According to the American Bar Association, most students graduating with a law degree carry a heavy debt load. Those graduating from a public law school carry an average of $76,000 in debt while those graduating from a private law school carry an average debt of $125,000. With this high debt in mind, it is prudent for a beginning law student to factor in their impending debt when choosing the type of law they wish to practice when they graduate.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for lawyers in all categories is $110,590 per year. However, the salary range is enormous for attorneys. Lawyers in the middle fifty percent will earn between $74,980 and $163,320. However, a law student must also keep in mind that a significant number earn less than $74,980, especially when they are first starting out. Those that earn more than $163,320 are usually more experienced and are working in one or more lucrative legal fields such as patent law, trial law (litigation), and corporate law.
The salary a law student can expect to earn once they start practicing law also depends greatly on whether they work in the private or public section. Lawyers that get hired by large law firms make considerably more than those who start their own private practice. However, lawyers working in the public sector make even less. These include lawyers who work for city, state, and federal governmental entities as well as those that serve as public defenders. Smaller jurisdictions tend to pay less than larger jurisdictions because it’s just not in their budget to pay more. For example, the average starting salary in San Francisco is $70,000 whereas the starting salary in smaller cities ranges between $40,000 and $50,000.
Corporate lawyers earned a median salary of more than $163,000 and are among the highest paid lawyers. Some industries pay more than others of course. For example, the oil and gas industry pays considerably more than most other industries. On the other hand, an attorney working for a non-profit organization usually earns less than half this salary.
Some legal fields have a wider range of salaries than others. For example, criminal defense attorneys make between $45,000 and $130,000 on average. Those on the lower end of this scale tend to work as public defenders or in small private practices. Those on the upper end of this scale usually work at very large law firms that specialize in criminal defense and have the reputation that gets them hired in higher profile cases and/or cases where the stakes of losing are very high such as felony cases.
Another law area with a considerably wide salary range is family law. This involves divorce cases, adoption cases, and child custody cases. In family law, experience and success rate seems to dictate salary more than anything else. A family law attorney with ten years’ experience and a solid to above average track record can easily make $100,000 more than a family law attorney just starting out.