In truth, lawyers earn much less on average than most people think they do. While it’s true that the top lawyers get exorbitant salaries, and even fairly successful lawyers make quite a bit, many lawyers earn relatively little when compared to other professional fields. In fact, a number of lawyers graduate from law school with no job in the field of law, and so are forced to either try to make their own way in private practice, or else to work another job while they struggle to find work at a firm.
Law school itself is incredibly competitive, and how students perform has a direct bearing on how much those future lawyers earn later in life. Because law schools track their students so closely, law firms looking to hire can hire directly based on what percentile the student ranked in their class. This means that the top firms in top cities tend to accept only those lawyers who did very well, while those who fell in the lower percentiles of their class may be lucky to find work at any firm, much less one that pays particularly well.
At the upper echelons, a law student who excelled in their class, and so was scooped up by a large law firm in a top market like New York City can expect to make more than $150,000 US Dollars (USD) in their first year as an associate. Second-tier students can still hope to make around $120,000 USD, and students in even smaller cities may make closer to $70,000 USD in their first year. At the even lower ends, with students in practices in small towns, or at lesser firms in slightly larger markets, lawyers earn sometimes as little as $35,000 USD in their first year as an associate, and for some of these lawyers advancement may never come.
As to why lawyers make so much money, there are a number of reasons that support their salaries, although to many these reasons are not entirely satisfactory. The most commonly cited reason is simply the investment of money to become a lawyer. Unlike many graduate programs in the sciences or liberal arts, there does not tend to be money available for those wanting to become lawyers, so that the cost must be paid for either out of pocket or through loans. Thus, many people come out of law school with around $150,000 USD in debt, and the risk that they may not be able to pay it off means that those who do get work make more money than those in a profession without such a financial investment.
Many people also suggest that lawyers earn as much as they do because of the lifestyle they have to lead as lawyers. Many lawyers work fourteen to sixteen hour days, and are constantly on call. During hard cases they may be expected to virtually live in an office, and this can drag on for weeks or months, or even years in some cases. This hardship is thought to far exceed that of many other professions, helping to justify what lawyers get each year.
Of course, there are those who would simply say that lawyers earn too much for what they do. Engineers also tend to have to outlay a great deal of money to attend a professional school, and yet their salaries are substantially less than those of a lawyer. Nurses may find themselves working nonstop, as may any number of other professions, but they earn nowhere near what lawyers make. Ultimately, it would seem lawyers earn exactly as much as the market will bear, and when there is either less demand for their services, or more lawyers to compete for the work there is, their salaries will drop.