There is a lot of information out there on lawyer salaries but it is pretty hard to figure out exactly what you can expect to make because it depends on a variety of factors. In order to break it down, we will consider different categories of law and the course of a career.
While there are near infinite paths you can take after law school, it is easier to look at what lawyers make if we look at three paths:
When we consider how much money lawyers actually make we can that is varies pretty drastically.
Big Law: $3.1M earned over the first 8 years after law school
Small firms: $1.4M earned over the first 8 years after law school
Government: $694k earned over the first 8 years after law school
ACLU: $797kearned over the first 8 years after law school
Average Public Interest: $510kearned over the first 8 years after law school
All of these are substantially higher than the median American, but if you can get into law school you probably have more options and opportunities than the median American. Also, these numbers don’t account for the ~$160k that you will likely have to borrow to go to school, or the fact that you probably won’t work for 3 years while you are in school.
When you first start working as a lawyer in a law firm, you’ll be what’s called a first year associate. Associate salaries follow a bimodal distribution. What this means is that salary ranges are distributed in two separate groups (two modes, bimodal). Within the private sector there is a big difference between Big Law and smaller firms. For simplicity we can separate small firms by looking at firms with 700 attorneys, or fewer.
What is Big Law? People use the term Big Law to mean corporate-type law firms that make a lot of money. When ‘normal’ people think about lawyers making a bunch of money and sitting in board rooms they usually are thinking about someone who works in Big Law (Suits anyone?). Big Law lawyers work a lot of hours and make a lot (at least to me) of money.
How much do Big Law attorneys actually make?
Big Law salaries are in lockstep, meaning almost every first year associate receives the same amount in salary. In 2022, first year associate salary was $215,000. When you become a second-year associate, this bumps up for everyone, regardless of performance.
These are estimates. Associates at big law firms make, on average:
Earnings over the first 8 years after law school: $3.1M
After about 8 years you will almost definitely have left the firm or made partner. On average Partners make $1.1M per year, but it varies a ton. With some Big Law partners making (probably) more than $10M.
According to Nerdwallet, at smaller private law firms the median starting salary is $98,750
If we assume that % raises and bonuses match big law then we can see, how much private lawyers make:
Earnings over the first 8 years after law school: $1.4M
While not all encompassing, the majority of Federal Government employees (including attorneys) are paid based on the General Schedule (or GS) scale. However, it is a little unclear what that actually means. The GS is put out annually by the Office of Personnel Management and it ranges from a GS-1 to a GS-15. You can find the GS Scale here if you are interested.
In order to dig into a specific example, let’s look at how the Department of Justice pays for lawyers who are not working in US Attorneys offices.
At DOJ, assuming you don’t clerk beforehand, you start as a GS-11 step 1 and there are required minimum amounts of time that you have to stay at one level until you can get promoted. We will assume that you get promoted at twice the time than the minimum. So if the minimum is 6 months, we will assume it takes a year. With that we get:
Earnings over the first 8 years after law school: $694,000
After about 8 years (Keep in mind that the DOJ says it is possible to make GS-15 in 3.5 years) you would then go up the GS-15 steps. Once you are a GS-15 there are higher positions and appointed positions that make more money and have more responsibility.
Public interest pay varies quite a bit. But to simplify we can look at two career paths.
First, the highly coveted and competitive ACLU job.
The ACLU has a litigator scale that determines pay for attorneys in the Legal Department.
An estimate of how much you can expect to make as an ACLU attorney:
Earnings over the first 8 years after law school: $796,565
This is quite a bit, and might be a little misleading since most organizations can’t pay as much as the ACLU, so let’s look at more standardized information. Zip Recruiter offers some good data:
“While ZipRecruiter is seeing annual salaries as high as $149,000 and as low as $22,500, the majority of Nonprofit Lawyer salaries currently range between $42,500 (25th percentile) to $85,000 (75th percentile) with top earners (90th percentile) making $120,000 annually across the United States. The average pay range for a Nonprofit Lawyer varies greatly (by as much as $42,500), which suggests there may be many opportunities for advancement and increased pay based on skill level, location and years of experience.”
If we assume that you start at the 25th percentile and get to the 75th percentile by year 8, then you have a (probably more realistic) estimate for the amount you can expect to make as a public interest lawyer:
Earnings over the first 8 years after law school: $510,000
I am the half of LSD that didn't take the LSAT, or go to law school (Sorry about that). But I did go to MIT business school while surrounded by law students and lawyers, so I am somewhat qualified to talk about the intricacies of law school apps and finances.
Windsor (the dog) didn't write this but he WAS a Resident Tutor and career advisor at Harvard College with me, so deserves some credit.