All lawyers follow the same path to their professional lives. They endure four years in a bachelor's degree program and three years in law school. After law school, decision-making time arrives. Newly minted attorneys select an area of specialization, and not all types of lawyers earn the same pay. In fact, gender can play a role. Nonprofit organization Catalyst, which supports expanding opportunities for women in business, reported in March 2013 that the pay equity gap between men and women lawyers has shrunk considerably but still exists. With such high financial stakes, it helps to know how much different types of lawyers earn.
Firm Vs. Private Practice
The type of law you practice and the salary you earn often depends on whether you work for yourself, join a firm or work in the public sector. According to 2012 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawyers who own their own practices generally earn less than those who work as partners in firms, and public sector attorneys earn the least of all attorneys. Most law firms only take cases that have the potential to bring the greatest financial rewards, and clients with a lot to lose or gain, financially, often prefer to give their business to a firm rather than to a private practice. Additionally, firm attorneys earn more because they often represent clients who need more ongoing legal representation than the average person. If you start your own practice, you may reap non-financial rewards that offset the lost earning potential. For example, firm lawyers tend to work longer hours and face greater stress due to the types of cases they handle. According to Catalyst, 52 percent of female attorneys have private practices.
Public Sector Attorneys
Public sector attorneys include those who work for cities, counties, state agencies, public schools and universities and other government organizations. Examples include public defenders, who represent defendants in legal matters, and prosecuting attorneys, who represent the people in criminal and some civil cases. According to the Princeton Review, salaries for public defenders and prosecutors are usually quite similar, but some communities pay slightly less to public defenders. A 2011 Association for Legal Career Professionals salary survey of new lawyers found that public sector attorneys earned a median salary of $45,000 to $52,000. Smaller and more rural communities tended to pay less, and larger, more urban communities paid public sector attorneys more. For example, the median starting salary for San Francisco was $70,00. For Columbus, Ohio, it was $43,000.
Corporate lawyers represent private industry clients. They serve as mediators for businesses. They frequently handle litigation and financial matters, including bankruptcies and tax issues. These attorneys tend to work for large- to medium-sized firms or work directly for a particular private company, and tend to earn more than most other types of attorneys. Their high earning potential stems partly from working for clients who need frequent representation and partly from representing companies with substantial assets to protect and sizable profits from which to cover legal expenses. Corporate attorneys representing companies and enterprises earned an average mean salary of $163,510 in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to ''Business Insider,'' which published a list of top corporate attorney salaries in July 2012, Marathon Oil paid more than $3 million to its top legal executive, and Verizon paid $4.5 million to its top company attorney.
Criminal Defense Lawyers
Criminal defense attorneys represent clients charged with crimes ranging from misdemeanors to serious felonies. Some specialize in certain areas of criminal defense, such as traffic citations or felony cases. Criminal attorneys’ salaries range from $45,000 to $130,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Experience and the type of employer determine the exact salary. Criminal attorneys who work for firms earn the most. They may land high profile cases, too. Criminal attorneys who work in the public sector earn the least.
Family law attorneys represent clients in cases involving divorce, adoption and child custody. The 2012 average salary for all lawyers was $130,880, reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most family law attorneys work in private practices or at small firms, so they often earn less than their big firm counterparts. According to the Robert Half 2011 Salary Guide, attorneys with private practices or small firms earned between $50,250 for new associates to as much $147,500 for lawyers with 10 or more years of experience.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Lawyers: Pay
- The Association for Legal Career Professionals: Starting Salaries: Class of 2011
- Business Insider: 15 Mind-Blowing Salaries Pulled In By Corporate America’s Top Lawyers
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2012: Lawyers
- Indeed: Divorce Attorney
- Catalyst: Women in Law in the United States
- Princeton Review: Life as a Lawyer
- Robert Half Legal: 2011 Salary Guide
Based in Central Florida, Ron White has worked as professional journalist since 2001. He specializes in sports and business. White started his career as a sportswriter and later worked as associate editor for Maintenance Sales News and as the assistant editor for "The Observer," a daily newspaper based in New Smyrna Beach, Fla. White has written more than 2,000 news and sports stories for newspapers and websites. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University.