Whether you’re thinking about pursuing a career in law or are already working in the field, you might be curious about salary. Lawyers can have a reputation for making big bucks but that depends on where you work and what state you live in.
In this guide, we’ll cover the average lawyer salary with low, average and high ranges as well as some state-specific information.
If you’re working in a government job or a very small firm in a non-metro area, it’s likely you’ll be on the lower end of the salary spectrum. The average lawyer starting salary for public defenders is $58,300, according to the NALP Press Release on 2018 Public Service Attorney Salary Report. At Student Loan Planner, we’re pros at working with lawyers and have helped a number of them out on their student loan plans.
In our internal data from working with over 60 lawyers, the low-end salary range can be from $50,000 to $70,000 annually. If that’s your salary and you’re in a Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) eligible position, that’s might be your best bet.
Average lawyer salary
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for a lawyer as of 2017 was $119,250. Our internal data shows something similar and with the mid-tier, average salary ranging from $90,000 to $130,000.
Is an “average lawyer salary” a good enough? Well, of course that depends on your cost of living, family size and your debt amount. Whether you should stick to a federal repayment plan or refinance your student loans with this salary depends on a lot of factors. Get in touch with a Student Loan Planner advisor, if you want help deciding.
If you’re wanting to score the highest salary as a lawyer, you’ll have to make moves toward Big Law. Getting scooped up by one of these elite firms can pay off with a high-end average salary of $190,000.
Based on our internal data, one San Francisco-based lawyer makes $200,000. Another borrower is making $220,000 currently, expecting to get a salary increase to $250,000 over the next few years.
Our findings match up with what salaries are offered to lawyers on Glassdoor.com.
Though salary can vary widely between a public defender and a Big Law lawyer, there’s another factor that can affect your pay: where you live. The state you live in can affect your annual salary as well as job availability. Location matters a whole lot when it comes to salary.
Top 5 states with the highest law salaries
Now that you know the average lawyer salary — from low to mid to high, you might be wondering what state offers the highest salary. The top five states by the highest annual mean wage, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics are:
1. District of Columbia — $189,560
2. California — $168,200
3. New York — $165,260
4. Massachusetts — $157,450
5. Connecticut — $152,540
But remember, if you’re looking for higher salaries as a lawyer you’re looking at a higher cost of living too.
While that can give you a picture of high-end lawyer salaries in the U.S., states like California are rather large. Given that, it’s no surprise that California has the top three highest paying metropolitan areas. Here they are listed among the average lawyer salary for that area:
1. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA —$198,100
2. San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, CA Metropolitan Division — $189,660
3. Anaheim-Santa Ana-Irvine, CA Metropolitan Division — $189,150
Some of the lowest salaries are from the Auburn-Opelika area of Alabama where the average lawyer salary is $58,420 or Hot Springs, Arkansas where the average lawyer salary is $52,240 according to data from LawyerEdu.org.
According to BLS data, the lowest 10 percentile of lawyers earn $57,430, 25 percentile earns $78,130, 50 percentile (the median) earns $119,250 and the 75 percentile earns $178,480.
Payscale states that the average lawyer salary is $81,950 but with the ability to earn a bonus of $5,138, profit sharing of $5,143, and a commission of $10,241. Remember, the average lawyer starting salary may be lower than the normal average.
If you’re a specialty lawyer, you may be able to earn a higher salary. For example, PayScale states that an Intellectual Property Lawyer can stand to earn $137,467 with a bonus of $15,260 and profit sharing of $4,500. Having a specialty can certainly help — let’s face it the riches are in the niches.
As you can see, being a lawyer is one occupation where the salary can vary widely depending on location and where you work.
What is the employment outlook?
Throughout the years since the financial crisis, lawyers have been hit hard with high amounts of law school student loan debt and grim employment prospects. All of this prompted many an article on the “law school scam” and even an article on “This is where all the unemployed lawyers go to cry”.
So where do we stand now? Well, maybe slightly better. But only slightly. According to BLS, “Employment of lawyers is projected to grow 8 percent from 2016 to 2026, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Competition for jobs over the next 10 years is expected to be strong because more students graduate from law school each year than there are jobs available.”
That last line speaks for itself and confirms why some law grads are saddled and stressed with debt.
When it comes to paying off debt and making a living as a lawyer, you may wonder if you should buy a practice. Founder of Student Loan Planner Travis Hornsby suggested joining an established practice or build your own, over buying one.
“You [lawyers] can deduct a lot of expenses on your AGI while building a valuable practice even if you have big student debt. That’s the goal, is that you’d grow the career you want despite $200,000 of law school debt from a mid-tier school.”
Going after the salary you want
Only you can know what kind of salary you want. If you want to go after a specific salary, you may want to specialize in something or pursue Big Law. If average lawyer salary is less important to you, using your degree for the public good — and opting for PSLF might be a great option. But the important thing to remember is: you’ve got options.
Do you have a career as a lawyer? Does this change your mind about starting one?