How Much Money Does a Lawyer Make?

Sometimes you want to know how much a lawyer makes, especially when you look at his or her bill! The truth is, not all lawyers make hundreds of thousands of dollars, but some do. The amount of money a lawyer makes depends greatly on the field of law and the quality of the attorney.

Lawyers fall into two basic categories. They will work in either criminal law or civil law. Civil law represents any practice of law outside of the criminal justice system. For this reason, there are only a handful of criminal law categories and hundreds of civil law categories. A criminal attorney works to either prosecute or defend a person charged with a crime. Civil law encompasses a broad spectrum of attorneys that can practice many different types of law. Attorneys can practice both criminal and civil law.

There are four essential types of law practices where you will find the amount a lawyer makes varies greatly. These include public interest, private practice, government and corporate. While public interest attorneys make the least, corporate lawyers are the highest paid.  Each type of practice has its own benefits and drawbacks.

Public Interest

Lawyers who work in the public interest are not in it for the money. Many make as little as $25,000 per year. Laws are now in place to help these attorneys pay their student loans, which can run as high as $80,000 or more. Lawyers who spend a substantial amount of their careers working in public interest can have their government loan debts forgiven after 15 years of making payments based on their earnings. Public interest lawyers can work for non-profit organizations or be public defenders in the criminal justice system.

Public interest attorneys gain the satisfaction of knowing they are working for the public good. They are responsible for changing the mores of a society based on fairness and social justice. These attorneys also protect the less fortunate and defend those who cannot afford to hire an attorney. This sort of selfless employment can be very rewarding and satisfying.

Private Practice


Most lawyers work in private practices. They may work independently, be a member of a firm, or be a law firm partner. The pay scale in private practices can vary wildly, based on an attorney’s schooling, experience and record of accomplishment. Even the size of the firm can affect the pay scale.

Salaries can also differ by location, with urban attorneys making more than rural ones. Family lawyers generally tend to make less than lawyers in other fields do. Still, the average urban family lawyer makes between $100,000 and $200,000 per year depending on the number of hours worked.

Trial lawyers and plaintiff attorneys are often employed in private practices and can earn millions if they come across high-profile cases. However, such cases are rare. Patent attorneys, or intellectual property lawyers in the entertainment industry, require special training. Working in such a highly specialized field, they make an average of $115,000 per year. The highest paid patent attorneys can make as much as $300,000 per year.

Starting Lawyer Salaries

A starting attorney can make between $40,000 and $80,000 per year. However, in the highest paying markets, such as cities like New York and Washington DC (and sometimes even Boston), first year associates can find work starting at $160,000 per year. Other cities may pay around $120,000 per year. Smaller rural areas may start attorneys as low as $35,000, but around $70,000 is more common. While these numbers may tempt many to enter the field of law, finding a job as a lawyer is extremely difficult. Competition is stiff, causing many would-be lawyers to end up in another profession, still owing $80,000 in tuition and only making $30,000 per year.

Government Counsel

Governments often hire lawyers, employing them to provide legal advice. These lawyer positions are considered among the most secure in the legal field. Government attorneys often have the opportunity to work on high-profile cases, much more frequently than private practice attorneys do.

The benefits in government jobs are excellent and well beyond what one could expect in a private practice. In addition, government attorneys work standard 9 to 5 hours, unlike private practice lawyers who may work 80 hours per week. While government lawyers generally make less than those in private practice do, most of them make more than $100,000 a year.

Corporate Counsel

Lawyers who work for independent corporations are called corporate counsel. Going to work “in-house” as a corporate lawyer can be a risky move for an attorney working in a private practice. Although corporate attorneys make more money than any other type of attorney, these attorneys are often generalists, handling any law issues that come up for the company that employs them. They also spend little time in court, spending most of their days drafting and editing legal documents.

If an attorney has been working as in-house counsel, it is extremely difficult to get back into a private practice. Private practices need sharp attorneys with specific skills. After generalizing for a corporation and being out of the courtroom, prior in-house attorneys are thought of as out of practice.

In addition, other businesses prefer to hire private practice attorneys to come in house. This preference makes it hard for corporate lawyers to find jobs other corporations. Still, corporate attorneys can sometimes enjoy shorter hours. They can earn better benefits and sometimes be offered stock options and bonuses. If a high corporate salary is managed wisely, it may reduce the risk involved in working as a corporate attorney.

In general, unless you choose to work as a public interest attorney, you have a good chance of earning $100,000 or more per year. This generality only applies if you work very hard and go to a well-respected school for your law degree. Those who are not able to give their strongest effort and go to a good school may find themselves with a useless law degree and huge amount of student debt.