“Show me the money!” said Rod Tidwell in the movie Jerry McGuire. That exclamation has become cliché. Even those who have never heard of or seen that movie take things down to brass tacks by shouting “Show me the money!”
Most everything revolves around money. Your ambitions as a lawyer may be driven by dreams of major compensation from winning a particularly thorny class action suit against an intensely egregious defendant. Or perhaps you are just that altruistic that law is the only career where you can consistently champion the underdog. Whatever your motivation for a career in law, you’re in business to make money, and making the most money possible is generally every business person’s goal. What kind of salary can you expect for any given field of law?
The answer depends on many factors. Where will you live when you practice law? What types of legal issues are more prevalent in your area? If you live in oil rich Oklahoma or the Permian Basin in Texas you might argue a lot of cases regarding mineral rights, drilling rights or environmental cases, all of which could be very lucrative. Therefore, a degree in tort law might suit your income aspirations. Or you might represent a multimillion dollar corporation with factories in several states. In that case you might want to specialize in corporate law.
Another factor to consider is: how many cases might you argue, win and/or dispose of (close) in one year? Some cases do not allow for very many billable hours – consider divorce in a no-fault state. You might represent several hundred clients per year, earning a flat fee for each. That would make specializing in family law attractive. Conversely, as an associate in a medium sized firm with a solid reputation you might be given a stable of clients who keep the firm on retainer and only call for legal services a few times a year, allowing you to accrue billable hours. Your income might consist of a base salary and a percentage of fees from those few times your clients call on you.
According to Jim Dunlop, who currently serves on the National Finance Committee of the John McCain presidential campaign, a recently graduated law student with a specialty degree should not expect fantastic paychecks until later in their career. He avers that first year associates in private firms generally receive the same starting salary regardless of what type of law they practice. A few years into their career specialization might matter, but it is largely determined by overall economical factors and if their area of legal expertise is in demand in that region, at that time.
Gihan Fernando, Assistant Dean for career services at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. reinforces Mr. Dunlop’s assertion: “Down the road there is probably some variation, but firms pretty much pay new associates the same regardless of their specialty area.”
The ABA – the American Bar Association tracks employment data, but not salary data. The NALP – the National Association for Law Placement, which publishes a survey of legal salaries, does not break those statistics down according to practice specialty areas. However, they do track and publish law professionals’ median income per year. Class of 2012 graduates could expect to earn approximately $80,798 per year (Click on the image for hyperlink):
At $78,653 Class of 2011 graduates’ mean income was slightly less (click on the image for hyperlink):
In his article “Which Legal Jobs Will Pay the Most?” Mr. Dunlop further avers: “with starting salaries roughly the same across the country, across the board and regardless of specialty, law firms tend to recruit associates using bonuses as an incentive.” Nancy Zehner, Esq of The Artemis Group, LTD reinforces that statement: “We’re seeing more variation in sign-on bonuses,”
A future law associate who is well represented – a member of professional organizations, has a respectable, high profile online and better than average grades can expect a sizeable sign-on bonus and, depending on performance, there may be end of year bonuses. Therefore, joining professional affiliations, volunteering and seeking experience clerking at a firm while still in school will help drive your marketability up while you are still in school.