporation or firm will be financially more worth your while than working in a government department, in a university as a professor, or even as a judge.
Size of the Institution
Of course, the size of the company you work for also has a bearing on your salary expectations. Within each of the five sectors previously mentioned, there will be a range of different-sized institutions.
For example, law firms can range tremendously in the number of lawyers they employ. A 1500 lawyer law firm will normally be paying the top market rate salaries with a healthy bonus thrown in. At the other end of the scale, a solo practitioner is limited to the amount of money they can bring through the door.
In-house corporation lawyers…
Large multinational corporations with in-house lawyers can also afford to pay industry-leading salaries. On the other hand, smaller companies that only employ one or two lawyers will only be able to pay what they can afford and will depend on how large their client base is.
For non-profits, the scope for higher earnings isn’t as big as in the corporate world. That being said, some non-profits are very well funded, and you can make a really good salary in that field. Others are smaller and more local and don’t have the same level of resources to throw around.
Average pay at government agencies…
As far as government agencies are concerned, the best salaries are to be found in the largest federal agencies such as the Department of Justice or the Federal Communications Commission. You can’t expect the same level of earnings if you are working at smaller agencies like your local district attorney.
Finally, in academia, you can generally expect to earn a lower average income than in the corporate world. There is still a wide range of potential salaries, mind you. Prestigious and nationally renowned universities and law schools will obviously pay higher rates than smaller local institutions.
As we’ll see in a minute, larger markets like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington DC are where you are going to find the top rates of salary. Comparatively, regional markets like Tallahassee, Phoenix, or Denver pay less on average than their larger counterparts.
The more corporate offices and HQs you’re nearest big city have, the higher the demand will be for large law firms and in-house lawyers. This obviously drives up potential earnings. In short, if you want to earn and maximize your salary potential as a Lawyer, you’ll need to make sure you are living in working in one of the larger markets.
The most current data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics is that the median annual income for lawyers is $121,000 per year. This means 50% of lawyers will earn less than the median, and 50% will earn more.
At the lower end of the scale, at the 10th percentile mark, practicing lawyers earn $58,000 per year on average. At the 25th percentile mark, you can expect to earn just over $79,000. Heading up the scale, at the 75th percentile, you can look forward to taking home $182,000 every year, and at the 90th percentile mark, that number rises to $208,000 per year.
Let’s talk averages on whole…
When you look at the mean or average salary of all 658,000 lawyers in the US, the figure rises to $149,000 annually. Keep in mind that both the mean and the median figures include lawyers from all sectors and all cities, with a whole range of different skill and experience levels.
So as you can see, there is quite a wide range of different salaries on offer as a lawyer. Moving on to where the highest concentration of lawyers work, the five states employing the highest number of lawyers, starting with the largest, are California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Washington DC.
Highest Lawyer Salaries by State
So you know now what the annual median income of a lawyer in the US is and where the highest concentration of legal jobs can be found, but what about the states that pay their lawyers the highest salaries? Top of the list is Washington DC, where the average lawyer salary is $192,000 per year. California comes in second at just over $171,000, with New York taking third place at $167,000 average salary per year.
Highest Lawyer Salaries by Metropolitan Area
So which are the most highly paid metropolitan areas to work as a Lawyer in the country. Topping the list is the San Jose, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara grouping in California, where the average mean wage for lawyers is a healthy $232,000 per year.
Second on the list is another Californian entry, the grouping of San Francisco, Oakland, and Hayward. Your average lawyer earns $202,000 per year there. The metropolitan area of Washington, Arlington, and Alexandria (DC, Virginia, and Maryland, respectively) places third. Here lawyers take home a very respectable $186,000 a year.
If you want to find more comprehensive statistics on lawyer salaries countrywide, visit the US Bureau of Labor Statistics for more detailed breakdowns.
Law School Graduate Salary Expectations
All the median and average salary figures mentioned so far are the figures for lawyers currently practicing. This means they include the salaries of lawyers who have been practicing for thirty-plus years. But what can you expect as a recent law school graduate to be making in your first year?
In 2020 NALP reported that the mean income for entry-level legal positions was $97,000. What the graph in the link shows, however, is that jobs in the $45,000 to $75,000 range accounted for nearly 50% of salaries reported. Also, a full 21% of graduate lawyer jobs were paying impressive salaries of $190,000 per year. These are invariably positions at large firms.
Be realistic after law school…
So if you are thinking of a career in law, keep these figures in mind when you’re making future financial plans. Make sure you have realistic expectations about what your salary is going to look like when you first leave law school.
So, You Want To Be A Lawyer?
Great news! First, let’s take a look at a few legal positions and what they entail with my Lawyer Job Description, my Corporate Lawyer Job Description, or perhaps my Criminal Lawyer Job Description, Paralegal Job Description, and my Legal Analyst Job Description.
If you’d like to know about alternative job ideas that can earn you a great salary, then check out our Jobs That Can Make You A Millionaire, our list of the Best 6 Figure Jobs, as well as Careers That Make You Rich in 2023.
We found an excellent selection of online books such as What Can You Do With a Law Degree?: A Lawyer’s Guide to Career Alternatives Inside, Outside & Around the Law, or even So You Want to be a Lawyer: An Ultimate Guide to Getting into & Succeeding in Law School to help guide you.
We also highly recommend the Law School Confidential: A Complete Guide to the Law School Experience: By Students, for Students, and How to Be Sort of Happy in Law School for a better insight into the whole studying experience!
Hopefully, this article has comprehensively answered the question of how much lawyers earn. Now all you have to do is pay your way through law school to give yourself the best chance of landing a job in one of the more highly paid careers in the country.
Talent, hard work, and a willingness to move to a city with more opportunities should see your dream become a reality.
Good luck and all the best working as a Lawyer!