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Lawyers play an important role in the court system. They interpret complex laws and regulations to advise and defend their clients during a legal dispute. As a profession, it is among the highest-paying careers outside of doctors, with a median annual salary of $127,990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Although becoming a lawyer remains a popular career path, exactly how much lawyers earn per year varies widely, depending on many factors.
How much does the average lawyer earn?
Although the BLS salary data is an attractive prospect for prospective law school students, remember that $127,990 is the median salary for the profession. Not all lawyers earn a six figure salary, although many can and do.
Lawyers in the bottom 10% of income earn a median annual salary of $61,400. Meanwhile, the highest-earning lawyers earn an average of more than $208,000 a year.
If you’re interested in becoming a lawyer but aren’t sure what to expect in terms of pay, your chosen industry and amount of experience makes a big difference.
Lawyers who work in the public sector, whether for the government or a non-profit organization, generally earn a lower salary than someone who practices in the private sector. Private sector lawyers may also see variations in their earnings, depending on whether they work for themselves or for a large law firm.
For example, an entry-level public defender has a median annual salary of $59,700, according to a survey by the National Association for the Placing of Laws (NALP). The same job with 11 to 15 years of experience can earn $100,500.
Compare that to a first-year associate practicing in the private sector, earning a median base salary of $165,000 a year. Salaries vary even more in the private sector depending on the size of the law firm. First-year associates working at a firm with more than 700 attorneys can earn a median salary of $190,000, according to the same NALP survey.
Highest paid specialties for lawyers
In addition to the size and age of the law firm, the type of law they practice can also affect how much money lawyers make. There are many different specialties you can pursue, after completing the necessary certifications, and practicing in a specialized area can earn a higher salary.
Here are some of the highest-paying specialties and their annual salary range, based on ZipRecruiter data:
- Counsel: $89,000 to $232,500
- Health Lawyer: $79,000 to $193,500
- Patent Attorney: $95,500 to $179,000
- Corporate Council: $111,000 to $174,500
- labor lawyer: $101,000 to $152,000
- Contract attorney: $72,500 to $152,500
- tax attorney: $84,000 to $143,500
- Environmental Lawyer: $100,000 to $134,500
Highest Paying Locations For Lawyers
As with other professions, where you live also influences how much lawyers earn in a year. Using data from the BLS, the ABA outlined which metropolitan areas pay the most expensive lawyers. Among the 10 areas that pay the best lawyers, five areas on the list are in California and four are on the East Coast.
Below are the top 10 highest paying locations in the country:
- San Jose, CA: $231,200
- San Francisco, CA: $191,460
- Washington D.C.: $186,610
- New York, NY: $183,870
- Los Angeles California: $177,550
- Boston, Massachusetts: $171,660
- Bridgeport, CT: $171,100
- San Diego, California: $165,480
- Midland, MI: $164,430
- Oxnard, CA: $163,560
How to Manage Law School Debt
The cost of law school is high, but its six-figure price tag is in line with other professions that require an advanced professional education. A 2020 ABA survey found that more than 95 percent of law school students took out a student loan. Upon graduating with their law degree, respondents had an average of $164,742 in student loan debt, most of which came from their law school education.
If you are exploring law schools
If you’re still deciding on a law program, going to an in-state public law school can help you minimize tuition costs as you work toward your degree. Keeping your living expenses as low as possible can also make expenses while in law school more manageable. This could include renting in a more affordable neighborhood near the school and bringing a roommate to share housing costs.
If you are already employed
If you’re working while in law school or have already graduated with your JD and are working, it’s worth asking your employer about education benefits. Some companies offer tuition reimbursement or student loan repayment assistance that can help you reduce your law school debt faster.
In addition, there are many student loan forgiveness programs for lawyers. Most require you to work with an underserved population or in a public service role. This could include public defenders or attorneys who work for other government or non-profit organizations.
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, for example, offers tax-free loan cancellation on the remaining balance of your eligible federal loan after you make 120 qualifying payments on your debt. During this pay period, you must be working full-time with an eligible employer and making payments under a qualified payment plan.
Is a law degree worth it?
Although earning a law degree comes with a high initial cost, law school could be worth it if your potential salary as a lawyer outweighs the cost of your education in the long run.
When deciding whether law school is worth it for you, consider all the variables that affect your total costs of law school and potential return on investment. This includes which school you choose, the specialty you are pursuing (if any), whether you will be practicing in the public or private sector, and where you plan to establish your career.
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