How Much Can Attorneys Expect to Earn Out of Law School?

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In the United States, the legal profession is often regarded as being one of the most highly compensated, but there is a very broad salary range for attorneys, particularly those who are just getting started. The factors that determine how much lawyers can make on their first year at work vary from geographical location to specialty and from business acumen to plain luck.

Salary figures compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic in 2016 indicate that the median salary of American lawyers was around $138,000 on an annual basis, which means that only half of them earned that amount. About 10 percent of attorneys earned less than $60,000 per year, which is what can be expected by professionals who secure state bar membership in their first year.

Some attorneys can earn more than $160,000 during their first year; for example, a corporate litigation lawyer who can read, write and communicate in Arabic can easily get hired as an associate at Big Law firms. On the other hand, an attorney hired for document review at less prestigious firms can expect to make around $50,000.

For attorneys who work in the field of criminal practice, their initial earning power can seem a bit disheartening. Public defenders rarely earn more than $50,000 despite their heavy workloads. Prosecutors can make $70,000 in many jurisdictions; their workloads may be similar to those of public defenders, but they enjoy better access to resources that can make their jobs easier.

As for rookie attorneys who decide to hang their own shingles as solo practitioners or for the purpose of founding boutique law firms, their earning power will be determined by their success. A solo civil litigator who can only land a few lawsuits per year may only earn a few thousand dollars. On the other hand, a boutique law firm focused on technology patent litigation or complex real estate acquisitions could derive a very handsome profit from just a couple of cases.

Where Can Lawyers Stand to Make the Most?

In 2018, lawyers who are hired by law firms that lobby on behalf of political interests can make more than $150,000 per year, and a similar situation can be expected by attorneys working in the entertainment industry.

At traditional law firms where new associates make less than $50,000 per year, the path towards the benchmark $100,000 salary could take about 10 years. New attorneys hired by legal departments at Fortune 500 corporations can reach $150,000 within five years. Associate lawyers who prevail in cases defending the interests of pharmaceutical giants, for example, could make $300,000 in just a few years.

Finally, legal professionals who wish to make $1 million or more per year should seek a path towards becoming staff attorneys at major corporations or partners at Big Law firms. Alternatively, attorneys who act as trustees or trust protectors for wealthy clients can also increase their earning potential quickly, particularly if they are successful in the field of asset protection.