What Being a Lawyer EntailsBecoming a lawyer generally takes about seven years of full-time study after high school, including four years of undergraduate studies followed by three years of law school that is accredited by the American Bar Association. To practice law, individuals must obtain a law degree and pass their state's bar examination. Lawyers who wish to practice in more than one state must usually pass the bar exam for all of the states in which they wish to practice law. Most states require lawyers to complete an amount of continuing legal education every one to three years. New lawyers generally spend time in on-the-job training as associates or working on teams involving more experienced lawyers. After some amount of years, the lawyer may either work up to becoming a partner at his or her firm, begin his or her own law practice, or transfer to the legal department of a large corporation. Some of the work performed by lawyers includes:
- Advising clients and representing them in court, before governmental agencies, or in other private legal matters.
- Communicating with clients, colleagues, judges, and others that are involved in a specific case.
- Researching and analyzing legal problems to determine how the law applies to a specific situation.
- Interpreting laws, rules, and regulations for clients.
- Presenting facts and arguing on behalf of clients, both verbally and in writing.
- Preparing and filing legal documents such as lawsuits, contracts, wills, deeds, and responses to legal claims filed against the client.
The Salaries of Various Legal Practice AreasThe term “lawyer” is a wide umbrella, as many different practice areas require different types of legal assistance. The practice area that an attorney focuses on is one of the biggest factors in determining the salary that attorney can earn. In general, lawyers involved in the private sector make more money than lawyers who provide services to the public sector. Lawyers at larger firms tend to be better paid than those working in solo practice. Here is a look at several of the top paid practice areas and the average salaries for lawyers in these areas.
- Corporate lawyers: $174,000/year. Corporate lawyers are those who work within the legal department of a large corporation. These lawyers not only often receive the highest salaries, but they also receive ample benefits, including bonuses.
- Intellectual property lawyers: $141,000/year. Intellectual property lawyers work within the field of protecting intellectual property including product ideas, written or video content, and logos. As the world becomes more tech-centered, this practice area has seen tremendous growth in recent years.
- Medical malpractice lawyers: $130,880/year. Health care providers are tasked with the responsibility of providing and maintaining a standard of care to prevent injuries from medical errors. Failing to do so can give rise to a medical malpractice case to compensate the patient for harm caused by the error.
- Law professors: $125,000/year. Tenured law professors tend to make more money than untenured professors do, and the reputation, ranking, and endowment of the school will also affect the professor's salary.
- Government lawyers: $118,160/year. Government lawyers are often referred to as prosecutors and provide services related to the conviction of individuals or entities who have committed crimes against the people of a city or state.
- Tax lawyers: $101,000/year. Tax attorneys often work on-staff for large corporations or have their own private practice in which they represent the owners of small businesses in various legal matters, including the execution of contracts.
- Personal injury lawyers: $78,020/year. Personal injury lawyers assist individuals who were injured by someone else's carelessness or recklessness and wish to seek compensation for the expenses and impacts of their injury.
- Real estate lawyers: $78,020/year. Lawyers working in this practice area provide representation for property buyers, sellers, and renters during property transactions to ensure that the contracts that are produced in the transaction are enforceable and look out for the client's best interests.
- Family lawyers: $69,480/year. Family lawyers handle cases involving divorces, adoptions, and custody issues.
- Immigration lawyers: $65,061. Immigration lawyers represent clients who want to enter the country to work or live, guiding them through the requirements and helping to submit the documents needed for legal residency.
The Best Cities, States, and Districts for LawyersAs previously mentioned, certain geographical locations in the U.S. produce higher salaries for workers in general, including those in the legal industries. The cities where lawyers routinely receive some of the best salaries include:
- San Jose, CA, where lawyers receive average salaries of around $218,420/year.
- San Francisco, CA, where lawyers make an average of $188,910/year.
- Washington, DC, where lawyers can expect to bring home an average annual salary of $179,590.
- Los Angeles, CA, where the annual average salary of a lawyer is $178,470.
- Bridgeport, CT, where a lawyer can expect to earn an average salary of $177,930/year.
- District of Columbia: $192,180/year.
- California: $173,970/year.
- New York: $168,780/year.
- Massachusetts: $164,800/year.
- Illinois: $157,010/year.
The Lowest Paying Places for LawyersJust as there are states where lawyers routinely make a salary that is much higher than the national average, there are also states where the pay for lawyers is lower. Here are some of the lowest-paying states for lawyers and the average yearly salary in those locations.
- Montana: $88,600/year.
- Mississippi: $97,990/year.
- West Virginia: $98,630/year.
- Arkansas: $98,780/year.
- Idaho: $99,360/year.
Is the Salary Worth the Effort?The average in-state tuition for law school at a public university is slightly over $28,000. Graduate students attending private law schools can expect to pay closer to $50,000 for their education, with some of the top-ranked law schools in the nation setting students back between $60,000 to $70,000 for tuition. Students obtaining a law degree typically graduate with about $165,000 in student loan debt. Even with a salary in one of the highest paying cities or states, that amount of debt will take some time to repay. Unfortunately, one of the reasons that lawyers often choose to go to one of the top-ranked, and therefore more expensive, law schools in the nation is the hope that a degree from that school will give them an edge in a competitive industry. For most lawyers, there is a great deal of passion for the services they provide for their clients. This passion enables the lawyer to excel at his or her job and prevents many attorneys from picking the practice area they work in solely on the ability to earn the highest salary.
The Services Lawyers Provide for ClientsIf you've been injured in an accident that was the result of someone else's carelessness or recklessness, have been sickened or injured by a defective drug or product, or you have suffered an injury that was caused by a medical error, an experienced personal injury attorney can provide guidance and assistance through the legal process of obtaining compensation. Lawyers understand that many people are reluctant to obtain the services of an attorney because they don't feel like they can afford those services. To that end, many attorneys offer all prospective clients:
- A free case evaluation. This is where a lawyer speaks with you about your case, provides information about the process of pursuing compensation, and answers the questions you have about your legal options. There is no obligation to continue working with a lawyer after your case evaluation.
- A client-friendly contingent fee payment arrangement. A contingency fee means that you owe the firm nothing for your lawyer's services until and unless there is a successful resolution to your case.
- Establish a value to your case that is based on the out-of-pocket expenses and quality-of-life impacts of your injury that you have already incurred as well as those you will likely experience in the future.
- Determine all sources of liability and all insurance resources that can be accessed to compensate you. Insurance pays the vast majority of personal injury settlements and awards. While it is possible to file a claim against an uninsured person and even to obtain a judgment in your favor, collecting your award would likely be very difficult as most people cannot afford to pay for the expenses of another person's injury out-of-pocket. Because of this and because many damage claims exceed the limits of your policy, your attorney will look carefully at the details of your case to determine if there are multiple sources of liability, as that provides the best opportunity for full compensation of your expenses and impacts.
- The timely filing of all court-required paperwork in the proper jurisdiction. Every state has a statute of limitations, which is a time limit set by law to file a legal claim. If you fail to have your claim filed in court by this statutory deadline, your case will likely not be considered.
- Skilled negotiation in an attempt to garner a fair settlement offer on your behalf. Settlements resolve many personal injury cases. Negotiations begin when your attorney sends a demand package to the at-fault party's insurance provider, who then has the option to accept the claim and pay the amount due, reject the claim, or offer a settlement amount. Rarely does the initial offer result in a fair amount of compensation, but it does start a conversation between the two sides that is focused on reaching an amount that both parties can agree to.
- Guidance as to the pros and cons of accepting an offered settlement.
- The gathering of evidence and witness testimony—including expert testimony if needed—that can be used to prove your case.
- In lieu of a fair settlement offer, litigation, which includes the delivery of opening and closing arguments, the presentation of evidence, and the examination of witnesses.
- Assistance collecting your settlement or award.