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Who Makes Better Wages: Nurses or Lawyers?

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Nurses and lawyers are both highly paid professionals. Nurses provide basic health care in a variety of medical settings, and lawyers defend clients, prosecute cases or represent clients in civil cases. Pay for each profession varies significantly by work setting and location. On the whole, though, lawyers earn much more than the typical nurse.

Typical Pay

The average lawyer earned $130,880 as of May 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By comparison, the average registered nurse earned $67,930. Lawyers made nearly twice as much as RNs. The average for lawyers providing basic legal services to criminal and civil clients was $137,180. The majority of RNs work in doctors' offices and hospitals, where average pay was $69,490.

Top-End Earnings

The top-end earning potential for lawyers shows an even greater earning discrepancy relative to nurses. Pay at the 90th percentile level was $187,199, as of May 2012. This means 10 percent of lawyers earned at or above this amount. By comparison, the top 10 percent of nurse earners made at or higher than $94,720. The differential of $92,479 reveals again that top-end pay is approximately twice as strong for lawyers.

Geographic Variance

Pay varies across the country for both lawyers and nurses based on relative levels of supply and demand. In some states, the differential between lawyers and RNs is somewhat lower because of a higher supply of lawyers relative to demand and a lower supply of nurses. California has the highest concentration of nurses, but average pay was $94,120. Lawyer pay in California was $153,480. In general, the highest-paying region for RNs is along the west coast, while the highest-paying region for lawyers is more along with the east coast, especially in the Northeast.

Background Requirements

One of the reasons that lawyers make significantly more than nurses is the more stringent educational requirements. To become a nurse, you can complete a 1-year certificate program, a 2-year associate program or a 4-year bachelor's program in nursing. You then have to pass the NCLEX-RN exam and get a state nursing certificate or license. A lawyer must earn a bachelor's degree, complete a law school degree and pass a state bar exam. You could become a nurse in as little as 1 or 2 years, while it takes from 6 to 8 years to become a lawyer.


Neil Kokemuller has been an active business, finance and education writer and content media website developer since 2007. He has been a college marketing professor since 2004. Kokemuller has additional professional experience in marketing, retail and small business. He holds a Master of Business Administration from Iowa State University.

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Pattanaphong Khuankaew/iStock/GettyImages