Lawyers make a lot less money than the general public believes they do. Compared to other professions, many lawyers' incomes are low. However, the top lawyers earn extremely high sums of money, and even moderately successful lawyers make a decent living. Many lawyers find themselves in this position after graduating from law school. They must either strike out on their own in private practice or hold down another career while they look for legal employment.
The academic environment of law school is very competitive, and a student's performance there directly impacts the salary they will receive as an attorney. Since law schools keep meticulous records on their students, law firms that are actively hiring can do so based solely on the student's class rankings. This means that the best law firms in the best locations accept only the best students, while those in the bottom tenth of their class may have trouble finding work at any firm, let alone one that pays well.
A top-tier law school graduate quickly snapped up by a major firm in a major city like New York City can expect to earn more than $150,000 in their first year as an associate. Students at the lower pay scale can still expect to make roughly $120,000 per year, while those in even smaller cities may make closer to $70,000. Some new attorneys may make as little as $35,000 in their first year as an associate if they work as students in a small-town practice or for a smaller firm in a somewhat larger market.
There are several justifications for lawyers' high compensation, yet many people find these justifications wanting. The financial commitment required to become a lawyer is often the primary factor. Law school expenses are usually not covered by scholarships like those pursuing careers in the sciences or the humanities, so students must rely on personal savings or take out student loans to finance their education. Consequently, many graduates of law schools leave with roughly $150,000 in debt, and the chance that they may not be able to pay it off means that those who do acquire work make more money than those in a field without such a financial investment.
It is commonly believed that lawyers' high salaries directly result from the lavish lifestyles expected of them by their clients. Constant availability means that many lawyers put in fourteen- to sixteen-hour shifts. They may have to spend weeks, months, or even years in the office if the case is particularly challenging. As a result, many people believe that lawyers deserve the high salaries they receive annually since their job is harder than the jobs of most other people.
Obviously, some think lawyers are paid too much. Professional engineering schools are similarly expensive to those for lawyers, although engineers earn much less. Many professions, including nursing, involve long hours and little pay compared to that lawyers. Overall, lawyers earn precisely what the market will bear and their incomes will fall when there is less demand for their services or more lawyers competing for the available job.