To become an attorney, most states and jurisdictions require that you pass the bar exam. This typically requires earning a juris doctor degree granted by law schools accredited by the American Bar Association. Getting the degree requires four years of undergraduate study followed by three years of law school.
Attorneys earned a mean $130,880 per year as of May 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The lowest-paid 10 percent made less than $54,310 a year, while the top 10 percent earned $187,199 or more. Half of all lawyers earned between $74,880 and $168,010 a year. Lawyers who just passed the bar and are starting out their careers are likely to be on the lower end of the salary scale.
A lawyer's pay will depend in part on where he is located. The BLS reports that attorneys in the District of Columbia, which was grouped in among the states, earned the highest average salary as of May 2012 at $165,590 per year. California ranked second at $153,480, followed by Delaware at $152,580. Among the metropolitan areas, San Jose, California ranked first in average pay at $184,770 yearly. It was followed by Dothan, Ala. at $174,730 and San Francisco at $174,440. Again, these are average salaries, so attorneys just starting out after passing the bar are likely to earn below these averages.
The type of employer was a big factor in defining the number of jobs and pay. More than two-thirds of attorneys worked in legal services as of May 2012. This category included law firms and self-employed attorneys. Attorneys in legal services earned a mean $137,180 per year, according to the BLS. Local government agencies ranked second for total employment and paid $94,310 per year on average. Attorneys employed by doctors’ offices earned the highest pay at a mean annual $241,870, followed by those employed in the petroleum and coal products manufacturing industries at an average of $207,370 a year.
The BLS expects employment for attorneys to climb 10 percent from 2010 to 2020, below the 14 percent projected growth rate for all occupations. A growing population will drive much of the demand. However, job opportunities will be negatively impacted by a growing number of firms that hire inexpensive paralegals to handle legal work rather than attorneys. Competition will be fierce because law schools are producing more graduates than there are jobs. Lawyers who are willing to relocate and have work experience should enjoy an advantage.