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Summary: Recently graduated law students should understand their value as a lawyer as well as the value of their practice area. This article breaks down the most lucrative practice areas in law.
For many attorneys today, to simply have a job is the big payoff for years of study and a slew of tests.
But while having a legal job is a great accomplishment, lawyers should also understand how lucrative their practice area (or areas) may be.
With law school debt and the overall expense of life, lawyers need to consider the monetary value of their legal specialty so they can comfortably survive law…and life.
The Love and the Lucrative
We hear it almost on a daily basis when it comes to careers: Do something you enjoy. While this is sage advice, this sort of instruction is really only half-baked.
What really needs to be said is do something you enjoy, but make sure it pays the rent, too.
While passion can inject the correct kind of romance into any profession, law notwithstanding, passion can’t supplant the fact that all of us have a fiduciary responsibility to ourselves to make sure what we do – inasmuch as our job career goes – also keeps a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs.
In fact, our careers need to do even more than that. The job we select, in the field in which we have an interest, needs to pay our monthly bills as well as set us up for a viable future after we stop working; in other words, that very foreign word (or world) that many in today’s workforce can barely conceive for themselves, which is retirement.
Practice Makes Perfect
At one point during law school, you will need to choose a practice area in which you would like to concentrate your legal career. This decision can be based on several notions of what you want out of a job as an attorney:
If you enjoy law-related arguing and writing then litigation may be your calling.
Environmental law may be of interest to you should you be concerned with the environment and how it is affected by human uses.
Finance-related law is the usual practice area for attorneys who have an interest or a background in finance. This includes investments, trusts and other personal and corporate finance.
Attorneys who specialize in intellectual property law protect patents, trademarks, copyrights and other types of properties that can be garnered as profitable entities.
Tax attorneys protect individuals and companies by keeping apprised of those entities’ tax situations while also staying up to date on continuously changing tax laws. Note: these attorneys tend to be rare and quite specialized.
If you have an interest in labor, labor unions, fair treatment of employees and employment in general, the practice area of employment and labor will be your area of legal practice.
Real estate law is a particularly important practice area in developed and densely populated locales as well as settings that are soon to be developed.
Of course, there exist other legal practice areas not touched upon in this article, as well as practice areas that may soon develop because of changes in the legal, ethical and social worlds. Take marijuana law for instance and the legalization of pot in an increasing number of states – currently those attorneys are very busy, though it is a bit too early to estimate what their pay scale is at the moment. See How Will the Legalization of Marijuana Effect the Legal Industry? for more information.
Needless to say, this article does not need to tell you, the emerging attorney, to avoid picking a practice area based solely on the average salary attorneys in these areas make.
Yes, it is good to know your potential worth within your legal specialty, however young attorneys should be aware that lawyers who pick practice areas based on that area’s pay level alone have a tendency to be disappointed, dislike their work, and unless they have a fall back practice area or can successfully migrate to a new firm where the work will be more to their satisfaction, they often resort to quitting law entirely.
So What’s the Score?
According to an article published on The Balance Careers website, titled “The Highest Paying Legal Jobs,” the legal industry offers hundreds of career options with salaries that range from minimum wage to nine-digits. Of course, much of this depends on geographic location, market demand, experience level, practice environment and employer size as well as the job itself.
But for the purposes of this article, the following list highlights the highest compensated legal jobs for which law school, JDs, and passage of the bar are required.
Trial lawyers are among the highest paid legal professionals in the world. Thousands practice across the globe, but litigators who handle high-dollar, high-profile and high-stakes cases are the most highly compensated. Not all lawyers rake in high incomes, however. Many public interest lawyers and solo practitioners earn modest salaries. The median annual salary for all lawyers was $133,470 in 2014, up from $110,590 in 2008.
Intellectual Property Lawyers
Intellectual property laws protect ideas: patents, copyrights, trademarks and other profitable concepts. This is a fast-growing area of law as technology continues to advance, and it is also statistically among the most lucrative. The median pay is nearly $143,000 as of 2016, while lawyers on the high end can earn as much as $270,000 a year.
Tax attorneys work with both individuals and businesses to solve tax issues. They help with estate planning, and even with suing the Internal Revenue Service. They are often essential consultants when someone is starting a business or when contracts must be drafted. Although this type of work isn’t as flashy as that of trial lawyers, tax attorneys still bring in decent paychecks. The median pay is about $99,000 as of 2016, while some make as much as $189,000 each year.
Employment and Labor Attorneys
Employment and labor attorneys work to ensure that relationships between employers and employees stay balanced and fair. They represent either the employers and management or the employees. They are compensated well. The median pay for an employment lawyer is about $82,000 as of 2016, with some attorneys earning as much as $90,000 a year or more.
Real Estate Attorneys
Real estate attorneys review offers and contracts and make sure that buyers get fair deals. They also work with sellers to make sure everything is fair on that end. Although real estate attorneys make decent salaries—the median is $79,000 and these lawyers can earn as much as $149,000 a year—nearly one in four real estate attorneys are not awarded benefits.
Chief Legal Officers
Chief legal officers, also known as general counsels, head the law departments of corporations. Of course, the general counsel’s salary is dependent on the size of the corporation. Earnings for CLO's heading large, multi-national corporations can reach seven figures. In addition to base salaries, chief legal officers also earn bonuses, stock options and other perks that can considerably sweeten their compensation packages.
Women are rising in the CLO pay ranks, according to the 2011 General Counsel Compensation Survey. For the first time in the history of the survey, a woman—the top legal officer at tobacco giant Altria Group, Inc.—topped the survey that year, taking home $6.5 million in total cash compensation.
Judges preside over court proceedings in federal, state and local courts. Judges and magistrates earn a median annual salary of $156,250 as of 2016, with a range from $153,265 to $174,860. The highest-paid judgeships are those within the federal court system, while local judges and magistrates earn the least. In addition to generous salaries, most judges enjoy excellent benefits, expense accounts and contributions to retirement plans made on their behalf, increasing the size of their compensation packages.
Conclusion/Don’t Listen to the Critics
Law isn’t an easy business. It is demanding, competitive, and at times not in the least bit fair. Add onto the continual demand of needful clients and situations, and soon anyone can develop an appreciation for the difficulties that can be presented with the legal profession.
But what should ultimately be considered is the value of a lawyer themselves. Lawyers are in high demand. They are in high demand to perform at high levels and with that, produce outstanding results. The challenges are many and the preparation is vast.
This should solidify the value of a good lawyer, and conversely be understood by a good lawyer how important he or she is in the practice area within which they specialize.
The idea is to not sell yourself short. You know your work’s value, and just as significant, how your work can increase the value of a client.
Of course, this isn’t to say a lawyer should charge stratospheric hourly wages, and pile on billable hours to the point of ridiculousness. That’s greed, and in many cases can break the law as well as (and even more importantly), irreparably break an attorney-client spirit of trust.
No, this is about fairness, and until you know how fairly in the monetary sense that you should be treated, you truly will not get the most you can out of your legal career.