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The decision to become an attorney does pay off for many professionals who choose this career. The average lawyer salary in the United States is $163,770, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Of course, as in most professions, your earnings as an attorney will likely begin on the lower side and increase over time. The BLS reports that the average lawyer salary ranges from $66,470 to $239,200. The presumption is that lower salaries go to those just starting, and attorneys who earn at the higher end of the scale are years or even decades into their careers. The average salary for lawyers can also depend on the type of law you practice and the industries you tend to work with.
However, that number can be much higher depending on your location and the size of the law firm. The National Association of Law Placement (NALP), for instance, reports a median starting salary of $200,000.
What are the best-paying industries for lawyers?
The amount of money an individual attorney makes depends on the type of law they practice. Beyond the type of industry they choose to practice law in, whether an attorney works in the private or public arena (for example, government versus corporations and private law firms) can also impact earnings in a significant way.
According to the BLS, lawyers who work within the Federal Executive Branch of the government earn an average annual salary of $152,700. On the other hand, lawyers who work for state governments bring in an average salary of $103,390.
Meanwhile, some of the top-paying industries for lawyers include:
- Nonscheduled Air Transportation: $310,250
- Computer and Peripheral Equipment Manufacturing: $276,160
- Office Administrative Services: $261,740
- Spectator Sports: $251,260
- Sound Recording Industries: $249,320
What are the worst-paying industries for lawyers?
While the BLS does not expressly list the worst-paying industries for lawyers, those working in the state government, excluding education and hospitals, make an average salary of $97,640. As a comparison, those working in the federal government earn an average of $158,370.
There are also areas in law where people focus more on public service than on money. For instance, public defenders average $75,337 per year. For another example, immigration attorneys average $74,378 per year.
What are the highest-paying states for lawyers?
The state you live in can also play a significant role in your salary as a lawyer. Specific metropolitan areas also boast much higher wages. States with the highest annual mean wages for lawyers include:
|Average lawyer salary
|District of Columbia
If you plan to live in a big city or a major metropolitan area, you should also know which regions have the highest annual salaries nationwide. The highest-paid metropolitan areas currently include the following:
|Average lawyer salary
|San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA
|San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA
|Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA
|Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA
|New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA
|San Diego-Carlsbad, CA
|Santa Rosa, CA
Also, note the states where your salary as a lawyer could be lower. The annual mean wage for lawyers in the following states fell below $100,000:
- Montana: $98,170
- Kentucky: $99,840
- Wyoming: $88,570
- Idaho: $96,810
What other careers can law students pursue?
After you graduate with a law degree, there’s a possibility you could end up working in another related field. Some of the top related careers for those with a law degree fall within the fields of corrections, law enforcement and politics.
If you have some flexibility in your desired career field, BLS lists average salaries as the following:
|Arbitrators, mediators and conciliators
|Judges, magistrate judges and magistrates
|Law teachers, postsecondary
|Legal support workers
|Paralegals and Legal Assistants
Is a law degree worth it?
Law school can potentially be a stepping stone toward a successful and lucrative career in the legal field. But you’ll need to consider whether the average lawyer salary is worth everything you’ll have to give up along the way.
Before applying to law school – and especially before you enroll – you should take the time to ask yourself some important questions, like:
- What is the cost of tuition? The average annual law school tuition is around $28,186 for in-state students at public universities, according to the most recent figures from Law School Transparency. Graduate students attending private law schools face a much higher price tag of $49,312.
- Do you plan to attend a top school? If you plan to earn your law degree at an Ivy League institution, you’ll need to weigh the cost of attendance. For example, tuition at Columbia University worked out to $78,444 for the 2023-24 school year, while attending law school at Harvard would set you back $73,600
- Does the law school you’re considering have a solid reputation? Degrees from lower-tier schools may not open the door to the higher-paying opportunities you hope to land post-graduation.
- Do I have the time and dedication to succeed? The last thing you want to do is start law school, incur student debt and decide to drop out before earning your degree. You should also consider whether you can commit the time and energy necessary to earn good grades. After all, your GPA might impact your job opportunities after graduation — especially in highly competitive positions.
- Which legal specialty should I study? Beyond picking the right law school, it may pay off to focus your legal studies on a field in high demand.
Managing law school debt
Because of the high cost of law school, many students need to find a source of financing to cover tuition, fees and other educational expenses. One of the most popular ways to do this is through law school loans. A study by the American Bar Association (ABA) found that respondents had an average debt load of $108,000 in law school loans and $130,000 in all loans combined at graduation. This debt could be hard to manage in the early stages of your career.
If you’re struggling with payments, you do have options. Some ways to manage your debt include:
- Income-based repayment: Depending on the types of loans you used to finance your education, you may be eligible for a federal income-driven repayment plan, which could lower your monthly payments to a more manageable level.
- Public Service Loan Forgiveness: If you are willing to work in an eligible public service position, you could have your federal student loans forgiven after 10 years of on-time payments through a program known as Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF).
- Refinancing: Refinancing your private student loans could potentially help you find a lower interest rate or a smaller monthly payment.
- Employer assistance: Employers can contribute up to $5,250 per year on a tax-free basis toward student loans or college tuition through 2025. This benefit can be given tax-free on behalf of the employer, but it’s also tax-free for the employee.
Weighing the benefits and drawbacks of any career decision upfront is important, and that’s true no matter which occupation you decide to pursue. Becoming an attorney has proven to be a lucrative career choice for many people, but getting a law degree is expensive and highly competitive. Take your time and make sure that law school is the right move for you before committing to such a big investment of your time and money.
Are you ready to move forward? Federal and private law school loans may be available to help you cover your education expenses, depending on your situation. Shop around and compare law school loans to find one that works best for you.
Frequently asked questions
How long it takes to pay off student loans as a lawyer can depend on a number of factors. The top factor is which industry you work in, as Nonscheduled Air Transportation makes upwards of $300,000 for average pay, and other types of lawyers like public defenders and immigration lawyers make more modest salaries of around $75,000 on average. The area you live in can also affect your pay, as some states have lawyers that make an average pay below $100,000 and other areas go well up above $200,000 for average pay. The more you make, the more you can potentially put towards paying down student loans.
Outside of how much you make, the type of loan can also impact how long it takes to pay back student debt for law school. For instance, federal student loans have a standard repayment plan of 10 years. Federal student loans that run an income-based repayment plan can take 20 to 25 years. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness programs for federal loans can take 10 years and are income-based. Private student loans run for five to 25 years.
The industry and area you work in affects how much you make working as a lawyer. The highest-paid industry as listed by the BLS is Nonscheduled Air Transportation with an annual mean wage of $310,250. The top paying area is San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA, with an average lawyer salary of $267,840.
You can take out both federal and private student loans for law school. Graduate students are eligible for federal student loans, but there is an aggregate cap of $138,500 for graduate or professional students. Graduate students can fund their whole education with private loans, but private loans can lack borrower protections like loan forgiveness or income-based repayment plans.