Wage Trends Over 20 Years
The average lawyer’s salary in 2020 was $148,910, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It rose 2.5% percent from 2019 to 2020, exactly equal to the inflation rate for that same period. (Note: BLS statistics cover wages for all lawyers but do not include profits for law firm partners and shareholders.)
Over the past 20 years, the average lawyer’s salary has grown faster than inflation. Since 2000, the average lawyer’s salary has increased 63%. Over the same period, the inflation rate was 53%.
But in recent years, the increase in lawyers’ wages has slowed down, particularly after the recession of 2008-09. The fastest growth over the past two decades was from 1997-2002, when the average lawyer wage rose 45% – from $72,840 in 1997 to $105,890 in 2002, not adjusted for inflation. By comparison, in the most recent five-year period, the average wage rose 9.3% – from $136,260 in 2015 to $148,910 in 2020.
Lawyers, on average, continue to earn less than many medical professionals, according to the BLS. The average wage for family medicine physicians is $214,370, compared to $148,910 for lawyers. Closer to the average for lawyers are financial managers at $151,510, marketing and sales managers at $150,400 and podiatrists at $151,110.
In related fields, the average wage for judges, magistrate judges and magistrates is $131,850, according to the BLS. For paralegals and legal assistants, it is $56,610.
Average Lawyer Wages by Metropolitan Area
The average wage for lawyers is highly dependent on geography – where the lawyer practices. Half of the 10 metropolitan statistical areas with the highest average wages for lawyers are in California: San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Rosa and Napa, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
On the flip side, three of the ten areas with the lowest average wages for lawyers are in Puerto Rico: Arecibo, Ponce and San Juan. Most of the other lowest-paid areas are in the Midwest and South: Daphne, Alabama; Danville, Illinois; Homosassa Springs, Florida; Valdosta, Georgia; Grants Pass, Oregon; Pine Bluff, Arkansas; and Kokomo, Indiana.
The disparity between some areas is huge. The average lawyer wage in the highest-paid area (San Jose, California, at $231,610) is more than four times greater than the average wage in the lowest-paid area (Arecibo, Puerto Rico, at $51,750).
Where’s the midpoint among all 353 metropolitan areas measured by the BLS? That’s Huntington, West Virginia., where the average lawyer wage is $112,780. Other metro areas near the midpoint include Columbus, Ohio; Syracuse, New York; Carson City, Nevada; and Fargo, North Dakota.
Law Firm Associates
The median salary for first-year law firm associates rose $10,000 (or 6.5%) from 2019 to 2021, from $155,000 to $165,000, according to a survey by the National Association for Law Placement. Associates’ salaries vary widely depending on the size of the law firm and where it is located.
Starting first-year salaries of $190,000 were announced at some firms in 2018, but the median salary across the country was still $25,000 below that level in 2021. At big law firms with 700 attorneys or more, the median first-year salary reached $190,000 for the first time in 2021. Nearly 40% of all first-year associates are paid $190,000 a year, according to the survey.
The median salary of $165,000 for first-year associates at private law firms was roughly triple the median salary for a first-year lawyer in a public service job ($48,000 to $58,300 for lawyers at legal aid offices, public interest groups, local prosecutor’s offices and public defender’s offices in 2018).
Law firm size was a major determining factor in the salaries of first-year associates. Larger firms generally paid more than smaller firms. The highest median salary for first-year associates ($190,000) was at firms with more than 700 lawyers. At the lower end, firms of 50 lawyers or fewer paid a median salary of $85,000 to first-year associates.
By comparison, the average salary for all lawyers nationwide in 2020 – whether they work in law firms, corporations, government, nonprofits or elsewhere – was $148,910, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That includes only wages and does not include profits for law firm partners and shareholders.
Public Service Lawyers
Wages for lawyers in public service jobs – local prosecutors, public defenders, legal aid attorneys and lawyers for nonprofit groups – have risen modestly since 2004, according to a survey by the National Association for Law Placement. For entry-level lawyers, the median salary increase over the 14-year period of 2004 to 2018 was between 37% and 49% – just ahead of the 34% rise in inflation for the same period.
In general, public service lawyers are paid far less than lawyers in other settings. For example, the median salary for a first-year lawyer working at a private law firm with 50 or fewer attorneys was about $85,000 in 2021. The median salary for a first-year public service lawyer was $48,000 to $58,300 in 2018.
The gap is even wider between first-year public service lawyers and first-year lawyers at large law firms in big cities. Starting salaries for new associates at large law firms can be $190,000 – double what even the most experienced public service lawyers earn.
Of all the categories of public service lawyers, those who work in civil legal aid offices, on average, are the lowest paid – both at the entry level and at the most-experienced level. For example, entry-level legal aid lawyers were paid, on average, $48,000 in 2018, but entry-level local prosecutors earned $56,200 and entry-level public defenders earned $58,300.
The same holds true at the more-experienced levels. Legal aid lawyers with 11 to 15 years of experience were paid, on average, $69,400 in 2018. Local prosecutors with similar experience earned $84,400 and public defenders with similar experience earned $96,400.