How Much Do Lawyers Make? A Guide to This Lucrative Career

Are you interested in how much do lawyers make? This article shows how much you could earn if you chose to follow this career path.

The practice of law looks exciting, important, and lucrative if you go by what you see on TV shows like “Suits.” It seems like the perfect choice for someone who speaks and writes well, enjoys a good argument, and is seeking both intellectual stimulation and good compensation.

However, many factors influence how much a lawyer earns. Partners in big corporate firms in cities like New York can make several times more than prosecutors in more rural areas. Personal injury lawyers may rake in high contingency fees but lack the stability and benefits of a government or university contract.

Here are some factors to consider when you are trying to figure out how much lawyers make. 

1- Public vs. Private?

Probably the biggest schism in salaries is between lawyers in the public versus the private sector.

If you are lucky enough to get a job at a Big Law firm, your starting salary maybe $190,000 per year. A job with the government as a prosecutor or with a government agency will pay maybe one third of that amount.

Law professors usually earn between $120,000 and $200,000 per year, but if you are fresh out of law school, you are not likely to get one of these prized positions. Some law school graduates go to work for nonprofits, which also are not known for paying a lot.

Remember that people choose different career paths for more reasons than just salary. If you are passionate about helping vulnerable populations or enforcing criminal justice, you may be willing to forego the big salaries at first.

Often, a few years at a government agency like DOJ or the state attorney’s office will give you invaluable experience that will help you earn more later in your career.

2- Geography Matters

Where you practice makes a huge difference in what you will be paid as a lawyer.

A fifth-year associate at a firm in New York City or San Francisco, the hot spots for legal services in the United States, can make between $200,000 and $250,000 per year. Big corporations like banks and tech companies tend to hire large firms in these cosmopolitan areas.

You probably will not earn that much if you choose to practice in a small town.

The cost of living makes a big difference. If you are working in New York or San Francisco, you will be paying sky-high rents for small apartments. You will have a lot less to take home after paying for your housing and food costs out of that big paycheck.

Big city lawyers are also expected to work long hours. Often they are expected to bill over two thousand hours a year. If you choose to settle in a small community in the Midwest, you will have a smaller salary but probably a less expensive lifestyle.

3- Firm or Sole Practitioner

Not all lawyers choose to join law firms. Some choose to be their bosses and have more control over their workflow. Others are more entrepreneurial.

Sole practitioners or lawyers who practice in small law firms have more autonomy. They can work in whatever specialty they choose. However, they may have to hustle to get clients.

Sole practitioners are more likely to assist individual clients in areas like family law, real estate, trusts, estates, or personal injury. Many maintain the old fashioned kind of practice where they forge close relationships over time with clients, guiding them through some of life’s most important journeys.

You may not make as much money as a lawyer in a big firm in a big city if you settle in a small town to practice, but there will be many other benefits.

4- Practice Focus 

Your area of focus will also have a strong impact on your eventual salary.

If you practice corporate law, you can expect to start earning the big bucks pretty soon. Lawyers seeking high salaries often gravitate to areas like mergers and acquisitions, private equity, and capital markets.

But you do not have to focus purely on transactional work to pull in high fees. This attorney probably is very financially comfortable, judging from their track record of successful personal injury victories for clients.

Trial work can be thrilling and fulfilling, but if you work on a contingency basis it can be unpredictable in terms of income. However, attorneys who work on massive litigations like class actions can earn significant percentages of large settlements, like the lawyer in Erin Brockovich. (He was believed to have netted about $40 million in that case.)

5- Length of Experience

As in all professions, lawyers earn more as they gain experience. Even in the public sector, a district attorney with several years of experience under his or her belt can earn a six-figure salary.

In a firm, as you rise in the ranks, you will earn increasing amounts as counsel, and then partner. If you do well, you may be eligible for large bonuses. As an equity partner, you will get a portion of the entire firm’s revenue.

How Much Do Lawyers Make? A Lot, But They Earn It! 

A law professor once said, “If you are going into the law to make money, there are easier ways to do so.”  On an hourly basis, you can make more money in less time as an investment banker or a rock star.

Most lawyers graduate from law school with a lot of debt. They work long hours and are always on call for their clients. They often struggle to find time for family or fun.

However, if you choose an area of the law about which you are passionate, you will find that money is only one part of why this profession is respected. You can change people’s lives, and you can change the world. The hard work pays off monetarily and in other ways.

If you are thinking of practicing law and you are still wondering how much lawyers make, consider all of the other benefits that the law brings to society. How do you put a value on bringing justice to victims, perpetuating a healthy economy, and creating public policy?

As a lawyer, you can earn a lot of money but also a great deal of respect.

For more information on lawyers and the law, keep checking back. 

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