It's no secret that a career in law can be quite lucrative. In certain industries, a six-figure salary is far from uncommon for your average lawyer. But recent law graduates aren’t always as lucky, and it can take some time to reach this level of pay. Even in the private sector, where salaries are often higher than those for public workers, first-year associates generally need to pay their dues before hitting it big as far as earnings go.
In 2012, lawyers averaged $130,880 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of the top 10 percent, salaries reached in excess of nearly $188,000. The bottom 10 percent didn’t fare as well, bringing home less than $54,310 a year. Though you might assume first-year associates earned the lowest of these three figures, a survey by the National Association for Law Placement tells a different story. From the class of 2010, recent law graduates who went on to work at private law firms averaged $106,444, while those who found employment with businesses averaged closer to $72,669.
While roughly half of first-year associates reported six-figure salaries at private law firms, not all enjoyed such a sizable payday. A survey by Robert Half Legal, a national recruiter, found that salaries are often smaller at small to midsize firms. As of 2013, salaries started at $48,000 to $67,250 at small practices. At small to midsize firms, which house 10 to 35 lawyers, first-year salaries were $59,250 to $85,500 annually. At midsize firms employing 35 to 75 lawyers, first-years brought home anywhere from $70,250 to $102,750, while large law firms paid first-year associates $84,250 to $142,250.
As with practice size, earnings vary by type of business, at least according to the NALP survey. In 2010, first-year associates working in-house averaged $77,210, while those working at management companies brought home $83,797 annually. At consulting companies, first-year associates averaged $81,433. The lowest wages paid for corporate salaries went to associates working as temporary counsel, at an average of $54,069 a year.
The BLS anticipates employment opportunities for lawyers will be moderate, as the growth rate shouldn’t exceed 10 percent through 2020, slower than the 14 percent growth rate predicted for U.S. occupations overall. While the anticipated level of growth will create nearly 74,000 new jobs over a decade, expect strong competition, as law graduates often outnumber openings.