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Why Do Lawyers Earn So Much?

Many lawyers work fourteen to sixteen hour days.
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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
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  • Last Modified Date: 15 April 2014
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In truth, lawyers earn much less on average than most people think they do. While it’s true that the top lawyers get exorbitant salaries, and even fairly successful lawyers make quite a bit, many lawyers earn relatively little when compared to other professional fields. In fact, a number of lawyers graduate from law school with no job in the field of law, and so are forced to either try to make their own way in private practice, or else to work another job while they struggle to find work at a firm.

Law school itself is incredibly competitive, and how students perform has a direct bearing on how much those future lawyers earn later in life. Because law schools track their students so closely, law firms looking to hire can hire directly based on what percentile the student ranked in their class. This means that the top firms in top cities tend to accept only those lawyers who did very well, while those who fell in the lower percentiles of their class may be lucky to find work at any firm, much less one that pays particularly well.

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At the upper echelons, a law student who excelled in their class, and so was scooped up by a large law firm in a top market like New York City can expect to make more than $150,000 US Dollars (USD) in their first year as an associate. Second-tier students can still hope to make around $120,000 USD, and students in even smaller cities may make closer to $70,000 USD in their first year. At the even lower ends, with students in practices in small towns, or at lesser firms in slightly larger markets, lawyers earn sometimes as little as $35,000 USD in their first year as an associate, and for some of these lawyers advancement may never come.

As to why lawyers make so much money, there are a number of reasons that support their salaries, although to many these reasons are not entirely satisfactory. The most commonly cited reason is simply the investment of money to become a lawyer. Unlike many graduate programs in the sciences or liberal arts, there does not tend to be money available for those wanting to become lawyers, so that the cost must be paid for either out of pocket or through loans. Thus, many people come out of law school with around $150,000 USD in debt, and the risk that they may not be able to pay it off means that those who do get work make more money than those in a profession without such a financial investment.

Many people also suggest that lawyers earn as much as they do because of the lifestyle they have to lead as lawyers. Many lawyers work fourteen to sixteen hour days, and are constantly on call. During hard cases they may be expected to virtually live in an office, and this can drag on for weeks or months, or even years in some cases. This hardship is thought to far exceed that of many other professions, helping to justify what lawyers get each year.

Of course, there are those who would simply say that lawyers earn too much for what they do. Engineers also tend to have to outlay a great deal of money to attend a professional school, and yet their salaries are substantially less than those of a lawyer. Nurses may find themselves working nonstop, as may any number of other professions, but they earn nowhere near what lawyers make. Ultimately, it would seem lawyers earn exactly as much as the market will bear, and when there is either less demand for their services, or more lawyers to compete for the work there is, their salaries will drop.

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anon343061
Post 22

I am about to embark on a career as a junior solicitor for a small London law practice. Long hours and hard work are part of the reason a lawyer will earn more than your average profession throughout ones lifetime. At the end of the day, you get out what you put in. I can't wait.

anon339860
Post 21

Lawyers are the larval form of politicians and should be exterminated.

anon336053
Post 20

Looking at the legal profession compared to other professions exactly what good do lawyers add to society. They produce no product, save or make better no life or offer any service other than finding ways of profiting from others hardships.

Every time a lawsuit is filled, someone is accused of a crime or a product doesn't work perfectly there are lawyers on both sides producing unnecessary paperwork that only produces more work and money for the legal profession. How much less would health care cost if every doctor didn't constantly worry about being sued, even when they know they have done their best to help or save a patient?

anon326082
Post 19

I would not say that lawyers' salaries are too high. I think they are about right. Engineers, however, have salaries that are too low for their contribution to the society. In our society (United States):

Lawyers: paid about right; doctors: paid about right; engineers: underpaid (and this will hurt the entire society sooner or later); teachers: underpaid (and this will also hurt the entire society sooner or later); financial sector ("Wall Street"): severely overpaid.

The above incentives result in most of our talented youth not pursuing engineering degrees. This is a serious problem.

anon249390
Post 17

I agree with Anon106892 and many others. I work as a criminal defense/DUI attorney in Chicago - one of the biggest legal markets around. The sheer number of people charged with crimes means that as a lawyer of virtually any skill level, you could potentially be the last hope for someone in danger of losing their livelihood or years of their life.

The responsibility that we bear is the reason that there are sleepless nights and weeks long trials. And no, you can't measure the value of an attorney by how much he or she charges, but the truth is that most of us in the trenches, in the courtroom every day, aren't pulling in $150,000 running from court to court. We're counting on clients to pay us who have absolutely no idea the sheer amount of work and knowledge that goes into their case.

I used to be a bleeding-heart, "pay when and what you can" kind of lawyer. No longer. I have $1000 in loans to pay each month. I try to keep my rates fair, but as a private solo lawyer I'm not working the inadvertent pro bono cases anymore.

Worst part is that I feel bad quoting a client the amount that I think is reasonable for their case. But the truth is, if you want us to take on your problem as our own and try to fix it -- with all the problems and stupidity that comes with doing that -- you need to give lawyers some incentive to take your case. I used to do misdemeanor DUIs for under $1,000 when I first started. Those days are over.

If the public thinks that we make too much, tough. Forget them. I assure you that when my clients are paying me enough that I can take up some pro bono work, I'd be glad to help you out with your problem that you think you can trick me into doing for less money than the gas it costs to get to your court date. Until then, pay your bills and if you don't like the price, get a different lawyer.

anon154957
Post 16

Lawyers make the amount they do in accord with their job's entailments. I can assure you that some of the brightest people i have met are lawyers. They come when people need them the most, much like doctors. In some ways they provide a service that save individuals lives. It would be ignorant to discount the amount of education, and competition that lawyers go through in order to obtain their career.

Unlike other professions which suck the life blood of society (teacher's union), the glutton that paunches society, lawyers bring a code of conduct that is prudent, palatable, and deserving of respect.

anon114527
Post 14

Lawyers make what they make because they possess a highly technical skill set and knowledge base which is necessary to provide many vital functions in society.

In reply to anon75214, who wrote "Engineers make a far greater impact on society as a whole," I would urge you to think very carefully about society and how it functions. If you live in a big city, do you enjoy not being shot, beaten, or robbed on a regular basis? You have the prosecutors in your local DA's office to thank for that (in part, along with police and other members of municipal government).

Wherever you live, you're probably glad that you can own property, which you can buy and sell without fear of being cheated. This property interest is protected by a large body of contract law written and enforced by, you guessed it, lawyers.

You're probably also glad you can't be arrested for no reason and imprisoned indefinitely. The number of lawyers in a country is inversely proportional to the country's tendency to harass its citizens through the police power.

Did you know James Madison studied law in between participating in the revolution and writing the Constitution? He knew the skill set and knowledge of lawyers was necessary to write a document that would actually protect freedoms and keep government functioning, rather than a document which would sound good but fail to work in practice.

And finally, you're probably glad to have access to all the nifty products delivered to you by modern corporations (which need lawyers to come into existence) through the mechanisms of global trade made possible by international business transaction law.

You are right that engineers make a great contribution to society, including most of the technology of the last 200 years which moved society through the industrial revolution and into the information age, but the foundations of the society which made this possible were laid by lawyers.

Yes, there are bad apples, like the plaintiff's attorney mentioned by anon31743 who recommends mothers sue no matter what, hoping to get lucky with a jury or a settlement, but by far the majority of attorneys are not like that.

I go to a state law school so it is quite different from the stereotype of the big Ivy League schools, but most of our graduates go on to practice small-town law, doing things like preparing wills, incorporating small businesses, suing someone who drove his tractor drunk and ran over his neighbor's pig -- things like that -- and making under $40,000/year.

These are all necessary functions and I would definitely not say these lawyers are overpaid. In fact, they probably make less than most engineers.

anon110874
Post 13

As an attorney, I can say that this text is SPOT ON. Small to medium sized firms pay about 35k - 75k on average. Big firms can pay 75k to 100k for first year, and little by little, you can get up to 200k+, but that's only for the cream of the crop. Average attorney, in the end, gets about 50k a year, if lucky. Dentist, physician, or other professions are much better investments.

anon106892
Post 12

More important than the investment in tuition is the investment in the time, energy, and effort required to become a licensed attorney. There is also a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of attorneys.

Most cases are extremely complicated with no guidebook, yet people's lives and businesses are at stake. There is pressure for results, and if something were to go wrong, attorneys will be held to a higher standard. This leads to a lot of work and stress, and the only way to make it worthwhile is to be properly compensated.

anon97595
Post 11

It is a profession for which some people are suited, and many are not. And people who seek legal services create a demand for lawyers, so I suppose in a purely economic sense lawyers are paid what they should be paid as determined by the forces of demand and supply.

I'm not sure whether lawyers are overpaid or not. But after the amount of study and effort it took to get into law school, and the fierce competition experienced amongst some of the brightest and most determined people I've met, I sure hope to be paid well.

anon82994
Post 10

AS all my brothers and sisters from different countries are saying lawyers study to know the law and they use it to defend individuals, society, and even make better changes where needed.

We all can know and live by it so we don't get into trouble with the law but some choose not to know and not to obey the laws of the nation. In this case they fall into the hands of the law and thank God for lawyers who have devoted their lives to know what the law is, the meaning of it, and how to defend and amend it are always there to defend those who choose to disobey the law.

Lawyers deserve their salaries. Thank you.

anon82990
Post 9

Why do lawyers "earn so much?" Simply because that is the price that people are willing to pay for lawyer's services. And law schools only graduate so many lawyers a year. The price is set by the intersection of supply and demand.

Are lawyers smarter than everyone else? In comparison to scientists, mathematicians, engineers, hell no. But you notice: engineers make more than scientists and mathematicians, .because that's what people are willing to pay.

anon75214
Post 8

Engineers make a far greater impact on society as a whole and in most cases do not earn what they deserve. I will be graduating from engineering in the summer and I can't look forward to a $150,000 starting salary, but I know that I'll be able to produce products or services that people will use to benefit their lives.

anon58681
Post 7

I'm a lawyer at a big firm and I make as much as my wife's mother who is a nurse. We are hardly "overpaid." It is only a few. I have seen several attorneys at the courthouse in wrinkled clothing and worn out shoes. Don't believe the hype.

anon56857
Post 6

Lawyers are grossly overpaid. The misery and problems they cause the american people can't be calculated. WE are all paying about $3000 per year in unnecessary costs to us because of lawyers. Trust me, they are not your friend, you should despise them, never trust one, never believe a word from them.

Diwiyana
Post 4

Everyone deserves his or her day in court when wronged, so everyone deserves adequate representation by a trained lawyer. Lawyers also become better judges, knowing the law. There is also administrative law -- those who determine whether one should obtain unemployment insurance, disability payments, Social Security, and so on, when these are in dispute. One wants an impartial judge of one's case, someone who knows not only the pertinent statute but also understands something about justice and impartiality. Lawyers have been known to right a few wrongs too -- Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi was a lawyer. So was Abe Lincoln. So's my daddy.

anon31743
Post 3

As is true with other professions, a few give the whole group a bad name. My personal dislike is for the class action trial lawyers and the medical malpractice trial lawyers. It is my view that the class action suits are often not appropriate and that the awards are not reasonable (of course, that is due to juries and judges).

As to malpractice, again I have the view that the lawyers get most of the money and the injured party gets relatively little. Some of those suits are not appropriate. For example, I heard that one speaker at a trial lawyers conference said, "If a woman has a bad baby, you should bring a suit." There are many reasons for a "bad baby" that the obstetrician and the hospital had absolutely nothing to do with. Making being a doctor legally hazardous is not in the interest of the patients. Not that I am opposed to everyone having their day in court if an injury has been done to them. It is always the deep pockets that are the target of a suit and the fact is that all doctors are not rich. Insurance company money, like government money, is not free money.

anon31734
Post 2

At least we know that lawyers work hard for their money. There are other professions that don't seem to work nearly as hard and make even more money and yet I never hear anyone complain about the exorbitant salaries of models, actors, or athletes! True, the sometimes short career of athletes and models compensates for their high salary, but the salaries of some Hollywood actors is incomprehensible! I don't begrudge them the money, I just wonder why more people don't complain about paying $10 for a movie ticket!

anon31726
Post 1

Certainly there are negative and positive polarities about this subject: the lawyer who depends a lot on her best detective work--outsources her own secretary...hired at a much lower wage; the ones who take legal aid certificate after l.a. certificate and

'finish' nearly broke...lawyers...after retirement, who admit that they were actually

hired because their 'score' on a different scale was more valid than their GA: kindness; clarity and compassion.

-Klutzy Secretary

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