Lawyers operate in a broad, diverse field and fill hundreds of distinct functions. Many lawyers routinely switch positions within the industry, and it's not uncommon for a single lawyer to play four or five different roles over the course of a 40-year career. Each of these roles may demand different sets of skills and may involve extensive retraining.
While mean and median starting salary information provides a great deal of information about the earning potential of many popular occupations, these two data points are less useful in the legal world. The reason for this is curious: Unlike in most other professions, legal starting salaries are distributed according to a bi-modal scheme. In other words, law school graduates can reasonably expect the value of the annual compensation that they receive from their first employer to fall within one of two narrow dollar ranges.
The mean starting salary for a recent law school graduate is about $85,000. The median starting salary is roughly $80,000. These two figures are somewhat higher than the average earnings of new lawyers who take humdrum positions as legal assistants, nonprofit counselors and public defenders. Although there remains some potential for advancement in these low-profile occupations, most lawyers aim for something larger.
Together, these "worker bee" lawyers make between $45,000 and $65,000 per year. Legal compensation is highly dependent upon cost-of-living factors and may vary considerably between regions. In general, lawyers who live in larger, more expensive cities tend to earn more than their rural or small-town counterparts. Likewise, lawyers who work for state or municipal governments tend to earn less than private-sector practitioners.
Conditions are better for a small but highly visible group of new lawyers. Known by various pejorative terms, these successful professionals earn between $155,000 and $170,000 per year. They are typically culled from the ranks of elite undergraduate institutions and may benefit from personal connections to already-practicing lawyers or officials as well as excellent law-school grades. They usually work for major "corporate" law firms or serve as in-house counsel to large corporations.
Lawyers who rise to "make partner" may earn a cut of their firm's profits. This may substantially increase their take-home pay. In addition, seasoned lawyers who specialize in high-profile tort cases may earn vastly more than the typical office drone. Depending upon their caseloads, the principals of product-liability firms can earn several million dollars per year.