People pursue a career as a lawyer for many reasons. The “why?” behind the pursuit varies from one person to another: prestige, a chance at improving the society, “My dad was a lawyer, so I should be one, too” and so on. But a common reason most people are driven to pursue a legal career is the pay.
In the eye of the public, if you’re a lawyer, your salary must be good, if not better. There is a perception that all lawyers make good money and are all wealthy.
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), the median pay of lawyers is $126,930 per year ($61.03/hour). But the actual salary a lawyer can earn depends on different factors, including your legal specialty (aka your chosen legal practice). For instance, an immigration lawyer’s salary is drastically different compared to the salary of a real estate lawyer.
So before you get excited about being a lawyer and the salary you’ll make, it’s important to do your research. This article lists down the highest-paid lawyers, the nature of these careers and the factors that impact a lawyer’s salary.
Do Lawyers Make Good Money? It Depends
Law is one of the highest-paid professions in the industry; however, the salary range for lawyers varies according to many factors.
The most common factors include:
- Size of the law firm. Some lawyers prefer to practice solo while others join a firm. Going into solo practice offers the most personal freedom but it comes with lower pay. Lawyers who work for big law firms, especially ones with international branches, earn higher compared to lawyers who practice alone.
- Geographic region. Lawyers who practice in major cities tend to earn more than those practicing in rural communities and small towns.
- Not all law schools are created equally. If you graduated from a prestigious law school, you have more chances of earning a higher income.
- Skills and experience. Like any career, a lawyer’s income will depend on their experience. Even if you’re a talented first-year associate, your salary is not comparable to a long-time partner working for a large firm.
What is the Highest Paid Lawyer? (By State)
The BLS also reports that the national average annual salary of lawyers stands at $144,230, which is nearly three times the average pay for all occupations. However, this stated pay covers the entire United States, which doesn’t emphasize the differences of pay in the states.
Below is a list of the top highest-paying states for attorneys (salaries stated below are yearly averages, estimated):
- New York. $167,000
- Connecticut. $153,000
- Illinois. $152,000
- Texas. $150,000
- Colorado. $147,000
- Arizona. $145,000
- Virginia. $139,180
- New Jersey. $139,020
On the other hand, the list below includes the lowest-paying states for lawyers:
- Montana. $88,000
- Mississippi. $97,000
- West Virginia. $98,600
- Arkansas. $98,780
- South Carolina. $105,300
- Louisiana. $105,400
- New Mexico. $105,900
What is the Highest Paid Lawyer? (By Practice)
Your legal practice makes a big difference in your final salary as a lawyer. Legal specialty shouldn’t be the deciding factor when determining the type of law you wish to practice, but it is a consideration for many law students.
Below is a list of the lawyers with the highest salaries, as well as their job requirements and career outlook.
Patent Lawyer (Salary: $259,000)
The average patent lawyer makes a salary of $259,800 (as of August 2021), but the range often falls between $218,000 and $299,000.
Careers in patent law offer good job opportunities. Although, becoming a patent attorney requires additional training (apart from your law degree), long-term career prospects are often better than working as a faculty member at a research institution.
Patent lawyers specialize in intellectual property, particularly in patents. They represent investors during the patent application process. They can also double as the litigators protecting their clients’ rights to an invention. All patent lawyers must be licensed by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and must have a background in technology and/or science.
Traditionally, the path to becoming a patent attorney begins with an internship at a patent law firm, which is supported by complementary courses. The journey culminates with the licensure exams. The type of formal education (plus the number of classes you must take) varies from one state to another. But the best way to start your career is to connect with a patent law firm and go from there.
The more experience you have as a patent lawyer, the better your salary will also be.
Real Estate Lawyer (Salary: $102,700)
The average real estate lawyer has a salary of $102,700 per year, but the final pay depends on your experience and position. For example, a real estate attorney IV can make $116,100 annually while a senior real estate attorney has a salary of $140,000 per year.
Real estate lawyers focus more on property issues, insurance concerns, agricultural exchanges and environmental issues. They must be familiar with housing regulations and land laws so they can advise clients regarding industrial, commercial or residential properties. Some real estate lawyers focus on dealing with tenants and landlords, while others prefer handling the purchase and sale of properties.
Like any aspiring lawyer, you must first obtain your bachelor’s degree and complete an accredited three-year law program before becoming a real estate lawyer. Law students interested in real estate take low-level courses in contracts and property, civil procedure and torts. In terms of upper-level coursework, their courses include real estate transactions, commercial law, antitrust law and accounting. Once you’ve finished law school and earned your JD, you must pass the bar exams.
Intellectual Property Lawyer (Salary: $156,000)
An intellectual property lawyer can make a salary of $156,000 per year, but that’s just the average. If you’re a “rookie” associate attorney, you can make $141,000 while senior-level IP attorneys can make as much as $168,200.
Intellectual property lawyers counsel their clients on protecting and/or establishing intellectual capital. Lawyers under this industry handle different matters like trademark law, copyright, patents, distribution, franchising, licensing and technology transfers, as well as trade secret projects.
IP attorneys may also litigate intellectual property concerns around the globe, representing clients in both federal and state courts before agencies like the International Trade Commission and US Patent and Trademark Office.
Immigration Lawyer (Salary: $79,000)
An immigration lawyer makes an average salary of $79,731. Their salary range often falls between $67,000 and $92,000. These attorneys help citizens obtain legal documentation of their immigration status in the US. They also tackle different legal issues pertaining to immigrants, as well as perform the following tasks:
- Participate in deportation defense proceedings
- Appeal a denial for citizenship
- Assist clients who wish to file for employment-based visas
Immigration lawyers often communicate with federal and state agencies, such as the Board of Immigration Appeals, Department of Justice, Department of Labor and Circuit Courts.
Although there is no specific major that can prepare you for this career, it’s advisable to take courses in humanities and social sciences. These courses offer a broader economic, political and social perspective, which is helpful in honing your skills in immigration law.
Once you’ve completed your undergraduate studies and passed the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), you’ll earn your Juris Doctor degree (JD), which qualifies you to take the state’s bar exams.
The career outlook for immigration lawyers is good. To earn a higher salary, you must invest in gaining more experience. In terms of career outlook, large metropolitan areas in the US that are close to neighboring countries need immigration lawyers to assist their growing immigrant populations. Also, immigration lawyers have an expected four percent job growth between 2019 and 2029.
The Bottom Line: More Than The Paycheck?
Each potential attorney has the motivation for choosing their practice in law. While it’s expected that a genuine desire to help others should motivate your pursuit of a legal career, it pays to be realistic. Some people are also concerned about sustainability in their salaries and careers, too.
So, when choosing a career in the legal field, it’s OK to be mindful of the potential pay. You can still grow in your passion while growing in your career.