In the past, lawyers belonged to an elite socioeconomic class and enjoyed tremendous job security. "Corporate" lawyers who worked for well-funded private companies or secured partnership-level positions at reputable law firms earned salaries comparable to those commanded by medical specialists and surgeons. Law firm principals, malpractice lawyers, liability lawyers and certain trial attorneys might have earned even more than those medical professionals. In other words, the law was a coveted field that attracted the best and brightest graduates of the nation's elite undergraduate institutions.
While the law still attracts promising and ambitious young people, the earning power of the average lawyer has declined significantly since the 1980s. There are fewer lucrative opportunities available to newly-minted lawyers who lack years of practical experience. Most of these are reserved for graduates of top-tier law schools like Northwestern, Harvard and Yale. Most new lawyers find themselves relegated to "second-class" jobs that offer decent but unspectacular pay packages. Since many private law schools charge upwards of $200,000 for a three-year JD program, many new lawyers feel pressured to earn at least $100,000 immediately after graduation in order to remain financially comfortable. After all, the vast majority of law students finance their law school educations with high-interest student loans.
If you're going to be graduating from law school in the near future, you may struggle to repay your loans without access to a coveted corporate-law job. Then again, you may be dead-set against working in such an environment. Many new lawyers choose to gain experience in the public sector before "graduating" to higher-paying private-sector jobs. In most cases, so-called "government lawyer" jobs pay substantially less than private-practice jobs.
It's important to note that many modestly-paid government lawyers are expected to work just as hard as their private-practice peers. In fact, there's little correlation between "hours worked" metrics and compensation figures. Many government lawyers must work for 70 to 80 hours per week on a regular basis.
In the public sector, lawyers' pay scales vary tremendously across jurisdictional lines. Local lawyers who work for rural county or city governments generally receive smaller compensation packages than specialized lawyers who work for the federal government in the Washington, D.C. area. Lawyers who work for state governments and far-flung branches of federal agencies tend to earn middling salaries. In general, living costs and agency budgets play a substantial role in determining compensation rates for government lawyers. Whereas rural government lawyers might earn $50,000 to $75,000 per year, high-powered federal lawyers might command $100,000 to $120,000 per year.