The legal profession is sometimes seen as an occupation in which salaries are well above the norm. Lawyers may work in private practice and take a percentage of an award for cases such as personal injury lawsuits, but in many firms, each lawyer is actually paid a salary. Compensation may vary according to the size of the firm, the lawyer’s experience, the legal specialty, industry or work setting.
About the Work
Lawyers provide advice on legal issues to individuals, corporations and government entities. They may also work in criminal or civil law, where they defend clients or prosecute cases. A lawyer spends a minimum of seven years in school -- four years for a bachelor’s degree and three years in law school -- and must then pass the bar to obtain a license to practice. Continuing education is usually required to maintain licensure. Many lawyers specialize in areas such as tax law, intellectual property, family law, estate management or securities law, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) reports that the median starting salary in 2012 was $70,750 -- or $34.01 an hour -- in firms of two to 25 lawyers. Median salaries were $145,000, or $69.71 an hour, at firms of 700 or more lawyers. Medium-sized to larger firms of 51 to 100 and 251 to 500 lawyers reported median first-year associate salaries of $100,000 -- $48.08 an hour -- to $145,000, respectively. In some markets -- such as the large cities of Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles -- starting salaries at the largest firms could be as much as $160,000, an hourly wage of $79.92. Lawyers with six years of experience earned a median salary of $169,100 in 2012 -- $81.30 an hour, according to NALP.
Industry and Work Setting
The average annual salary for a lawyer in 2012 was $130,880, an hourly wage of $62.93, according to the BLS. Salaries varied considerably according to work setting or industry, however. Lawyers who worked for state governments earned an average of $82,750, or $39.78 an hour, while those who worked for local governments earned $94,310 and those who worked for the federal government earned $130,710, with hourly salaries of $45.34 and $62.84, respectively. Lawyers in private practice, which the BLS calls "legal services," earned $137,180 -- $65.95 an hour. Management of companies and enterprises provided an average annual wage of $163,510 at an hourly wage of $65.95. Although only a small number of lawyers worked in the field, physicians’ offices were the top-paying work setting, with an average annual salary of $241,870 and an hourly wage of $116.28.
Geography Makes a Difference
In common with many other occupations, geographic location has a significant influence on lawyers’ salaries. Montana was the lowest-paying state for lawyers, with an average annual wage of $74,130 and an hourly wage of $35.64. Connecticut lawyers earned $143,410, or $68.95 an hour. New York lawyers earned $151,850, and Delaware lawyers earned $152,580, for hourly wages of $73.01 and $73.36, respectively. Lawyers in California, the only western state in the top five, earned $153,480, an hourly wage of $73.79. The District of Colombia topped the list, with an average annual salary of $165,590 and an hourly wage of $79.61. However, the California area of San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara was the top-paying metropolitan location at $184,770, an hourly wage of $88.83.
Job opportunities for lawyers are not expected to grow very fast for the foreseeable future, according to the BLS. Although average job growth for all occupations is projected at 14 percent through 2020, jobs for lawyers are only expected to grow 10 percent. Jobs previously handled by lawyers are now often outsourced to accounting firms or assigned to paralegals. Competition for jobs will be strong, and new graduates may need to take short-term work to gain experience or find a job at all. Relocation may offer opportunities, but the lawyer will have to pass a second bar exam in the new state.