What Kind of Lawyers Get Paid the Most?

A lawyer’s salary depends on many factors, including their practice area. Other relevant variables include the lawyer’s employer, experience level, and location.

The average lawyer’s salary is about $127,000 per year. This places lawyers in the upper end of the middle class. By comparison, doctors average about $208,000 per year, placing them solidly in the upper class.

So what kind of lawyers get paid the most? Here are the variables that come into play.

Factors that Influence a Lawyer’s Pay

Market forces highly influence a lawyer’s pay. A lawyer’s practice area will narrow down the market where they can work. Geography will determine both the cost of living and the employers for whom an attorney can work. The lawyer’s experience will also help to determine their pay rate.

The Lawyer’s Location

A lawyer’s location probably has one of the largest impacts on how much they will get paid. For example, the lowest-paid lawyer in Northern California might make more than the highest-paid lawyer in rural Pennsylvania.

The metropolitan areas with the highest lawyer salaries include San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. The areas with the lowest attorney salaries include Southern Oregon, Central Pennsylvania, and Western Ohio.

The Lawyer’s Experience Level

Experience has a major influence on an attorney’s income. Associate lawyers work as employees of a law firm. They earn a salary and may receive a bonus at the discretion of the law firm.

Partners or shareholders own a law firm. They usually receive a salary and a share of the firm’s profits. In a good year, the partners can make several times an associate’s salary.

The Lawyer’s Employer

Different employers pay different salaries. In-house lawyers with large companies make more than other lawyers.

Lawyers in private practice earn less than in-house lawyers. Among attorneys in private practice, those at large firms make more than small firm lawyers and solo practitioners.

Government lawyers make almost as much as private practitioners, depending on their exact role. For example, federal prosecutors make more than the average salary. Staff lawyers in a state government agency will probably earn less.

Law professors earn a solid living. Their salaries usually fall somewhere close to government lawyers’ salaries.

Public interest lawyers usually earn less than other lawyers. These lawyers advocate for public interest organizations like environmental groups, government oversight groups, and charities.

The Lawyer’s Practice Area

The lawyer’s practice area will set the market for the lawyer’s services. Supply and demand will determine the lawyer’s salary based on the number of lawyers practicing in the same field and the amount of work available.

Some of the better-paying fields include:

Patent Law

Patent lawyers are in high demand and low supply. Patent lawyers must have an undergraduate degree in science or engineering, earn a law degree, and pass a special test called the patent bar exam. As a result, very few lawyers practice patent law.

Moreover, the technology companies that need patent lawyers usually locate themselves in high-salary markets like San Jose, California. As a result, patent lawyers often demand a high salary.

Corporate Counsel

In-house lawyers for large corporations can earn a lot of money. A company’s corporate counsel usually acts as an officer for the company. As such, the corporate counsel often receives stock options and a high salary.

Although corporate counsel pay will vary widely depending on the company, a corporate counsel for billion-dollar businesses can earn millions of dollars per year.

Healthcare Law

Healthcare lawyers work for hospitals, medical device manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, and insurance companies to ensure their clients comply with government healthcare regulations. They also help to defend their clients from medical malpractice and product liability claims.

Personal Injury Law

Personal injury lawyers usually work on a contingent fee. This means they receive a share of the compensation they recover for their clients. 

Successful personal injury lawyers can recover hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for clients over their careers. As a result, a knowledgeable and experienced personal injury lawyer can earn a good salary while getting results for their clients.