How much do lawyers really make?

The outlook for the legal profession is bright according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (US BLS). The total number of jobs available for lawyers in 2014 was 778,700; however, the job outlook for the ten-year period from 2014 through 2024 predicts an increase in the number of jobs for lawyers. A six percent increase will add another 43,800 jobs for lawyers by the year 2024. The BLS notes that competition for jobs will continue to be strong as more students graduate from law school and enter the job pool. Specific state and local data regarding lawyers can be found through the BLS here.

Average Salaries for Lawyers Nationwide

According to the most recent BLS statistics (2015) regarding lawyers with a doctoral or professional degree, lawyers can expect to earn an average of $55.27 per hour of $114,970 per year.  Of course, the hourly rate is based on an average of all positions reviewed. The rate attorneys charge vary greatly for a variety of reasons. Attorneys in some areas of law or some geographic areas have the ability to charge much more than their counterparts in another state or another field of law.

Therefore, some attorneys can earn much less than $55 per hour while other attorneys earn hundreds of dollars per hour. As with any other job, several factors affect the average wage of a lawyer.


Factors Affecting What a Lawyer Earns

Being an attorney is a specialized job; however, all attorneys are not paid the same fee even if though they all have a law degree and they all have passed at least one state bar. Factors that affect how much an attorney charges for his or her services include:


Geographical Location

You pay more for milk, gas, vehicles, and movie tickets depending on where you live in the United States. This is true for almost any consumer product or service including legal services. The geographic location where you practice law will affect the rate you are able to charge your client and/or the salary you are able to earn from a law firm.  In a study conducted by William D. Henderson, Center on the Global Legal Profession at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, and the ABA Journal, a team analyzed statistics to map the average lawyer salary throughout the United States.

At the time of the study, five of the top six cities for attorney salaries were in California. The salaries ranged from $153,540 to $192,020.  Lawyers in rural areas typically earn less per hour compared to lawyers in large metropolitan areas. For example, an attorney practicing in a small rural area in Kansas may earn $50 per hour for the same exact legal services performed by a lawyer in Los Angeles, Atlanta, or New York where hourly rates for the same legal service could be as high as $300 to $500 per hour.

The variety in the range of fees in metropolitan areas also depends greatly on what part of the country you practice law.  The study found the metropolitan area with the highest average mean wage per year for an attorney as San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California ($192,020).  However, Salt Lake City, UT ranted 35th on the list with an average median wage of $125,010 per year. Even though both are metropolitan areas, Salt Lake City has only about a tenth of the population of SanJose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California.  The larger the metropolitan area is with regard to population also affects the average rate an attorney can charge in that area.

Field of Law

The field of law an attorney chooses also greatly affects the salary the attorney can expect to earn for his or her legal services. Complex, corporate litigation attorneys tend to earn more than attorneys who prepare simple wills or handle uncontested divorces. However, you must take into consideration the level of cases the attorney is handling when you use field of law as a factor in determining how much an attorney can charge.

Complexity of Cases

The complexity of the case is an integral element with field of law to determine how much a lawyer charges for his or her fees. Let’s turn our example above around a bit.  The corporate attorney handles the paperwork for setting up simple corporations and drafting contracts for small, local business projects. A family law attorney handles complex, contested divorces for multi-millionaires, prepares complicated pre-marital agreements for wealthy clients, and provides estate planning services for wealthy clients. In this scenario, the family law attorney would bill much more for his services than the corporate law attorney. You must take field of law and clientele into consideration together when determining how much an attorney can earn for his or her services.

Experience and Education

If you ask a seasoned attorney who is a partner in a large law firm, he will probably tell you that experience trumps education but education is a good indication of how hard the lawyer is willing to work to gain rear world experience. Clients definitely pay more for an attorney who has earned her degree from a more prestigious law school because she probably works for a larger law firm that charge higher fees for all staff members.  Clients definitely pay more for experience regardless of whether the attorney works for a large or small firm.

Peer and Customer Review

Attorneys must deal with peer and customer reviews as other professionals do. A poor peer review or several bad client reviews may result in the attorney lowering prices until he can improve those reviews.  Attorneys with high peer and customer reviews can charge higher fees compared to attorneys with poor reviews.

Other Factors That Affect Lawyer’s Fees

There are many other factors that can affect the fee a lawyer may change including how the attorney bills his clients; whether the attorney works for himself or a firm;if the attorney works for a government agency, public office, or in the private sector; and, pricing structure.


  1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Lawyers
  2. World Magacy, “How much does a lawyer make? 7 factors affecting salary range”
  3. ABA Journal, What America’s Lawyers Earn,” Rachel M. Zahorsky, March 1,2011

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