Highest Paid Lawyer Types: Which Field Is Best?

Maximizing your legal career earnings depends on schooling, firm size and specialization.

If you want a lucrative, satisfying career, but you’re not cut out for being a doctor, computer scientist, or engineer, you probably decided to obtain a law degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average lawyer’s salary is $144,230. But where your job is, where you went to school, how long you’ve been practicing, and what type of law you specialize in are all important factors in determining your salary. 

First, we’ll look at factors that impact your salary, and then we’ll look at five specific specializations that offer the most bang for your law-school buck. Here, then, are considerations that affect your salary:

Where you go to school

The top United States law schools are hard to get into. If you can get into a top-25 school and want to maximize your earning potential, opt for one of those tops law schools.

While the cost of law school will be substantial at a top 25 school (likely in excess of $55,000 per year for tuition), there’s a clear link between the law school you attend and your income potential during your legal career. If you’re particularly interested in breaking into Biglaw, most recruiting is done at the schools which are ranked highly by US News & World Report, so your best bet is to be on those campus when the firms come looking for candidates.

Bigger firms equal bigger paychecks

The size of your law firm will be one of your main salary determinants. So if you’re looking to become one of the highest paid lawyers, you may want to set your sights on a Biglaw job

There’s no standard definition of Biglaw, but it includes the group of private US firms that employ the most lawyers (500 or so), smaller firms that adopt the Biglaw salary scale, and medium-sized firms with substantial international presence. As you’d probably expect, you’ll find Biglaw jobs in big cities. 

About 20% of lawyers working for private firms are considered to be working in Biglaw. There’s cutthroat competition for these financially rewarding jobs.

Biglaw lawyers are usually paid on the Cravath scale—an associate compensation system based on the number of years as a practicing attorney and paid to New York lawyers working at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP. Cravath has historically set associate salary trends, but the use of the “Cravath scale” term is now more honorary than factual. In recent years, firms such as Milbank and Simpson Thacher have been the first movers on first-year associate salaries. 

The Cravath scale continues because firms compete for the top students from the best law schools. If one firm offers a higher salary, other firms tend to follow suit shortly afterward. 

Outside of Biglaw, the average starting lawyer salary is $73,000. Inside Biglaw, though, beginning compensation jumps to $225,000—2.6 times the average outside of Biglaw and nearly $10,000 per month more! Of course, Biglaw lawyers don’t enjoy the greatest quality of life, but that’s one reason why they get paid so handsomely.

Where you practice

These factors are somewhat intertwined—for instance, Biglaw jobs are in major cities—but there are also distinct differences between states and even cities. Here’s a handy chart that shows you what lawyers make in different states

One key takeaway from the chart is that there’s a tremendous variation in pay based simply upon the state where the job’s located. Here are the states with the highest salaries for attorneys:

  • 1. District of Columbia — $192,530
  • 2. California — $171,550
  • 3. New York — $167,110
  • 4. Massachusetts — $165,610
  • 5. Connecticut — $153,640

But pay differs not only between states but between cities as well. For example, within the high-paying states of California, here are different salaries offered in three of the larger metro areas:

  • 1. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA —$198,100
  • 2. San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, CA Metropolitan Division — $189,660
  • 3. Anaheim-Santa Ana-Irvine, CA Metropolitan Division — $189,150

Number of years in practice

With law schools increasing enrollment at a faster pace than employment, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to land a job as a lawyer, let alone one of the plum Biglaw jobs. However, once you’ve landed a job, your pay increases at a healthy clip.

Which type of law you specialize in

The type of law you practice will tremendously impact your salary. As you can see on this PayScale list of median attorney salaries (including bonuses, profit-sharing, and commissions), some types of attorneys make a lot more than others:

  • Patent attorney: $180,000
  • Intellectual property (IP) attorney: $162,000
  • Trial lawyer: $134,000 (remember, this is average; trial lawyers especially can be sink-or-swim)
  • Tax attorney: $122,000
  • Corporate lawyer: $115,000
  • Employment lawyer: $87,000
  • Real Estate attorney: $86,000
  • Divorce attorney: $84,000
  • Immigration attorney: $84,000
  • Estate attorney: $83,000
  • Public Defender: $63,000

Over time, this list may change. Estate attorneys used to rank higher on the list while compensation for IP attorneys has surged in recent years due to high demand.

Different sources, however, list other figures for various specializations. Some of the discrepancies may be due to factors previously discussed. Terminology can also be problematic. For instance, the term “patent attorney” and “IP attorney” are considered interchangeable in many contexts. 

Finally, there’s a difference between “median” and “average” salaries. The national median salary for lawyers is $144,230 while the average is $120,910. The median represents the middle number in a given sequence of numbers when it’s ordered by rank. For instance, when quiz scores are listed from lowest to highest—30, 56, 65, 70, 84, 90, 90, 91, 92—the median, or middle, score is 84. 

PayScale lists median attorney salaries, which are $20,000-plus higher than average salaries, but you can discern highest-salary trends using either measure. Money magazine came up with similar conclusions using average salary data. Here are highlights from Money magazine’s list of highest-paid lawyer specializations:

Medical lawyers – $150,881 per year

If you can’t or don’t want to be a doctor, you can still make a good living in the medical field as a medical lawyer. These attorneys advise their clients on medical law and offer related services. When you think of medical lawyers, malpractice immediately springs to mind, but these attorneys also deal with other areas of health care law and personal injury. 

IP attorneys – $140,972 per year

Since Intellectual Property (IP) lawyers’ services are in great demand, they’re accordingly well-compensated. These types of lawyers need to keep on top of three distinct properties of intellectual property law: patents, trademarks, and copyrights. 

One of the reasons IP lawyers make so much is due to the fact that it can be difficult to sort out IP facts and prove the case evidentially. These lawyers also often possess specialized knowledge and training in scientific or technical fields.

IP lawyers usually deal with patents that protect inventors’ rights and keep copycat competitors at bay during the time period the patent is valid. The stringent patent application process can be challenging even for experienced IP attorneys, so competition for the best, most experienced IP lawyers is high.

Trial attorneys – $101,086 per year

Compensation for trial attorneys covers a broad range. Some are barely surviving while others are swimming in cash. However, there’s no doubt that a lawyer with a penchant for the courtroom can earn a decent living.

Successful trial attorneys should have a strong, wide-ranging knowledge of the law, but they also need to pay attention to tiny details that might tip the outcome of their cases. They need to stay current with new, potentially precedent-setting cases. Their verbal, writing, and memory skills should also be top-notch.

Personality also plays a huge role in trial attorneys’ compensation. The best trial attorneys are confident, persuasive courtroom performers who are nimble on their feet. Concocting strategies on the fly as new evidence surfaces, these attorneys understand how to work within established laws and use precedents to influence the outcome of their cases.  

Tax attorneys – $99,690 per year

Tax attorneys make $80,000 on the low side and $105,000 on the high scale, with most practitioners making nearly $100K. This type of attorney represents a company that deals with federal, state, or even local taxing bodies.

Tax attorneys prepare legal documents and help devise tax-saving strategies. Of course, they need to keep abreast of changes in the ever-fluid tax arena and implement those changes in a timely fashion.

Corporate lawyer – $98,822 per year

Like trial lawyers, there’s a broad range of income potential within this category. At the low end of the salary scales, some corporate lawyers make less than some schoolteachers–$66,000. The more successful corporate lawyers can earn well into six figures, though.

A corporate lawyer counsels clients on business transactions as they relate to the law, including the sale of businesses, acquisitions, and mergers. This type of lawyer prepares a flurry of contracts and reads through offers to ensure that the legalese is in the best interests of their clients, which are usually corporations and businesses. They also help create new companies, source venture capital, and facilitate the selling and buying of ownership interests. 

Law can be a satisfying, rewarding profession, but some specialties are more lucrative than others. If you’ve always imagined being a public defender and righting wrongs, that’s commendable, but realize you’re signing up for a modest lifestyle. Do your homework before you dive into law school, and begin with the end in mind. 

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Joshua Holt is a former private equity M&A lawyer and the creator of Biglaw Investor. Josh couldn’t find a place where lawyers were talking about money, so he created it himself. He spends 10 minutes a month on Empower keeping track of his money and is currently looking for additional lenders to add to Biglaw Investor’s JD Mortgage service which connects readers with lenders offering special mortgages for high-income professionals.

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