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What Type of Lawyer Makes the Most Money?

updated
August 15, 2022
18 min
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Lawyers have a reputation for being highly paid. It's true — many lawyers earn a lot of money. As a profession, lawyers earn much more than the U.S. median income.

Lawyers earn a wide range of salaries influenced by many factors. For example, a lawyer's field of practice is only one factor in predicting the lawyer's salary. Other factors that influence an attorney's salary include experience, position, the type of clients the attorney represents, and geographic location.

How much do lawyers make? Lawyers, computer hardware engineers, pharmacists, and human resource managers all earn about the same average salary. But once you account for the factors that go into a lawyer's salary, you get a much broader range than many other professions. For example, the general counsel for a Fortune 100 company could earn millions of dollars, while a public defender for a small county might barely earn a living wage.

Read on for an overview of the factors that go into a lawyer's earnings and what type of lawyer makes the most money.

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.

lawyer education

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 experienced 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 practice areas. 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 corporate lawyers can focus on initial public offerings (IPOs). If an economic recession hits, the same corporate 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.

What Type of Attorney Makes the Most Money?

Your practice area 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

A lawyer's practice area will affect a lawyer's salary. This happens for a variety of reasons, including the demand for the lawyer, the fees the lawyer can charge, and the types of clients the lawyer gets.

You should bear in mind that salary numbers for various types of lawyers will vary over time. Just because lawyers in one legal field make the most money one year does not mean they will always make the most money.

Bankruptcy lawyers are a good example of this variability. 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

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. 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.

More about business law marketing in our guide.

Civil Rights Lawyers

Civil Rights Lawyer Salary

A civil rights lawyer usually works for a public interest legal organization like the ACLU, NAACP, and 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.

Some civil rights attorneys can earn a good living while other attorneys earn substantially less than the average annual salary for the legal profession. The mean salary for civil rights lawyers is about $61,500, but they can make as much as $300,000.

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.

A criminal defense lawyer's salary will often depend on the lawyer's experience. More experienced criminal defense lawyers often earn a name and reputation among clients, colleagues, prosecutors, and judges. No matter where you establish your legal practice, you will usually find one criminal defense lawyer known to everyone. It is usually these criminal defense lawyers that make the most money.

A criminal defense lawyer's employer will also affect their salary. Criminal lawyers who work for the public defender's office will almost always earn less than criminal lawyers working in the private sector. Unfortunately, providing a free defense for criminal defendants often means the lawyers work for a lower salary.

On the other hand, a lawyer defending a corporate defendant may make more in a single year than a lawyer defending individual defendants makes in several years.

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 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.

Estate lawyers can earn a comfortable living with a median salary of about $96,000. But estate lawyers can earn much more by working with wealthy clients to monitor and update their estate plans as they acquire and dispose of their property. At the upper end, estate lawyers can earn $493,000.

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.

Family lawyers often bill on an hourly basis. This means that a dispute that settles early in the case will usually generate lower billings than a dispute that reaches trial. Trial lawyers who handle family law disputes can earn a particularly good living because disputes usually reach trial when the marital estate is large enough to fight over. At the same time, a family lawyer who can handle a lot of divorces quickly can earn a good living from the sheer volume of work.

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

Intellectual Property (IP) Lawyers

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.

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.

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 cases involve the various ways injured people can seek compensation from those liable for their injuries. 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 personal injury 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

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.

As a result, patent lawyer salary numbers usually run higher than other lawyers. Patent attorneys earn an average salary of $98,000. But you will see a lot of variation in salaries depending on the lawyer's technical area. A patent lawyer with a technical background in electrical engineering or computer engineering will be in higher demand and earn a higher salary than a patent lawyer with a background in mechanical or civil engineering.

Tax Attorneys

Tax Attorney Salary

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.

Tax attorneys earn an average salary of about $109,000, but this number can vary widely. A corporate tax attorney will earn more than someone who handles personal tax law, and tax lawyers who represent wealthy taxpayers will make more than lawyers who handle middle taxpayers.

Trial Lawyers

Trial attorneys, also called litigators, are the types of lawyers people imagine when they think of lawyers. They prepare cases for trial and present cases to a jury or judge. 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 health care law might experience greater demand and earn more money.

What Else Can Influence Lawyer Salary?

The factors that determine what types of lawyers make the most money are nearly endless. But not all of them apply to every situation. Here are a few of the other factors that can affect a lawyer's salary:

Private vs. Public Sector

As alluded to previously, 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.

Who Are the Highest Paid Lawyers?

There is no quick and easy way to identify what lawyers make the most money. While a specialty like corporate law can make you a lot of money as a corporation's general counsel, these jobs are rare.

But if you work hard, seek out the right opportunities, and gain valuable experience, you can make money in almost any legal field and in almost any geographic area.

To learn some ways to boost your law firm's business and your salary from a professional law firm digital marketing agency, contact a professional law firm digital marketing agency with a proven track record of helping lawyers grow their businesses and profits.

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