Becoming a lawyer is no walk in the park. You have to do well enough in college and on the LSAT to get into law school, graduate from law school, get a job and pass the bar exam. At the end of that process, you might have racked up significant student loan debt. Do lawyers’ salaries make up for the hard work and long hours? Here’s what you should know about the average salary of a lawyer. Consider working with a financial advisor as you assess the potential costs and benefits of a legal career.
The Average Salary of a Lawyer: An Overview
Salary.com reports the median salary for lawyers according to six levels of the profession, from Lawyer I up to Lawyer VI. At the beginning level, the median salary as of August 2022 was $100,291; at the highest level, the median salary as of August 2022 was $215,409.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay in May 2021 for lawyers in the U.S. was $127,990. That comes out to an hourly pay of $61.53, assuming a 40-hour work week. As most lawyers will tell you, though, the typical work week at a law firm tends to be a lot longer than 40 hours.
One of the biggest determinants of salary for lawyers is the type of employer they work for. Lawyers who clock in and out for big corporate law firms will command a much higher salary than those who work as public defenders.
Not all lawyers represent individual clients in court. Some work in-house for corporations and non-profits, some work for the government and some work in arbitration or mediation, among other paths. Some lawyers own their own practices while others work at huge, multi-national firms.
The Average Salary of a Lawyer: Geography
Where you work has a lot to do with what you earn as a lawyer. Glassdoor, a salary aggregating site, reports the average salary for New York City lawyers, as of Dec. 13, 2021, was $125,650. The Glassdoor average for Kansas City, MO? $113,474.
According to U.S. News, the top-paying state for lawyers isn’t a state – it’s the District of Columbia. There, the annual mean wage for lawyers is $189,560.
What about metro areas? The top-paying metro area for lawyers is San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA, where lawyers earn an annual mean wage of $231,610. Other top-paying metro areas for lawyers are: Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT; San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, CA; Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, CA and New York-Jersey City-White Plains, NY-NJ.
The highest-paying metro areas for lawyers aren’t necessarily the metro areas with the highest concentration of lawyers. According to the BLS, the metro area with the highest concentration of lawyers is the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV metro area. But the city with the second-highest concentration of lawyers might surprise you – it’s Tallahassee, FL. Other metro areas with a high concentration of lawyers are: Philadelphia, PA; San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, CA and New York-Jersey City-White Plains, NY-NJ.
Becoming a Lawyer
The BLS projects that between 2016 and 2026, the number of lawyers in the American workplace will grow by 8%, which is about on par with the national average across all jobs. That’s still impressive, given how difficult it is to become a lawyer. Entry-level qualifications for lawyers are strictly enforced. Lawyers must have a J.D. degree and be admitted to the bar.
The road to becoming an attorney is often a financial slog. The average debt among new lawyers in 2021 was $130,000, an American Bar Association survey showed.
Some lawyers take advantage of Public Service Loan Forgiveness. This is a program that offers debt forgiveness for lawyers who practice public interest law. Some law schools run their own version of debt repayment for graduates who take public-interest jobs.
But there are also lawyers who express doubt that they will ever be able to pay back what they owe. Not everyone who graduates from law school gets a job with a six-figure salary – or any job at all. And if you live in an expensive city or are supporting other members of your family, it could be hard to put a big chunk of even a hefty salary toward paying off debt.
Becoming a lawyer is an expensive and time-consuming undertaking, but can lead to a financially and intellectually rewarding career. If you can succeed in law school and get good jobs and internships along the way, you’ll have a good shot at a high salary. After you’ve successfully paid off your student loans, you can start stashing some of that money away for a peaceful retirement.
Tips for Saving Responsibly
- The average lawyer salary is enough to live comfortably in most areas, but it’s still important to make sure you’re saving some of that money for emergencies and retirement.
- To understand how to balance paying off student debt with your other financial goals consider consulting a financial advisor. Finding the right financial advisor that fits your needs doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with financial advisors in your area in 5 minutes. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors that will help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
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