The field of law is as broad as it is diverse – as are the related earnings. As one might expect, lawyers working in state government earn significantly less than their counterparts in the private sector.
According to PayScale.com’s data for 2014, the median annual salary of lawyers in the United States is $75,803.
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This article breaks down the numbers by specialty to give you a general idea of what lawyers who practice in a variety of settings can expect to bring in. Remember, a large part of choosing your career path should be about lifestyle. And keep in mind that there are also different levels of ‘prestige’ and ego that are traditionally associated with each field of law.
1. Corporate Lawyer Salary
A primary role of corporate lawyers is to ensure the legality of company transactions. These attorneys act as advisers to a corporation on a range of issues, such as gathering and analyzing evidence for legal proceedings, formulating contracts, advising companies on their legal rights and obligations in business transactions, and providing advice on issues related to taxation.
Such broad job requirements mean that corporate lawyers must specialize in many different aspects of the law. Major specialties that relate to corporate law include tax law, contract law, accounting law, and securities law. The main focus of many corporate lawyers is therefore to understand how these different aspects of the law relate to the companies who employ them.
In most cases, a corporate lawyer’s salary will start somewhere between $30,000 and $100,000 a year, depending on the size, location and financial condition of the employer. The best graduates of top law schools can expect much higher salaries and lucrative careers right after they graduate if they have the right skill set and have performed well during their internships. The Forbes website lists several first rate programs, such as Columbia Law School, whose graduates can expect an average starting salary of $165,000.
Other institutions that produce top earners in the field include Stanford University, the University of Chicago, Harvard University, and the University of Virginia. Most graduates of US law schools, however, will have to settle for a more modest pay check, even if they land a job in the relatively profitable field of corporate law.
According to PayScale, the average annual salary of a corporate lawyer in 2014 was $98,823. Corporate lawyers are paid for their knowledge and experience, both of which have a strong effect on salary. Lawyers who find their niche in corporate law and remain with the same company can expect to see their paychecks to increase every year.
As a rule of thumb, in-house business lawyers get paid less than attorneys employed by large law firms that charge exorbitant fees. This is somewhat of a generalization, and although it is true that the highest earning individuals in the legal field tend to be the partners in big law firms, for the most part, in-house lawyers aren’t worse off financially than their peers.
2. Patent Lawyer Salary
In a nutshell, patent attorneys are tasked with assessing and analyzing whether an invention is eligible for a patent or not. They guide and advise individual private inventors as well as corporations that are in the process of securing a patent. After the patent is obtained, patent attorneys protect patents in case of infringement. Some of a patent attorney’s tasks include describing inventions in clear and indisputable legal terms, researching and assessing existing patents, and litigating in court in infringement cases.
Patent Lawyers are also highly trained in different aspects of intellectual property rights and advise clients and employers with respect to related issues, such as designs and trademarks. In 2014 the median annual salary of patent attorneys was $129,500, according to PayScale.com. The size of a patent lawyer’s pay check depends on several factors, including the industry they work in, the size of the company they work for, the number of years they have worked in the field, and their level of education. A patent lawyer typically needs a very specialized skill set that often includes an additional educational background in a related field such as engineering or biology.
3. Criminal Lawyer Salary
The criminal lawyer’s job description includes defending individuals, organizations, and companies that face criminal charges in state, federal, or appellate court. Some of the main responsibilities of a criminal lawyer are to investigate the case at hand, interview witnesses, study case law and procedural law, construct a defense, and plan a strategy for the case. Negotiating plea deals in less serious cases is also within a criminal lawyer’s field of expertise.
It is important for a criminal lawyer to have superior written and oral advocacy skills in order to successfully argue a case in front of a judge and a jury. Creative thinking and analytical skills also play a significant role in the process of developing a strategy and doing the research for complex court cases.
Criminal lawyers in public service earn significantly less than their colleagues in the private sector. As shown in the graphic below, the median salary of $51,810 for public defenders is well below the average earnings in this field. An associate who practices criminal law at a large law firm can earn up to $115,000 in their first year, making it a much more lucrative career option.
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4. Tax Lawyer Salary
Tax attorneys act as the representatives of a company, organization or an individual in dealing with federal, state, and local tax agencies. On a day-to-day basis, most tax lawyers give advice to businesses and individuals with regard to all aspects of tax legislation. They keep an eye on any changes in legislation and advise their clients on potential effects such changes could have on their finances. Practicing tax law requires excellent math and accounting skills, an analytical mind, and the ability to think critically.
As shown below, the median annual salary for tax attorneys in 2014 was $99,690. Starting salaries tend to be somewhere between $55,000 and $83,000; lawyers who remain in the field of tax law can expect a steady increase in their annual earnings as their career progresses.
5. Real Estate Lawyer
Real estate lawyers assist their clients in a variety of ways regarding commercial and residential real estate. Issues regarding tenants, neighbors, zoning and property development also fall under the umbrella of real estate law.
Real estate transactions require a considerable number of complex legal documents, so most real estate attorneys spend quite a bit of time in an office reviewing and drafting contracts and other documents, and preparing consultations for their clients. Meticulous document drafting is a key skill in this job. Attention to detail and strong analytical skills are an absolute necessity for real estate lawyers who want to do well in this field.
Real estate attorneys also represent their clients in court. A typical property law case might involve a property owner who is suing a tenant for unpaid rent. Real estate lawyers file court documents, collect evidence to support the claim, and interview witnesses to ensure that their client has a strong case.
The median annual salary of real estate attorneys in 2014 was approximately $90,125, according to PayScale.com. Highly skilled contract negotiators tend to be the highest earners in real estate law, however, experience and location also influence the earning potential of these attorneys.
6. Family Lawyer Salary
Family law is a broad field. Family law attorneys may be involved with custody arrangements, adoption, prenuptial agreements, and divorce. Many lawyers in this field choose to specialize, becoming experts in one area or another. For example, divorce lawyers work with clients to dissolve a marriage and help them to determine how best to divide common property. Other areas of specialization include child support, child custody, and domestic abuse.
The median annual salary of a family lawyer, according to PayScale.com, is $70,828. In family law, an attorney’s degree of specialization and experience strongly correlates with compensation. Experienced family lawyers in the private sector are the top earners in this group, and have higher earning potential than their counterparts in the public sector.
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7. Personal Injury Lawyer Salary
Personal injury attorneys work with clients who allege physical or psychological harm as a result of the negligence or wrongdoing of another party. In case of an accident or injury, personal injury lawyers represent their clients to obtain justice and compensation for any losses or suffering. The vast majority of these cases fall under the area of tort law.
To help clients receive compensation for any financial losses, pain and suffering they’ve experienced due to negligence, personal injury lawyers interview clients, evaluate their case, identify and research specific issues in the plaintiff’s case. If a plaintiff makes a claim that involves an injury to the body or mind, this falls into the category of personal injury law. Car accidents, work injuries, and “slip and falls” constitute some of the most common cases in this field.
The average annual pay for a personal injury lawyer is approximately $73,000. Many attorneys in this field do not have a set annual income as they work for contingency fees. This means that they earn a percentage of any compensation settlement the plaintiff receives. As in most cases, lawyers working for non-profit organizations or the government tend to earn the least, while their colleagues in big law firms are the top earners.
8. Civil Rights Lawyer Salary
Civil rights lawyers defend the civil rights and fundamental liberties of the public. A typical civil rights case might involve defending an individual who faces discrimination based on race, age, gender or religion. Cases related to alleged improper conduct by law enforcement also fall under the umbrella of civil rights law.
Civil rights cases sometimes involve claims based on false arrests, excessive force or brutality, and unlawful searches and seizures. Many cases are concerned with questions of human rights, social freedom and equality. Lawyers who specialize in this field are often passionate about obtaining justice for a particular group of people or a specific issue. For this reason, many civil rights lawyers specialize in a particular area of civil rights.
Lawyers who take on civil rights cases typically earn less than lawyers who choose careers in business fields, such as corporate law. The average starting salary for a civil rights lawyer is approximately $45,000 a year, but very capable and experienced attorneys in this field can make as much as $200,000. Top earners tend to be employed by federal government agencies. Attorneys who work for the federal government make an average of $130,210, as opposed to state government lawyers, who earn a more modest $82,190 a year on average.
9. IP Lawyer Salary
Intellectual property law is a complex field that requires a deep understanding of relevant laws in addition to a creative and analytical way of thinking. Intellectual property lawyers, or copyright lawyers, make sure that new intellectual inventions and innovations created by individuals gain the protection of the law, and are not infringed upon by competitors.
IP attorneys may specialize in areas such as music, art, design, technology, or writing. Intellectual property counts as the most valuable type of property for many corporations and organizations. Protecting new developments in technology, science, and the arts is therefore a top priority for many companies, creating a considerable need for IP lawyers with specializations in those fields.
According to PayScale.com, attorneys who specialize in intellectual property law typically earn a median salary of $131,728.
10. Medical Lawyer Salary
For attorneys who have a passion for law and an interest in healthcare, this specialty can be a great match. The tasks of medical lawyers include working with health care professionals to build case theories, interviewing expert witnesses, gathering and analyzing medical records, and malpractice law suits.
Technically, “medical law” is not a separate category of the law, but rather a combination of personal injury, medical malpractice, and health care law. Some medical lawyers work for hospitals and health care clinics, providing advice and guidance with regard to their rights and obligations, and defend them in medical malpractice cases. Others specialize in representing clients who wish to sue health care facilities or individual health care professionals.
Medical attorneys and health care lawyers earn an average annual salary of $150,881, according to Glassdoor.com; medical lawyers working with specialty hospitals typically earn even more.
What’s The Next Step?
Now that you know how much money you stand to make as a lawyer, the next step is to start preparing for Law School so you can land one of these high paying careers! To review and compare the best LSAT prep courses, please click the button below.