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What Field Do Lawyers Make the Most?

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It's no secret that lawyers make good money. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics pegged the median income for lawyers at $113,530 in 2012, but some subfields, such as health care, energy, wholesale trade and cable utilities, paid considerably more -- in some cases, more than double. Attorneys with the federal government also bested the median. Law firm-based litigators, on the other hand, lagged median pay. Attorneys can boost their odds for a higher salary by choosing a well-paying market.

Doctors' Offices

For the healthiest paycheck, lawyers should go to work for a doctor. BLS numbers showed that doctors’ offices paid the highest legal salaries, with a 2012 average of $241,870. Lawyers and doctors don’t always see eye to eye -- consider malpractice lawsuits. However, the two sides team up inside health clinics to help patients with life issues. Some women’s clinics, for example, bring on lawyers to advise patients who face eviction or other economic challenges. The idea is to stop stressful problems that can affect physical health.

Oil and Coal

The energy sector fuels big incomes for lawyers. Oil and coal products manufacturers rated second for earnings in 2012, at an average of $207,370. In-house lawyers with oil and coal businesses help companies comply with permits and air quality regulations, and interpret legal rights to explore, mine, extract and develop fossil fuels. Plus, they represent companies in court over rights to and ownership of coal, minerals and other natural resources. Contract law and lease negotiation are part of the job as well.

Other Fields

Attorneys in several other private-sector industries earned nearly twice the field’s median in 2012. Agents and brokers in wholesale electronics paid in-house counsel an annual average of $198,880 to write sales contracts and represent them in court disputes with retailers. Wholesalers of beer, wine and liquor need corporate lawyers to maneuver regulations that cover alcohol distribution, and they shelled out an average of $194,490 a year to attorneys. Lawyers with cable TV companies averaged $193,960 to oversee litigation, and to file rate cases and other regulatory paperwork with government agencies.

Government Work

Some parts of the public sector paid attorneys well above 2012 norms. The federal government offered an average of $130,710, with positions ranging from litigator with the Department of Justice to regulatory lawyer with consumer-protection agencies. If you want to work in the public sector and make more than average, stick with federal employment: Attorney salaries at state and local agencies fell well below the median, at $82,750 and $94,310 respectively. State governors and attorneys general hire lawyers for advising and litigation. Cities employ attorneys to prosecute or defend accused criminals.

Law Firms

If your dream is to work for a law firm, be prepared for subpar earnings. The BLS doesn’t break down salaries by firm versus in-house counsel, but 2010 figures from the National Association of Law Placement pegged a median law-firm salary of $104,000. That was well below a 2010 BLS median of $129,440 for all attorneys. Just over half of attorneys who found jobs in 2010 went to work for law firms.

Pay by Region

Consider where you live if you want a fatter paycheck. Lawyers who worked in the District of Columbia took home the highest average annual pay, at $165,590. California ranked second, at $153,480. Connecticut, New York and Delaware — with salaries averaging $143,410 to $152,580 — also were in the top five. By city, California’s San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara market had a nation-leading average of $184,770. Other cities with averages that cleared $170,000 included Dothan, Alabama; San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City, California; and Danbury, Connecticut. (See Reference 1)

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