While practicing law can be financially rewarding, lawyers’ salaries vary quite a bit. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median pay for lawyers in 2010 was $112,760 per year. However, there can be a huge disparity, depending on the field of law in which you practice, and where you live.
Public service lawyers make considerably less money than those in the corporate sector. In 2012, the average entry-level salary for a public defender was $50,500. An attorney with over 11 years of experience could expect to make $78,600 for the same position. Prosecutors working for local government can expect to earn around $50,000 during their first year; slightly more for larger agencies. While these jobs don’t pay nearly as well as some other fields, student loan forgiveness is often part of a new attorney’s hiring package.
First year corporate lawyers can earn as much as $105,000 at a small firm, and as much as $160,000 at a large firm. Competition for the best corporate law jobs is fierce, and the top companies can afford to be very picky. You’ll need to graduate from a top-tier school, such as Stanford or Harvard, have an excellent GPA and an impressive resume (such as clerking for a high-powered judge or being the head of law review).
Some attorneys can make very large incomes. For instance, patent attorneys with several years of experience earn an average salary of over $200,000 per year. Trial lawyers working for wealthy clients can earn very large salaries—ranging from $500,000 to as much as $40 million per year.
Lawyers in cities on the east and west coasts typically earn more money than their colleagues in the middle of the country. The ABA Journal reported that the average salary for lawyers in San Jose during 2012 was $192,020. Those in San Francisco earned $167,130. New York lawyers earned an average of $166,133, and in Washington D.C., the average salary was $153,520. While these wages are higher than those in other cities, the cost of living is also higher and must be factored in.
By comparison, lawyers in Billings, Montana, earned an average of just $82,380. Lawyers in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, earned $86,640. Those in rural, non-metro areas earned still less: as low as $50,000 per year. The cost of living in smaller towns is much less, and the workload of lawyers in small towns may be lighter.
There are many fields of law in which to practice. When deciding which to specialize in, consider your strengths and interests, along with the annual median salary for the field.