Lawyer Salary: Average Salary of a Lawyer Since the Economic Downturn of 2008

What do you know about the Average Lawyer Salary?

Starting out as a graduate with a law degree can be challenging in today’s economy.

Gone are the days of L.A. Law-type firms with $100K salaries, marble floor offices, and a guaranteed job that easily offsets your acquired student debt.

As a matter of fact, a 2011 lawyer salary survey showed that on average, working as an attorney for a small law firm had a range of $40,000 – $65,000.

Since the economic downturn of 2008, many lawyers found themselves laid off from the larger firms, and corporations cut back on in-house legal expenses, which meant that experienced lawyers were left with the choice of getting a job out of their field, or starting firms of their own.

Lawyers fresh out of school found themselves with a dearth of openings in the legal field.

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Table of Contents (jump ahead!)

Average Salary For A Lawyer

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Up until the last 5 years, a person with a law degree was almost guaranteed a job.

These days, independent lawyers, or those starting their own firms find themselves wearing many hats – lawyer, business owner, secretary, receptionist, and accountant.

While the average starting salary for a lawyer is between $40K and $65K, that income is lessened by overhead such as the cost of office space, travel, supplies, advertising, and hiring help. So, when all is said and done, the starting lawyer salary might look more like $25K to $40K, annual salary.

These figures, of course, are just averages based on surveys, and do not take into account specific geographic locations or any accrued student debt that might have to be repaid.

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The Independent Lawyer

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Rather than taking up jobs outside of their chosen field, or waiting in line for opening with the larger firms, some lawyers have started their own businesses as independent legal contractors.

Doing this gives a lawyer the option of renting out offices and dealing with extraneous expenses, or working out of a home office and meeting with clients at other locations to cut back on overhead.

While the monthly salary has the potential to be much greater than the income brackets listed above, there is more legwork involved.

First, you must build your own client base, which means getting out there and selling your services to businesses and individuals.

Secondly, you may find yourself covering more than one specific branch of law – which could mean practicing business law, tax law, property law, and the like, before you figure out where most of your clients are coming from, and specializing from there.

The second hurdle for the independent lawyer hoping to gain a greater income than the starting salary offered by a larger firm is that of reputation.

Making that initial splash may not be so hard, especially if your rates are better than the large firms, but it also means your own performance can make or break your business.

You have to understand that a lot of your clients may be one-off jobs, but if you perform above and beyond, you will most likely see returning customers for everything from consultations to large cases.

This will have you taking home a higher salary, and even increase the likelihood of being picked up by a large firm later on down the line, than it would if you started out working for someone else.

Those Big City Lawyers

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Yes, the stereotype that is portrayed on television, and the misconception that many people have – the big city lawyer, with expensive clothes and offices that look like royal palaces – giving dramatic speeches in the courtroom and charging thousands of dollars just to read a letter.

Those people do not really exist.

While it is true that attorneys working in certain metropolitan areas do have higher salaries, on average, than attorneys working in places with a less dense population, there are very good reasons for the higher rate of pay.

First, the cost of living and/or having an office in a city is typically higher than living out in the country.

Second, because corporations, banks, and business owners tend to work in the city, there is a greater concentration of clients with money, and a higher number of legal cases – if anything because of geographic convenience.

Why would a business owner in New York City seek out an attorney in the middle of Iowa, when a law firm can be found just a few block away?

In a recent study, attorneys in cities such as Los Angeles and Manhattan earn roughly $90K-$140K on the higher end of the average scale.

The reasons for this is that the firms usually deal with large financial cases, employ power attorneys, and also have a higher lost of living and business upkeep.

There is also a financial compensation considered for these cases which usually involve snap decisions, and very high stress levels.

The exception to this would be Washington D.C., where the yearly salary for an attorney runs between $50K and $90K.

This is because – though it may sound like a joke – D.C. is simply over-saturated with legal professionals, so there is more of a gridlock with legal firms than there is true competition.

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Attorney Salary By State

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At the start of this article, we mentioned that the starting salary for a lawyer is within the $40K – $65K range.

Keep in mind that this is taken from a survey that spanned the entire United States. $40K may seem like a drop in the bucket for places like Manhattan, but it’s easily twice the average salary for places in the Midwest.

When we look at the United States, average yearly attorney salary rates are highest in New York ($165K USD), California ($150K), Texas ($148K), and Pennsylvania (also $148K, mostly due to its proximity to Washington D.C. as well as the other big east coast cities).

The states with the lowest paying average yearly attorney salaries are in the Midwest (with the exception of Chicago), with salaries clocking in at around $30K – $50K. Simply put, this is because there just isn’t the concentration of big businesses, nor the need for legal consultation from high paying clients.

The Bottom Line about Average Lawyer Salary

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If you are in studying for a law degree, or have recently graduated, you might want to look at your area of expertise, and compare it with geographic pay scales, and (most importantly) where your services would be needed the most.

It’s logical that you wouldn’t want to start practicing corporate law in a rural area, anymore than you would want to set up offices as an independent banking lawyer in an area where most financial firms already have in-house legal partners.

You also need to weigh the benefits of being an independent attorney against the long-term payoffs of joining a larger firm, even though the initial salary may be pretty lean.

Remember, the economy, and call for lawyers is not what it was 10 or 20 years ago.

The pay scale has dropped tremendously as people are figuring out how to do more with less, and legal jobs are not a guarantee.

If you are looking for a career as a lawyer, do as much research as you can, find out where you are needed most, and weigh that against the monthly and yearly salaries you could get from law firms or acting as an independent agent.

You can still be passionate about law and make a great living at it, if you know where to look.


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