How Much Does a Lawyer Make on Average a Year?

AndreyPopov/iStock/GettyImages

Whether they help a company handle intellectual property theft or a family file for divorce, lawyers provide a wealth of legal knowledge to their clients and assist them with their cases. Their time is often split between representing clients in the courtroom, doing independent research and having face-to-face meetings. Their valuable services and graduate education help lawyers make lucrative wages, especially with significant experience. Lawyers make six-figure salaries on average, but earnings will depend on one's specialization, location, years of practice and industry.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

As of May 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists a generous average lawyer salary of $141,890 annually. Lawyer earnings do vary depending on specialization, industry, experience and geographic location.

Job Description

Lawyers assist organizations and individuals with cases by giving legal advice and speaking on behalf of them in court trials. The lawyer's role is to use his knowledge of the laws and rulings relevant to the issue in a way that helps him to best argue the client's case. This can require spending many hours doing legal research, drafting documents, interviewing associated individuals and speaking in court proceedings. These job duties make it essential for lawyers to be clear communicators, excellent researchers and proficient analysts and problem solvers.

Some lawyers offer assistance only in a specific area, like business law or intellectual property law. For example, a corporate attorney would help an organization with contractual issues, tax disputes and compliance with industry regulations, while a family lawyer might help families adopt children or settle custody disputes. Others are general attorneys who handle situations as diverse as lawsuits, discrimination cases, tax fraud and collective-bargaining disagreements.

Education Requirements

Lawyers need an extensive graduate education and state licensure to practice law. The path starts with graduating high school and enrolling in a bachelor's degree program. Students can choose a major in legal studies or a similar field, but this is not usually a requirement for law school program admission. Instead, students can major in research- and writing-intensive subjects such as English, philosophy, history or government.

Near the end of an undergraduate degree program, aspiring law school students usually need to prepare for and take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Focusing on the ability to apply laws and make decisions, this multipart exam has multiple-choice questions covering reading comprehension, logical reasoning and analytical reasoning along with an essay-writing portion. After completing the LSAT, future law students can start applying to Juris Doctor law school programs that interest them. This process often requires completing a personal statement, having letters of recommendation and possibly completing an interview.

A JD program often takes three years of study with both coursework and practical experience through internships, clerkships or fellowships. First-year lawyer courses provide a foundation in criminal and constitutional law. They introduce students to topics such as contracts, civil procedure, property law, legal research and torts. The following years of a law school program give students a chance to explore topics such as taxation and evidence handling. Schools often provide options to specialize in an area, such as business law or public law. It is also during these years that students often gain hands-on legal experience working for judges or law firms and conducting legal research.

After finishing law school, aspiring lawyers need to obtain licensure in the state or states they wish to work. This requires them to take one or more bar exams, such as the Multistate Bar Examination, Uniform Bar Examination or Multistate Performance Test. These extensive exams require candidates to demonstrate their understanding of legal concepts through multiple-choice questions and/or essays. Since each state has its own bar exam requirements, individuals should check with their jurisdiction to determine the appropriate test. Other common requirements for licensure include a background check and character examination. States also require lawyers to complete regular continuing training as laws change, and this provides opportunities to specialize as well.

Industry

Nearly half of lawyers work in legal services, with self-employment being the next most common career choice. Smaller numbers work for any level of government or offer their legal services to individual businesses. Lawyers tend to spend a lot of time directly with clients and alongside other attorneys and legal assistants. Traveling is essential in order to attend trials and have meetings with those involved in their cases.

This career can be stressful, with long hours required to handle big cases and do all the preparation necessary. Self-employed lawyers also have to add time to promote themselves and perform the general managerial tasks that keep their businesses running. However, self-employed lawyers do have the benefit of choosing their workload and hours for a more flexible arrangement that can benefit their families.

Years of Experience and Salary

The average lawyer salary is $141,890 a year as of May 2017, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The lawyer median pay annually is $119,250, meaning half of attorneys earn more and half make less. For the lowest 10 percent of lawyers, earnings are under $57,430 a year. The highest-earning 10 percent surpass $208,000 annually.

The type of organization for which a lawyer works has a significant impact on earnings. Legal services firms offer an average wage of $147,950, while corporate positions in company and enterprise management pay $178,970 on average. Federal government pays its lawyers an average of $138,000, which is more than the $102,450 and $90,100 average wages that local and state governments offer. The most lucrative industries for lawyers include scheduled air transportation and mining support activities, which pay respective average salaries of $217,410 and $212,390.

Lawyers in some states make better wages than others. The highest-paying states for lawyers include the District of Columbia, California and New York, where average salaries are $189,560, $168,200 and $165,260, respectively. States offering the worst pay include Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming; lawyers in these states make on average $83,150, $97,680 and $98,090, respectively.

A lawyer's specialization and work experience also impact one's salary. In October 2018, PayScale reported median salaries of $70,129 for family lawyers, $97,892 for corporate attorneys, $134,795 for patent attorneys, $99,770 for tax attorneys and $81,132 for criminal-defense lawyers. It also showed that a first-year lawyer makes around $70,000 on average. With five to 10 years of experience, the average lawyer salary rises to $98,000. Lawyers earn higher average wages of $119,000 with 10 to 20 years of experience and $139,000 with more than 20 years of experience.

Job Growth Trend

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects an increased demand for lawyers between 2016 and 2026, with a job growth rate of 8 percent expected. Over the decade, this change adds an estimated 65,000 positions for lawyers. Job opportunities vary by sector. Outsourcing and the downsizing of legal departments can reduce opportunities in corporate law, while handing off tasks to paralegals can reduce costs for legal firms and require fewer lawyers. While budgets can affect hiring, lawyers will also have opportunities in the federal government, medical settings and the financial field.

Lawyers can expect a lot of competition when starting out and may turn to temporary positions before finding stable attorney jobs. They may improve their opportunities if they're flexible and willing to get licensed to work in multiple states. Getting as much experience as possible during their time in law school can also help new lawyers stand out.

References

About the Author

Ashley Donohoe started writing professionally about business topics in 2010. Having eight years experience running all aspects of her small business, she is knowledgeable about the daily issues and decisions that business owners face. She also has earned a Master of Business Administration degree with a leadership and strategy concentration from Western Governors University. Some other places featuring her business writing include JobHero, LoveToKnow, PocketSense, Chron and Study.com.