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Why Most Law School Graduates Earn Less Money Than They Expect

The news that big firms were increasing their starting-salary levels from $135,000 to $145,000 caused me to remember one of the biggest misunderstandings that new law students have, that is, that they will make a lot of money right after graduation. From TV to newspapers, we hear about how much money attorneys earn. However, what many people don’t realize is that most recent law graduates won’t earn anywhere near the salaries offered to first year attorneys at the nation’s largest firms. For example, many public interest jobs, often representing constitutional law, make about $40,000. Many small firms have starting salaries around $40,000 too. Mid-range firms go up from there, but often require much more than 40 hours per week.

Too often law students rack up high debts in reliance upon earning $100,000 a year after graduation. But that salary is not available to the majority of students. There are a number of factors that will affect your salary level:

  • What school do you go to? The better the reputation of your school, the more likely you will get a higher paying job. However, very high grades can compensate for a school’s mediocre reputation.
  • How large is the city you plan to work in? Large cities generally pay more because of the higher cost of living, larger firms, and larger clients.
  • How large is the firm you will work in? Larger firms generally pay more, but they will require higher grades and possibly more work.
  • What type of law do you intend to practice? Public interest jobs, government jobs, in-house counsel (working at a corporation), often pay less than private practice (working at a law firm).

You can probably get statistics based on employment of former students from your law school’s career services office.

The point is this: As a law student, you should use realistic salary levels when planning your financial future and current debt. Law school is a valuable investment in yourself, and is almost certain to pay for itself in financial terms, not to mention intangible ways. But don’t expect a six-digit income upon graduation unless that is realistic for you. Unfortunately, some attorneys learn this lesson the hard way.

11-23-07 Update: This article has been updated. Please read Many Law Graduates Disappointed: Few Jobs, Low Salaries, High Stress.

Leave a Comment

  • 2L July 13, 2006, 3:18 pm

    In response to this article, the CALI Pre-Law Blog makes a great point:

    [S]ome students may get the impression that if a person doesnt get the right ranking at the right school in the first year, thereby missing out on the big law firm job, then they are stuck with $40,000 by default.

    The PreLaw Blog then links to articles with more information on the range of salaries available to law students. Read the entire Pre-Law Blog article to learn more about salary ranges.

  • bman June 25, 2007, 10:23 am

    You offer no empirical evidence for your findings whatsoever. What schools are you talking about?

  • 2L June 25, 2007, 5:34 pm


    Thanks for your feedback. The fact that this article offers no empirical evidence is a fair criticism. However, these conclusions are based on extensive anecdotal evidence.

    In particular, these conclusions are based on reports from friends I have at first-tier through fourth-tier schools as well as my own experience seeking legal jobs. For example, I know a particular law firm with 12 attorneys in a major metropolitan area that pays its starting attorneys (the most recent hire had average grades from a Tier 1 law school) a starting salary of $35,000 with a possible annual bonus of up to $5,000.

    In addition, I presume most, if not all, recently graduated law students would generally agree with the article above because it is considered general knowledge for those who have gone through the process of seeking a law job.

    Finally, please keep in mind that the values in this article were from 2006, so they should be adjusted for today.

    Thanks again for your comment. Hopefully this additional information will help you determine how much value to place on the assertions above.