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If you’ve recently graduated or are thinking about studying law, you’ll want to understand the average lawyer salary and pay structure. It’s crucial to consider as law school tuition gets more costly — average law school tuition is three to five times more expensive than it was 30 years ago (even after adjusting for inflation!).
Most people generally accept that law is one of the highest-paid professions out there. However, from my experience, the average lawyer salary depends on the job market and may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Let’s look at what determines lawyer salary and how to know if a Biglaw lawyer job is right for you.
What is the average lawyer salary?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average pay for a lawyer is $120,910 per year.
However, these numbers are misleading, thanks to the bimodal salary distribution. First, there’s the Cravath scale — a system of compensation that applies to most Biglaw firms based on the number of years out of law school and paid to New York lawyers working at Cravath and followed by many Biglaw firms.
Then, there’s the salary of a lawyer working in public service or as a solo lawyer. As you might have guessed, the two are considerably different.
Additionally, how much a lawyer makes heavily depends on their entry-level — the years of experience they’ve acquired practicing law. The payscale steadily increases as you’re able to charge higher premiums for your legal advice.
While the job outlook for lawyers is about average, salary increases at large law firms have outpaced the rest of the legal market. If you’re being paid on the Biglaw salary scale, you’re typically earning three times as much as some of your peers.
Bimodal salary distribution
The average annual earnings is a significant draw for many who consider the legal profession. It’s true that many lawyers earn excellent salaries — but you must understand the bimodal salary distribution before you can grasp how much you might make as a lawyer.
The salary distribution curve is familiar to most lawyers. It looks like this:
- One peak clusters around the lawyers working in Biglaw firms and earning large salaries
- The other peak represents those working in a small law office who earn much less
For example, the salary of a Biglaw attorney is much greater than the earnings of an assistant district attorney or real estate lawyer.
The concept of “average” salary is heavily biased and tends to overlook some of the main factors, one of which is the geographical location of employment.
According to BLS, the top five states with the highest salaries for lawyers are:
- District of Columbia: $197,100
- California: $179,470
- New York: $174,060
- Massachusetts: $169,120
- Connecticut: $158,190
As you can see, the salary a lawyer earns depends on where they’re working, the sector they’re working in, and the size of the firm.
To consider some real-world data: The New York University class of 2020 graduates who joined law firms earned a median wage of $190,000. But grads who held judicial clerkships? They came in well below that number at $69,927. Likewise, grads who took government jobs had a median salary of just $62,000.
Low salary range
Keeping the bimodal distribution scale in mind, you might consider the lower end of the lawyer’s salary scale to be around $60,000. This is more likely to happen if you’re working in a non-metro city — the cost of living is lower, but so is the earning potential.
Public sector jobs and those working for the government tend to have a lower salary average than private-sector jobs.
For example, the average salary for a district attorney in New York City is around $70,000. Even though the job is in a metropolitan city such as New York, the sector here plays an important role in determining the salary.
High salary range
You’re most likely to earn a high salary as a lawyer if you’re a big law associate. While there is no definition of what Biglaw is, the phrase commonly refers to some of the largest law firms in the United States.
This is something you have to consider before getting into law.
If you want to work for a Biglaw company, you must look at the average salary the area’s firms are offering. There’s no sense in studying the national average data because it’ll be highly irrelevant to you.
Most Biglaw firms operate on the Cravath scale. The Cravath scale allows law firms to follow suit with one another regarding the salaries they pay to associates. It’s popular because it helps to retain lawyers from some of the best law schools.
The salary you can earn largely depends on the standard of living and the cost of living in the respective state or city, too. Even within the same state, the salaries may differ.
Take California for example – while it has some of the highest salary ranges for lawyers, according to BLS, it offers different salaries in three of its major metropolitan areas:
- San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara: $231,610
- San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward: $201,920
- Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim: $180,220
There’s a nearly 25% difference separated by a few geographic miles, which can be the difference between making rent and downgrading to a lower standard of living.
Highest paid lawyers by field
A Biglaw career can be a lucrative option, but a significant paycheck isn’t guaranteed. Your salary can depend on where you went to school, where your job is, how long you’ve been practicing, and what type of law you specialize in.
Of those factors, the type of law you practice will greatly impact your earning potential. Some law specialties make a lot more than others, as you can see on this PayScale list of median attorney salaries:
- Patent attorney: $180,000
- Intellectual property (IP) attorney: $162,000
- Trial lawyer: $134,000
- 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
This list can change over time as compensation and demand ebbs and flows for different legal specialties. If you’re drawn to an area of law with higher earnings, keep in mind that the highest-paid lawyers often have more stress and work longer hours.
How Biglaw firms determine salaries
While there’s no official definition for “Biglaw,” it generally refers to the nation’s largest law firms as well as small- and medium-sized firms that pay at the market rate. Biglaw firms base salary on your law school class using the Cravath scale.
Recruiting the best students from the best schools is highly competitive. If one firm offers a higher salary, others tend to increase their pay, as well. The scale provides a standardized system that levels the field, as they say.
For example, a first-year salary is $205,000, and they can expect a $12,000 bonus, according to the Cravath scale as of 2021. A fifth-year can earn $305,000 and receive a $52,000 bonus.
Bonuses paid to Biglaw lawyers
The Cravath scale not only governs Biglaw salaries but also controls bonuses paid to Biglaw lawyers. Full-time lawyers paid on this scale can generally expect the same market bonus every year. The bonus is typically announced in late November or early December by a Biglaw firm.
Historically, the first firm to announce it is Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP — but that isn’t always the case. Regardless of which firm makes the first announcement, the bonus is soon posted on a legal news website like American Lawyer or the New York Law Journal.
Although, the announced bonus isn’t a guarantee that other firms will match the amount. While it’s unlikely firms will offer less, they can provide larger bonuses. A few outlier firms have even paid six-figure bonuses to associates, but these firms generally fall outside the typical Wall Street firm construct.
Is Biglaw right for you?
The salary potential right out of law school is a significant draw for new graduates. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average law school loan balance is $145,500 — and a hefty salary can make the debt burden feel a little lighter.
High stress levels
Biglaw legal services aren’t for everyone, and it might not be the right career move for you. Associates can face demanding workloads, high-stress levels, boring tasks, long hours, and late nights. You might spend hours on a tiny aspect of a larger project, such as drafting and redrafting a brief.
The demanding work environment is one reason Biglaw firms offer summer associate programs. Taking advantage of the program can introduce you to the environment and give you a taste of what you might expect as a new hire. However, much like the field of Biglaw, summer associate spots are highly competitive.
You also need to consider location when contemplating a career in Biglaw. According to the Internet Legal Research Group, most Biglaw firms are in major U.S. cities like Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Miami. Depending on your background, you may need to make significant adjustments to enjoy life in an urban environment.
You might think work-life balance in a Biglaw career is a joke. It’s no secret that Biglaw attorneys face frequent bouts of burnout. How long can you last when every Monday starts with a sense of dread and a knot in your stomach? And is the salary worth giving up personal fulfillment?
I’d say no. While I don’t have it all figured out, I believe having a fulfilling work-life balance in Biglaw is possible. It isn’t easy, but the payoff is absolutely worth it.
Instead of isolation and despair, you develop a sense of agency as you take control of how to think and act. You must commit yourself to finding a good balance for your life. It’s a skill you must develop over time — it could take years! — as you claim and reclaim control over the things that matter to you.
Biggest financial mistakes to avoid
No matter where you fall on the lawyer salary scale, you can maximize your average annual salary by avoiding a few common financial pitfalls.
Learning to manage your money can feel like a second job — law school doesn’t cover personal finance. But a few tweaks can set you up for success:
- Manage your student loan debt by paying it off early or pursuing loan forgiveness
- Take advantage of your firm’s entire benefits package (HSA, meals, taking a car home, or transit deduction)
- Save more than the average person and learn about backdoor IRAs
Perhaps most importantly, don’t inflate your lifestyle because you assume you’ll have more money in the future. Make an appointment and work with a financial planner. You’ll get expert advice to make your money work harder for you.
Lawyer salary: The bottom line
Many factors play a significant role in deciding the right career path and the ability to make a living; hence, a 360-degree approach is essential while studying the average lawyer salary in the United States.
Fields such as Intellectual property, medical malpractices, tax law, corporate and securities law, sports, and entertainment are some of the highest paying fields with salaries ranging from $126,000 to $182,000.
At the same time, fields such as employment and labor, family law, personal injury, and immigration have much lower salary ranges of $60,000 to $82,000.
If you want to become a lawyer or are one already, the salary is set to remain consistent or steadily increase over the coming years. As for the outlook in the industry, the job growth is expected to meet the national average as there is no shortage of requirements for highly skilled lawyers in today’s ever-changing legal landscape.
The information presented here should be treated as a framework while making a decision, as everyone’s situation and aspirations are different. At the end of the day, having an informed idea about the average salary and the factors that affect it makes a huge impact on efficiently making a decision.