Becoming an attorney typically requires seven years of higher education, made up of four years of studying for an undergraduate degree and three years of law school. Law school is a challenging academic program that includes many semester hours of classwork and law library research. Law schools teach students about at least six major subfields of law, but attorneys typically choose to specialize in one area. All law school graduates must pass a state bar exam to practice.
Types of Attorneys
A litigator, or trial attorney, is an attorney who specializes in criminal or civil litigation and is serving as a direct representative for his client. Litigators spend most of their time preparing for trials or actually representing clients in the courtroom during trial proceedings. Not all trials are criminal trials. Many are civil trials, in which individuals or companies have filed suit against each other and a judge or jury is settling the case. Other lawyers, like most real estate attorneys, tax attorneys or corporate counsel, typically practice as advisers to their clients rather than direct representatives, but a number of tax attorneys and corporate counsel specialize in litigation.
Median Attorney Salaries
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median annual wages for attorneys in the United States were $110,590, as of May 2008. The middle 50 percent of attorneys earned annual wages between $74,980 and $163,320. The attorneys with the highest pay worked as management of companies and enterprises and in roles for the federal executive branch, with median wages of $145,770 and $126,080, respectively.
Typical Litigator Salaries
Litigators typically are on the higher end of attorney salaries. According to the BLS, attorneys involved in legal services, which is largely litigation-related work, earned a median wage of $116,550. Law Schools lists the average salary range for lawyers in the litigation and appeals specialty as $60,870 to $110,320.
Employment prospects for attorneys are likely to be relatively poor during down economic cycles, when there are simply less real estate transactions and consumers tend to have less money for discretionary spending for estate planning, drafting wills and so forth. However, litigation attorneys are somewhat insulated from the effects of an economic downturn in that crime typically increases and businesses are more prone to collection-related legal activities, resulting in more criminal trials and civil litigation.
2016 Salary Information for Lawyers
Lawyers earned a median annual salary of $118,160 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, lawyers earned a 25th percentile salary of $77,580, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $176,580, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 792,500 people were employed in the U.S. as lawyers.