Like medicine, law is typically considered to be a lucrative career field. For example, in May 2008, the median annual salary for all types of lawyers was just over $110,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the actual take-home pay varies depending on the status and reputation of the school from which a lawyer earns his juris doctor (JD), as well as his area of specialization. Additionally, most law professionals carry large student debt burdens for years after graduation. Before applying for law school, lawyer aspirants should conduct thorough research on salary and specialization information. The JD is the standard degree held by those who aspire to be lawyers. But it does not allow a holder to practice law. Applicants must sit for their state's bar exam. A passing score confers the credential "Esquire," abbreviated after the holder's name as "Esq." They may then be called a lawyer and practice law in that particular state.
Public Defense Lawyers
Public defenders serve at the pleasure of the court, representing people who cannot afford private attorneys. This specialization is a great way to acquire lots of valuable trial experience quickly. However, it is grueling work; public defenders must accept all cases the court appoints them, no matter how many the attorney is handling already. For all this, public attorneys make the least of all their other colleagues: starting salary is $25,000 to $50,000.
Corporate lawyers work for one or more companies. Associates represent their clients in both criminal and civil cases and defend against lawsuits brought on by consumers, employees and other corporations. Further, they advise their clients on business law matters, including patents, taxes and trademark infringement. The hours are long and the pay starts at around $50,000 to $90,000.
Law School Professors
All JD holders do not practice law. Some teach in an academic setting, at either the undergraduate level or in law school. Law professors may not be in active practice, but field experience is generally preferred for tenure-track faculty in the area being taught. Course topics include tortes, constitutional law and contracts. The pay ranges from around $54,000 for new instructors to over $170,000 for seasoned professors.
Private Practice Attorneys
Some lawyers prefer to work for themselves, rather than in the public sector, a corporation or a university. In 2009, lawyers earned an average yearly income of about $129,000. Setting up shop in a private practice takes the same level of guts and skill required of any entrepreneur. For example, these solo practitioners have to weather the usual risks of self-employment, including not knowing precisely when to expect the next paycheck. If they can stay afloat, their salary will vary depending on the location, size and specialty area of their practice.
2016 Salary Information for Lawyers
Lawyers earned a median annual salary of $118,160 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, lawyers earned a 25th percentile salary of $77,580, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $176,580, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 792,500 people were employed in the U.S. as lawyers.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook; Law
- Legal Authority: Public Defender and Prosecutor Jobs
- State University: Corporate Lawyer Job Description
- Lawyerist: Confidently Start Your Own Law Practice; Graham Martin; November 2010
- College Board: Career: Private Practice Lawyers
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Lawyers
- Career Trend: Lawyers
- Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images