|State||Median Salary||Average Salary||10th Percentile||25th Percentile||75th Percentile||90th Percentile|
|District of Columbia||164,210||192,530||96,980||139,280||-||-|
Whether you’re a lawyer who’s just graduated or you’re someone who is thinking about studying law, it always helps to know what an average lawyer makes in the current market. This is particularly important because average law school tuition is 3 to 5 times more expensive than it was 30 years ago even after adjusting for inflation.
It’s commonly accepted that law is one of the highest-paid professions out there. While historically true, this can heavily depend on the job market.
According to Law School Transparency:
“The percentage of graduates obtaining full-time entry-level legal jobs was quite high in the 1980s, peaking at 84.5% in 1988. The average rate in the mid to late 1980s was 82.9%. The next two decades (the 90s and 00s) each had an average that was ten points lower, 73.7% in the 90s and 71.4% in the 00s. This decade, so far, the average is 62.7%—an additional ten points lower.”
There’s a markedly sharp decline in jobs available for newly graduated lawyers. For example, graduates who obtained full-time legal jobs has declined from 8,463 in 2006 to 6,756 in 2018. More than that, jobs aren’t spread evenly across law schools across the United States – in 2018 108 schools (53.5%) had less than 10% of their graduating class employed at by large law firm (in any job).
What Is The Average Lawyer Salary?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for a lawyer is $144,230 and the median salary is $120,910.
As any lawyer knows, these numbers are misleading thanks to the bimodal salary distribution. Starting salaries for lawyers on the Cravath scale are considerably different from those employed in public service or working as a solo lawyer.
Additionally, a lawyer’s annual salary will heavily depend on the years of experience they’ve acquired practicing law, with the payscale steadily increasing as lawyers are able to charge higher premiums for their legal advice.
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 likely being paid three times as much as some of your peers.
This brings forth the bimodal salary distribution familiar to most lawyers. One peak clusters around the lawyers working in Biglaw firms and the other peak are those starting in a small law office, as a public defender, real estate attorney, etc.
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 the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the states with the highest salaries for lawyers are,
- 1. District of Columbia — $192,530
- 2. California — $171,550
- 3. New York — $167,110
- 4. Massachusetts — $165,610
- 5. Connecticut — $153,640
The salary a lawyer earns also depends on where they’re working, the sector that they’re working on and the size of the firm.
To consider some real-world data: 2015 graduates from New York University who joined law firms of 500 or more lawyers made about $160,000. Grads who held judicial clerkships had a median salary of $63,000 and grads with government jobs had a median salary of $63,000.
Let’s have a look at some different salary scales that are prevalent in the industry.
Low Salary Range
Keeping the bimodal distribution scale in mind, one 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, where not only the cost of living is lower but so too are the salaries offered.
The low-end of the salary spectrum is also applicable to those working in the government sector.
The average salary for a district attorney in Manhattan is around $60,000-$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.
Public sector jobs also tend to have a lower salary average than private-sector jobs.
High Salary Range
As a lawyer, one is most likely to be making a high salary if they’re a big law associate. While there is no definition of what BigLaw is, it mostly 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 need to look at the average salary offered at these firms. Studying the data of the national average or the average low salary range is going to be highly irrelevant to you.
Most Biglaw firms operate on the Cravath scale, which is when law firms follow suit of other law firms with regards to the salaries paid to associates. This is done to retain lawyers from some of the best law schools.
The salary one can earn also largely depends on the standard of living and the cost of living in the respective state or city. 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, here are the different salaries offered in three of its major metropolitan 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
There’s a 5-10% percent difference separated by a few geographic miles, which can be the difference between making rent and downgrading to a lower standard of living.
These factors play a big 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, 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 national average as there is no dearth of requirements for highly skilled lawyers in today’s everchanging legal landscape.
The information presented here should be treated as a framework while making a decision, as everyone’s personal 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.