How much do lawyers make?

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Becoming a lawyer requires a lot of hard work and dedication. Most aspiring lawyers need to complete at least three years of law school in order to earn a law degree. On top of the time commitment, law school tuition can also be expensive. However, the average lawyer salary is around $145,000, so your return on investment could be worth it.

How much do lawyers make?

The decision to become an attorney does pay off for many people. The average lawyer salary in the United States is $148,910 at last count, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Attorneys also rank on Glassdoor’s most recent list of the highest-paying jobs in the United States.

Of course, as in most professions, your earnings as an attorney will likely begin on the lower side and increase over time. The BLS lists average lawyer salary ranges from $61,490 to more than $208,000.

What is a typical lawyer starting salary?

What you earn in a few years into your career and what you earn when you’re just starting out aren’t usually the same. Your starting salary could end up being much less than what you’ll earn with a decade of work experience behind you.

Most recent figures from Payscale show that the average entry-level attorney salary is just above $60,000. 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 $165,000.

What type of lawyer has the highest salary?

The amount of money an individual attorney actually makes has a lot to do with 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 (think 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 $146,560. On the other hand, lawyers who work for state governments bring in an average salary of $97,440.

Meanwhile, some of the top-paying industries for lawyers include the following:

  • Cable and Subscription Programming: $216,860.
  • Computer and Peripheral Equipment Manufacturing: $221,000.
  • Motion Picture and Video: $218,360.
  • Navigational, Measuring, Electromedical and Control Instruments Manufacturing: $208,460.
  • Specialized Design Services: $233,400.

Does it depend on location?

Not only do different types of lawyers earn different levels of income, but location can impact an attorney’s earning potential as well. Here’s a breakdown from the BLS that shows the annual mean wage for attorneys based in various parts of the country.

State Average Annual Wages
Washington, D.C. $197,100
California $179,470
New York $174,060
Massachusetts $169,120
Colorado $148,330
Texas $142,730
Florida $139,160
Arkansas $94,000

Even within specific states, salary size among attorneys can differ. Lawyers located in major metropolitan areas tend to outearn lawyers in other parts of their states. For example, an attorney in the North Valley region of California earns an average of $133,690, while an attorney in San Francisco earns an average of $201,920.

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 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 $69,916 in 2020, whereas attending law school at Harvard would set you back $64,978.
  • 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 that’s 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 of $165,000 in student loan debt, which 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.

Next steps

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 smart career choice for many people. Still, you should 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.

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Written by
Michelle Black
Contributing writer
Michelle Lambright Black is a credit expert with over 19 years of experience, a freelance writer and a certified credit expert witness. In addition to writing for Bankrate, Michelle's work is featured with numerous publications including FICO, Experian, Forbes, U.S. News & World Report and Reader’s Digest, among others.
Edited by
Student loans editor