There is a perception that all attorneys are wealthy and make more money than they can possibly need. As a family law attorney, working at a small firm, I can tell you that I would love to make more money; however, the cost of higher pay is not worth it to me, and I love my firm. The question of “how much can I make as an attorney” is very complex. There are so many variables that go into that answer. Like so many questions in the law, the answer is: It depends. The national average lawyer’s salary in 2019 was $144,230 per year. Obviously, there many attorneys who are making significantly more and many making significantly less.
What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?
In other words, your level of compensation will be tied (to some extent) to the area of law in which you choose to practice. A government attorney is less likely to make the big bucks, while work as a personal injury attorney can be incredibly lucrative. A recent evaluation of the legal profession indicated that the top five earners in the legal community (in reverse order) are: 5) corporate attorney, 4) tax attorney, 3) trial attorney, 2) Intellectual Property attorney, and 1) medical attorney. Obviously, the amount of money one can make in these areas is directly tied to the amount of time and effort he or she is willing to invest in his or her practice. Not to mention the importance of both legal skill and breadth of the attorney’s legal network. These elements, and many more, will influence how much an attorney can make in a particular area of law.
Location, Location, Location
Where you work can absolutely have an impact on your earning potential as an attorney. According to a recent article in Forbes, the state in which you practice will have a significant impact on your earning potential. The average lawyer salary in California is $171,500. At the other end of the spectrum is Montana where the average lawyer salary is $88,600. Of course, $88,600 in Montana might go a lot further than $171,500 in California. Considerations like taxes, cost of living, etc. are incredibly important. Just looking at the number is always going to be too simplistic and paint a skewed picture of your earning potential.
Size Does Matter
The size of the ship you travel on will absolutely impact the size of your bank account. BigLaw has big money. Firms that can sustain multiple offices across the country, or even the globe, obviously have the resources and client base to compensate their attorneys at a significantly higher level than the solo practitioner whose practice has blossomed enough to justify the hiring of another attorney. BigLaw and its legion of attorneys, wealthy client base, and significant marketing budgets can afford to compensate at a much higher rate, but these firms are going to expect nothing short of unflinching dedication and commitment from their attorneys in order to justify that increased level of compensation. A smaller firm can’t pay as much, but the opportunities might go well beyond just doing discovery for the first three years of employment. Additionally, the more personal nature of a small firm or solo practitioner might lend itself to a better work-life balance. There is also something to be said about the mid-sized firm, which can provide opportunities for growth that neither the small or large firm can as well as increased levels of compensation.
Money Cannot Buy Happiness
Compensation is important. We don’t suffer through seven years of higher education to work for pennies. There is, however, something to be said about work-life balance and the personal costs of making big bank in big law. Mental health issues, substance abuse issues, etc. are common pitfalls for many lawyers. Having more money can be wonderful, but there is more to life than just money. It is important to strike a balance between the competing interests while practicing or you won’t be able to enjoy the money you are earning. The realities of a profession plagued with professionals battling with myriad problems means cost benefit analysis is critical.
What Does it All Mean?
If you’re called to the law because you want to be rich, there are things you can do to make that your reality. The items in this article hopefully provided a little glimpse at some of the factors that go into the big salary. On the other hand, if you’ve been called to the law for some reason other than money, take comfort in the fact that you are more likely than not to be compensated at a higher level than the national averages for most other professions. You have to figure out if you are prepared to sacrifice your time and energy to BigLaw for the big bucks, or if you’d rather have countless days off and a (more or less) set schedule working as a government attorney for much less money. Perhaps something in between makes sense for you. Good luck.
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