There are a lot of misconceptions about the legal profession in general, and lawyers specifically. Many people claim that lawyers lie, cheat, and swindle the system, defending the scum of the earth in trials that are a waste of tax payer time and money. Well, ideas like fairness and the assumption of innocence until guilt is proven aside, there is one last, massive misconception about lawyers… that they’re all rich.
Being a lawyer is just like being anything else… the money is dependent on more factors than your degree. For instance, New York City and Washington D.C. are the hot spots for lawyers to practice in. It’s not unheard of for lawyers who are fresh out of law school to start off making six figure salaries. However, the competition is also tooth and nail for these positions, and that means that the firms will have their pick of the best of the best in these areas. Big cities in general will always pay more than smaller ones though, because that’s where the big firms and the high-paying clients happen to be.
Other than where a person is a lawyer, their experience is also an important factor in their salary. First year associates fresh out of law school will be willing to work for less money than someone with 5, 10, or 20 years of experience as a legal professional. Just like with any other job, the more experience you have in the trenches, the higher the salary you’re likely to earn.
Another field to consider is just what area of law a person practices in. For instance, divorce lawyers will make more money than public defenders, if all other factors are equal. Usually areas of law that are in much higher demand in the private sector will pay more than similar jobs in the public sector as well. Private criminal lawyers, by and large, will be better paid than public defenders. There are exceptions to this rule, so take it with a grain of salt.
Generally speaking, a starting lawyer can expect to make about $40,000 per year as a first year associate. Not too many areas will pay less than that, considering how specified and qualified a person who graduates law school is. Then when you add in the factors such as area of the law, years of experience, legal pedigree (Princeton graduates make more than graduates from Ohio state, sad but true), and the size of the firm that a lawyer works for, the salary can reach as high as $250,000.
This range isn’t really that spectacular when you think about it. The higher the demand for a certain profession, and the more qualified a person is to deliver good service, the more money they’ll make. Also like any other profession, the harder a lawyer works, and the better they represent their particular craft, the more likely they are to get a top job. Clients will sometimes pay just as much for integrity and security as they will for legal brilliance and a good pedigree.