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Highest Paid Lawyers: What Type of Lawyer Makes the Most Money?

updated
January 19, 2023
18 min
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Lawyers have a notoriously high earning potential, but most make less than $500,000 a year. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual pay for lawyers in 2021 was $127,900, and only the top 1% made over $500,000.

You might aspire to crack that half-a-million-dollar salary threshold, but it probably seems out of reach, despite your legal expertise. As a result, you might wonder which types of lawyers make the most money.

However, lawyers in almost any niche can leverage their legal expertise to make more money. So what makes the 1% so special? The secret comes down to marketing. High-earning attorneys have learned how to make their legal services extremely appealing to prospective clients and make money by leveraging the power of digital marketing. Here's how you can too.

Best Strategies to Earn 500k as a Lawyer

  1. Create an SEO for Lawyers Strategy
  2. Build a Solid Law Firm Website
  3. Write Engaging Attorney Content
  4. Start a Lawyer PPC Campaign
  5. Register Your Law Firm in Relevant Listings and Directories
  6. Engage in Reputation Management for Lawyers

First, you'll need to evaluate your law office management budget and determine how much you're willing to invest in marketing. This will help you plan and prioritize specific tactics, such as redesigning your website or focusing on search engine optimization.

In the early stages of marketing, it's perfectly acceptable to invest heavily to expedite your firm's growth. However, as you gain momentum, carefully monitor your campaigns to avoid wasting money. If a campaign fails, take time to reevaluate what worked and what didn't so that you can learn from your mistakes.

How to Make Money as a Lawyer

To accelerate your legal career and boost your earning potential, here is what you need to know about marketing for attorneys:

Lawyers Make Money With SEO

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of making your legal services and your firm's website easier to find on search engines. This is done by publishing captivating content, adding images, incorporating keywords, and much more.

SEO will always be a core part of most attorneys' marketing efforts, and SEO for attorneys will help you connect with potential clients, build your brand image, and generate revenue.

Invest in Lawyer Local SEO to Increase Your Revenue

Local SEO focuses on connecting your business with local clients and leads. This approach leverages local keywords to increase your rankings in searches conducted by those in the city, county, or region in which you operate.

As part of your local SEO efforts, you need a Google Business Profile (formerly Google My Business). This makes your legal services easier to find when users conduct location-based searches in your area.

Highest Paid Lawyers Have the Best Website Design

73.1% of web designers consider non-responsiveness to be a top factor that causes visitors to leave a page. If your website is tedious to use, unresponsive, or poorly designed, visitors may leave your page as soon as they arrive.

Most lawyers know the importance of good website design, but the highest-paid lawyers understand the connection between an exceptional browsing experience and their ability to earn clients. With that in mind, it's vital that you invest in a quality website if you want to connect with prospective clients and make more money.

High-Performance Attorney Tips

First, address any page loading or responsiveness issues. If your site is slow or has buttons that don't work, fix these issues immediately.

From there, you can work to optimize your law firm's website with a better user experience and a more attractive look. Doing so can leave you with one of the best law firm websites and significantly increase your ability to connect with clients.

High-Quality Content Will Increase Attorney Salary

The best way to showcase your legal expertise to potential clients is with a well-researched blog that is rich with high-traffic keywords.

You can break down complex topics like divorce, child custody, or bankruptcy into an entire blog series. For each blog, do some research to see what commonly asked questions are trending in your industry. Then, answer these questions to create value and establish yourself as an authority.

If you need extra inspiration to tap into your inner wordsmith, here are a few more tips for starting your legal blog.

Earn More Money as a Lawyer With PPC

SEO can be a powerful revenue generator, but it can take time to build momentum and rely on it for continual leads. On the other hand, pay-per-click (PPC) ads are a great way to kickstart your marketing efforts and start generating traffic as soon as your campaign goes live.

It's not financially feasible to continuously rely on PPC marketing, and it should not be your sole strategy unless you want it to be one of your biggest expenses. Instead, invest in PPC in the early stages of your marketing journey to generate rapid results, and then periodically run PPC campaigns throughout the year to acquire new clients and make money during slow periods.

How to Increase Lawyer Pay With Paid Ads

Because you pay for each click, it's important to target the right keywords to maximize your ROI. After all, keywords can cost up to $1,000 or more. Therefore, you must carefully research your keywords, analyze what your competitors are doing, and make the most out of your budget.

If you target the right keywords and carefully manage your budget, PPC for lawyers can be an incredibly effective tactic for getting noticed in the online marketplace.

All the Top Paid Law Firms Are in the Best Lawyer Directories

If you want to attract more legal work and make more money, you need to ensure that your practice is listed in at least a few of the top lawyer directories. Many lawyers overlook the importance of using these directories for client intake. But by making these listings part of your client intake strategy, you can expand your reach and connect with more good clients while practicing law.

Not all directories are worth your time, though. If you are new to the world of legal directories, focus on a few top options like Avvo, Nolo, and FindLaw.

How to Increase Lawyer Salary? Manage Your Reputation!

No matter how hard you try, you can't keep everyone happy. Despite your legal expertise, you will eventually run into a disgruntled client who may take to the internet to voice their displeasure and leave a scathing review about your practice and legal work.

Unfortunately, negative feedback comes with any legal career. Not even the best lawyers are immune. The good news is that you can minimize the impact this has on your earning potential by managing your reputation.

Managing your reputation requires proactively working to create and protect a positive brand image online. It involves demonstrating your legal expertise by crafting quality content, responding to bad reviews, and obtaining positive feedback from clients on public forums like Google, Yelp, or Avvo.

Managing your reputation can be tough. However, it is one of the most critical parts of making more money as an attorney.

How Do Lawyers Earn Money?

Most lawyers are primarily compensated for two things: giving legal advice and dedicating time to clients. Every lawyer can adjust their prices for legal work based on factors like:

  • Their individual experience
  • Their practice area
  • Their reputation and track record
  • The state in which they operate

When billing clients for providing legal advice or dedicating time to them, attorneys can use one of four common arrangements:

  • Retainers: A retainer is a lump sum paid to retain an attorney's legal services and address a particular legal matter — or to reserve the attorney for a predetermined length of time (e.g., six months or one year). Even if the client uses a minimal amount of legal services, they will forfeit the retainer at the end of the relationship with the lawyer.
  • Contingent Fee: Contingency fees are commonplace in the personal injury law field. Traditionally, the attorney will receive 25% to 35% of a settlement if they win the client's case. If they lose the case, they will not receive any compensation. Contingency fees are a high-risk, high-reward payment arrangement.
  • Hourly Fees: An hourly fee arrangement is one of the most common billing methods. Under this model, clients are charged an hourly fee for court time. They are also charged fees for office work. The office work hourly fees are typically lower than in-court billable rates.
  • Flat Fees: Attorneys often charge flat fees for legal work that will take a predictable amount of time to complete. For instance, you could charge flat fees when preparing documents like divorce papers or wills. On the other hand, you should not charge flat fees when arguing complex legal cases, as it is impossible to predict how long each case will take.

What Lawyers Make the Most Money?

Your niche does make a difference in the money you earn. Some types of lawyers and salaries are set out below. Just keep in mind that the highest-paid types of lawyers will vary depending on location, employer, and experience level. A new lawyer in a big city might make the same salary as the highest-paid lawyer jobs in a rural town.

Bankruptcy Lawyers

how much bankruptcy lawyers make
In 2020, bankruptcy lawyers had mean lawyer salaries of about $84,000 and median lawyer salaries between $66,000 and $80,000.

Economic recessions often fuel bankruptcy filings, keeping bankruptcy attorneys busy whether they work for debtors or creditors. During economic expansions, corporate and personal bankruptcies often slow down. As a result, bankruptcy lawyer salaries often fluctuate with the economy.

Check out Digital Marketing Strategies for Bankruptcy Lawyers to help increase your revenue regardless of the state of the economy.

Business and Corporate Lawyers

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in-house corporate lawyers only make up 0.79% of lawyers, but they earn, on average, $198,900. This is almost $49,000 more than the median lawyer salary.

On one hand, business lawyers are often generalists. While some may develop a niche law practice like real estate law or banking law, generalists might not make as much money as lawyers in a more specialized legal field. On the other hand, business lawyers and corporate lawyers place themselves in a position to become in-house lawyers for large corporations.

More about business law marketing in our guide.

Civil Rights Lawyers

Civil Rights Lawyer Salary
Some civil rights attorneys can earn a good living. The mean salary for civil rights lawyers is about $61,500, but they can make as much as $300,000.

A civil rights lawyer usually works for a public interest legal organization like the ACLU, NAACP, or ADL. These lawyers often work for causes even though they represent individuals in their cases. Thus, a lawyer might represent a female worker to establish a precedent that employers cannot discriminate against women when they become pregnant.

This is an example where a lawyer's legal field has less influence on what a lawyer makes than the lawyer's employer. Civil rights lawyers who make the most money work for public interest organizations instead of the government. And lawyers for the federal government usually earn more than lawyers for state and local governments.

Criminal Defense Lawyers

Criminal Defense Lawyers Salary
The average salary for criminal defense attorneys is $93,522, but salaries range from about $78,000 to about $108,000.

The two primary factors that influence a criminal defense lawyer's salary are their experience and their employer. Naturally, a private defense attorney will make more than a public defender. This is especially true if the private attorney takes on high-profile clients or has developed a reputation by winning a few tough legal battles.

As a criminal defense lawyer becomes more experienced, they may have the opportunity to take on corporate defendants, thereby drastically increasing their earning potential.

Check out the best digital marketing strategy for criminal defense attorneys to get the right clients to boost your law practice.

Employment and Labor Lawyers

Employment and labor lawyers can make a good living. The average salary for employment and labor lawyers is about $113,000. Salaries can range from $66,000 to $262,000.

Employment and labor lawyers handle everything from union negotiations to employment discrimination claims. Most people assume employment lawyers work for poor workers.

But many employment cases involve tens of thousands of dollars or more in damages. In some cases, a court can order a losing employer to pay the legal fees for the other attorneys who represented the winning employee.

And remember that employment and labor disputes have two sides. Many labor and employment lawyers spend their legal careers representing employers.

Learn about employment law marketing with our guide and increase your salary.

Estate Planning Lawyers

Estate Planning Lawyer Salary
Estate lawyers can earn a comfortable living with a median salary of about $96,000, but they can earn much more by working with wealthy clients. At the upper end, estate lawyers can earn $493,000.

Estate planning lawyers help clients structure their personal and business transactions in preparation for passing their estates after death. Estate planning lawyers are typically not trial lawyers. Instead, they focus on procedural law to ensure that the client's will or trust binds the court to follow their wishes in distributing the client's property.

Estate planning lawyers may work with real estate lawyers to make sure the client's assets, like a home, are held correctly for the estate plan. For example, if the real estate lawyers structure ownership of a house as a joint tenancy with a right of survivorship, the house can usually avoid probate court as it passes to the joint tenant.

Also, check out our guide on probate and estate planning to learn more.

Family Lawyers

Family Lawyer Salary
Family law attorneys earn an average salary of about $75,000, ranging from $51,000 to $118,000.

Family law attorneys handle:

  • Divorces
  • Custody disputes
  • Paternity claims

Some family lawyers also handle guardianship proceedings, adoptions, and prenuptial agreements.

The salary family attorneys earn depends on their clients. People with more property or more sophisticated disputes will pay more for their family lawyer than people with simple disputes over small marital estates.

Check out our blog to learn more about family law digital marketing and increase your salary.

Intellectual Property (IP) Lawyers

Intellectual property lawyers earn a mean salary of about $134,000 and a median salary of about $100,000. IP lawyers will usually fall on the higher end of the scale if they represent established corporations rather than individuals and startups.

Intellectual property law covers intangible forms of property like copyrights, trademarks, patents, and trade secrets. IP attorneys usually work for businesses and inventors. This ensures IP lawyers will generate good revenue and earn a decent salary.

IP attorneys can practice primarily as transactional lawyers. This means they prepare legal documents for protecting the intellectual property of a client's:

  • Brands
  • Artistic creations
  • Inventions
  • Secrets

IP lawyers can also work as litigators. When two companies disagree over whether one can use something similar to the protected property, IP attorneys can negotiate a settlement or battle in court.

Immigration Lawyers

Immigration Lawyer Salary in Chicago, IL
The average salary for an immigration lawyer is $70,000, with the low end of the range near $49,000 and the high end of the range near $112,000.

Immigrants come to the U.S. for a wide range of reasons and include:

  • Students
  • Business people
  • Engineers and scientists
  • Doctors and other health professionals
  • Athletes
  • Performers
  • Spouses of American citizens

These immigrants need a visa to live and work in the U.S. An immigration lawyer helps them navigate procedural law to secure that visa.

Check out our guide to learn more about immigration attorney marketing so you can increase your salary.

Personal Injury Lawyers

Personal injury lawyers earn a median salary of about $85,000. But their salaries can vary widely from $61,000 to $110,000.

Personal injury attorneys usually charge a contingency fee. As a result, the salary these lawyers receive directly reflects the outcomes they secure for their clients.

Another factor that influences how much a personal injury lawyer will earn is the type of cases the lawyer takes. Medical malpractice cases require a high degree of medical understanding. But they usually produce larger settlements and damage awards. More importantly, medical malpractice insurers have the money to pay the settlement or award.

Check out our guide to learn more about personal injury lawyer marketing to increase your revenue.

Patent Lawyers

Patent Attorney III Salary
Patent lawyer salary numbers usually run higher than other lawyers. Patent attorneys earn an average salary of $98,000.

A patent lawyer is not merely an intellectual property lawyer who focuses on patents. Patent lawyers must have a special license to practice law before the Patent Office. To get this license, a patent attorney must have a background in science or engineering and pass the patent bar exam.

Because of these special licensing requirements, a patent attorney can command a higher salary than other intellectual property practitioners. It's also important to note that a patent attorney can also practice other areas of intellectual property law, but other types of lawyers cannot practice patent law.

Tax Attorneys

Tax Attorney Salary
Tax attorneys earn an average salary of about $109,000, which can trend upward depending on your client.

Tax attorneys focus on federal, state, and local tax laws. Tax lawyers do not need to get a special license to practice tax law, but they usually have a background in accounting or another field related to tax law.

Tax lawyers are not trial attorneys. While they often defend clients during audits and even in tax court, many tax attorneys spend their days in an office corresponding with the IRS, state, and local tax agencies to resolve tax law disputes. Likewise, these lawyers pore over tax laws trying to find shelters to help their clients minimize their tax bills.

Trial Lawyers

Trial attorneys make a comfortable living with an average salary of $129,000.

Trial attorneys do not just show up on the day of trial. Litigators often get involved in a case early. They may write a demand letter setting out the dispute or respond to the demand letter from the opposing party's lawyer. Trial attorneys also negotiate with opposing parties to settle the case. They will draft pleadings and motions, take discovery, and prepare witnesses for trial. They work hard to litigate a case, and their salary reflects it.

Many factors can influence a litigator's salary. If the trial attorney has a niche practice area, the attorney can distinguish themselves from other types of lawyers. Thus, a litigator experienced in corporate law or healthcare law might experience greater demand and earn more money.

What Can Affect Lawyer Salary?

As evidenced by the figures above, lawyers can earn an annual salary of as low as $50,000 to more than $493,000. The specific factors that impact an attorney's earning potential include:

  • Education
  • Experience
  • Location
  • Law firm size
  • Whether they work in the public or private sector
  • Organizational hierarchy
  • The quality and quantity of clients
  • Whether the practice is a business or a nonprofit organization

Education

lawyer education

Your law school education could play a role in your salary, at least early in your career. Graduates of prestigious law schools are in higher demand than graduates of lesser-known law schools.

For example, 97.5% of 2020 graduates from Yale Law School reported having a job within one year after graduation. Other top-tier law schools produce similar results, with Harvard Law School reporting a 97.5% employment rate and Stanford Law School reporting a 95.9% employment rate.

Your grades in law school could also determine the average salary of the offers you receive after graduation. Only one student can graduate at the top of their class, so law firms will often compete for that graduate by offering them a higher average starting lawyer salary.

But keep in mind that, unless you want to become a judge, your law school and your grades will have a diminishing effect on your salary. While the highest-paid lawyers who recently graduated usually come from big-name law schools, your school and grades will not necessarily determine your average annual salary later in your career.

Experience and Level of Expertise

Employers pay experienced lawyers more than inexperienced lawyers. This happens because experienced lawyers:

  • Generate more profit because they work more efficiently
  • Require little or no training and supervision by the employer
  • Usually have portable clients loyal to the lawyer
  • Charge a higher billing rate

These factors mean that such lawyers are in high demand, and as a result, they command a higher average salary.

Practice Location

Geographic location plays one of the biggest roles in determining how much a lawyer earns. Lawyers in large metropolitan markets like Washington D.C., San Francisco, and New York earn higher average salaries than lawyers in smaller markets. This happens for a few reasons:

  • Lawyers usually have higher billing rates in large cities
  • The cost of living is higher
  • Law firms in big cities compete with each other to hire the best lawyers

These factors vary the average salaries from state to state. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawyers earn the highest average salaries in:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Washington D.C.
  • Illinois
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Texas
  • Virginia

Lawyers working in Washington D.C. are, on average, the highest paid lawyers in the U.S. They earn an average mean salary of $198,820.

Location can also affect the average annual salary in different locations within a state. Lawyers in the Los Angeles metropolitan area earn an average salary of $177,550, while lawyers in the San Francisco metropolitan area earn $191,460, nearly $14,000 more.

Your Law Firm Size

Big law firms usually pay more than small law firms. One reason is that big firms are usually located in big cities with higher costs of living. As a result, big cities have higher salaries for all occupations, including attorneys.

But bigger salaries at large firms also result from the economic structure of law firms. Large firms usually diversify across many niches. This reduces the risk if they lose the business of one, two, or even a dozen clients. The firm can shift attorneys to other cases and clients if an existing client goes out of business or changes law firms.

Diversification also makes these firms somewhat recession-proof. During economic expansions, the firm's lawyers can focus on initial public offerings (IPOs). If an economic recession hits, the same lawyers can shift to mergers and acquisitions. This shifting ensures the firm always has lawyers working and billing to generate revenue.

This reduction in risk brings the kind of stability that allows a big law firm to offer higher salaries. Small firms usually pay lower salaries because they cannot risk the commitment to pay higher salaries if they could lose substantial revenue with the loss of one client.

Big law firms can also pay higher salaries because they have more partners to originate work. With partners continually filling the firm's pipeline of work, the firm needs to hire and retain good lawyers to do the work. Big firms compete with each other to pay the most money so they can have the best lawyers working on their cases.

A large law firm can also often have a better economic model than a smaller firm. By employing economies of scale, law firms can reduce the amount the firm spends per lawyer on overhead. These economies of scale allow big law firms to pay higher salaries than small law firms.

Private vs. Public Sector

As alluded to previously, a private practice almost always pays better than working for the government. In the private sector, you can maximize profit by taking high-paying clients selectively.

Government budgets determine how much government lawyers get paid. Governments have limited resources and usually cannot spend as much to hire lawyers as the private sector spends.

But there are some jobs you can only get with the government, including:

  • Attorney general
  • City or county attorney
  • Judge advocate
  • Criminal prosecutor
  • Public defender
  • Legislative counsel
  • Judge

If you want any of these jobs, you will need to accept the salary offered by the government rather than working in the private sector.

Company or Law Firm Hierarchy

The hierarchy of your employer and where you fit into that hierarchy will have a major impact on your salary. Most law firms have shareholders and associates. You need to know the lawyer's position in the firm to answer the question "how much does a lawyer make?"

Associates are employees. They get paid a salary regardless of the firm's performance. As an associate, you get paid even if the firm has a bad year.

Shareholders own a piece of the firm. The firm might refer to these lawyers as partners, equity partners, shareholders, or owners.

Shareholders can make more money than associates because they receive a share of the firm's profits. But in a bad year, these lawyers might take home substantially less than their associates because they bear the burden of ownership.

In-House Lawyer vs. Private Practice

In-house corporate attorneys often make more than outside counsel. But this happens mostly because of what happens at the top.

Corporate attorneys also fit into a hierarchy. An associate general counsel gets paid as an employee of the company. Associates in a corporate legal department make about the same salary as associates in a private firm.

By contrast, a company's general counsel usually gets compensated as an executive of the company. The general counsel could earn millions of dollars as the company's executive. The general counsel may also receive stock options and other compensation reserved for corporate executives.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a corporate lawyer involved in the management of the corporation makes an average salary of $198,900. This salary is over $70,000 per year more than the average lawyer's salary.

Clients

Clients make a big difference in what kind of lawyer makes the most money. In private practice, clients with greater resources have more at stake in their legal disputes. They will pay more for lawyers.

On the other hand, a lawyer can make a good living working for many individual clients. A personal injury law firm can earn a healthy contingency fee from each client. These contingency fees make the firm profitable and ensure the lawyers get paid a good salary.

This logic can also apply to a corporate lawyer. Working for an established company will often pay better and provide greater job security than working for a small company or a startup.

Non-Profit vs. For-Profit

Some non-profit groups spend a lot of time in court and need skilled lawyers. These groups work for a cause rather than for economic gain. Some examples include:

  • Environmental groups
  • Victims advocacy groups
  • Civil rights organizations

These organizations do not expect free legal work. They pay their lawyers out of the contributions made to the group by donors and foundations. But at the same time, non-profit groups often do not pay as much as for-profit enterprises like corporations and law firms. Instead of attracting lawyers based on salary, non-profit groups attract lawyers by the appeal of working on something worthwhile.

How to Become a High-Paid Lawyer

A variety of factors impact your ability to make money as an attorney, but the quality of your marketing experts is one of the most important.

If you want to generate more legal work for your practice and optimize your earning potential, it's time to partner with Grow Law Firm, the premier marketing firm for attorneys. Whether you operate a small business or a major practice, our dynamic team knows what it takes to help you grow. Contact us today and schedule a free consultation.

FAQ

  • Can Lawyers Earn a Million Dollars?

    Despite your legal expertise, the chances of making a million dollars as an independent attorney are low. However, you might earn a million-dollar salary if you become a senior partner at a major firm or start your own practice. Top corporate attorneys at major companies or some medical lawyers also have the potential to break the seven-figure salary barrier.

  • Where Do Lawyers Make the Most Money?

    According to 2020 data published in U.S. News and World Report, attorneys in the District of Columbia had the highest annual salaries. D.C. attorneys brought in an average of $197,000 each year. California came in second with an annual mean salary of $179,470, and New York was third, with an average income of $174,060.

  • What Type of Lawyer Gets Paid the Most?

    Some of the highest-paid niches include medical law, intellectual property law, private criminal defense law, and corporate law. Injury lawyers can also generate a healthy income if they win a few major cases.

  • Is Making Money as a Lawyer Hard?

    Making money as a lawyer can certainly be challenging. Between the stresses of working long hours, meeting tight deadlines, and competing with other practices for attention in the digital marketplace, you will have a lot on your plate. The good news is that you can succeed and make money with determination, a passion for your craft, and a great marketing strategy.

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Top techniques for busy lawyers to bring in more clients in 2023
  • Easy steps you can take to bring in more clients and up this year’s revenue
  • The top website and marketing mistakes holding your law firm back
February, 2nd
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    Sasha serves as Managing Partner for Grow Law Firm, a Chicago-based digital marketing agency focused solely on specialized growth strategies for attorneys and their practices.

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