The legal profession has been around for a good many years and there has been a common notion that lawyering is a stable, lucrative profession. There may have been a time when that was the case, but is it still so now?
The United States has more lawyers than any other country in the world, turning out about 38,000 law graduates a year from the more than 200 law schools across the country. This has led a ranking member of the judiciary to comment that there are too many lawyers in the United States, that the number of legal professionals far outnumbers the jobs and clients available out there.
What are the determinants of lawyers’ salaries?
Several factors that determine the amount of professional fees that lawyers can demand, or the salaries they are entitled to as members or partners in law firms or as part of the public legal system.
• The kind of law being practiced influences lawyers’ salaries. For example, corporate lawyers, lawyers who handle mergers and acquisitions and have the opportunity to deal with clients who have more money will definitely receive more than public prosecutors or lawyers for nonprofit organizations.
• Geographical area of operation also has a bearing on lawyer salaries. The average salary for a lawyer is highest in Washington, San Francisco and New York. Incidentally, the most popular cities for lawyers, based on median salary charts, are New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston, Chicago, Washington and San Francisco. This data can be accessed at http://www.payscale.com.
• Government as employer vs. private practice. Private practice, with profits in mind, often gives salaries that are higher that what the government, as an employer, gives.
• Stringent requirements for entry into big law forms. Large, firmly established law firms give higher salaries to their lawyers than smaller or medium-sized ones. While entry into a large law firm is not always easy, the salaries they get are worth the effort. The candidate for membership needs to be a graduate of a reputable, prestigious law school and higher than average grades. Still, graduates of law schools of less distinction can still make it into these big law firms, provided they are on top of their class, have articles published in law journals, and have participated in law evaluations and/or debates. Back door entry into a big law firm can be done if a lawyer can present a record of demonstrated success over years of legal practice.
• Experience in litigation is also a determining factor in the amount of salary to which a lawyer is entitled. A senior partner of a firm gets a higher salary than a junior partner, by virtue of his or her years of practice in the profession.
Because a law degree is a graduate degree, lawyers normally start with fairly high salaries. The average starting salary for a lawyer, based on the Lawyer Starting Salary register, is around $56,000. This average starting salary is just a jumping-off point. It is projected that in 20 years of practice, this amount should more than double.
The National Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP), however, states that in 2008, the salary for entry level lawyers in public or civil jobs ranged from $40,000 to $47,435. Attorneys wages in private practice for 2007 ranged from $68,000 to $130,000, on the average.
Despite these high figures, there are those who contend that Law is an overrated career that is glamorized by television. It does not take into account such realities as debts accrued while attending law school, time and effort needed by lawyers to establish a client base, and the fact that lawyers put long working hours into honing their skills in their profession.