Many people believe that all lawyers are wealthy and earn a very comfortable living. This idea is likely reinforced by depictions of lawyers in movies and television shows such as “Suits.” In these representations, lawyers are shown spending their wealth and enjoying the high life off their earnings. Although some lawyers are extraordinarily wealthy, being a lawyer alone is rarely a means to achieve extreme wealth. Indeed, the vast majority of lawyers earn relatively modest incomes among other professionals in the workforce.
Like most applicants to law school, I was drawn to the legal profession by promises of a comfortable life as a practicing attorney. I was fortunate to earn a summer associate position and later a full-time associate gig at a Biglaw firm, and the position did not disappoint me in terms of compensation. In this role, I earned more money at 25 than many of the people with whom I attended college, and it was easy to satisfy my student debt and other financial responsibilities.
After leaving Biglaw, I earned a much more modest salary. I won’t be specific, but the salary was in the five-figure range, and was not too close to breaking the six-figure threshold. A relative of mine who was in the hospitality industry — and did not have a graduate degree — earned more money that me.
While earning this salary, I did not really want for anything. At the time, I had a roommate, and my living expenses were pretty low. Moreover, since I had paid off most of my student loans while working in Biglaw, I did not need to devote too much of my salary to student debt. At this time, I also started working a number of side hustles, and this gave me access to more money that I could use to fulfill my financial goals.
However, lawyers in other situations would have a much more difficult time supporting themselves and their families on the lower salary I earned after leaving Biglaw. Granted, some of the attorneys who were at that firm longer than me were paid more money than the junior associates. But people generally made around half or even less than what attorneys in Biglaw earned.
After leaving that law firm, I worked at a few shops as I progressed throughout my career. Each of these firms paid more than the one before, but I never made anything comparable to Biglaw money while working as an associate attorney at those shops. It was only when I started my own practice about five years ago that I started to earn money that was comparable to the Biglaw role I worked at the beginning of my career.
Lawyers are often compared with other learned professions when it comes to careers that can ensure comfortable earnings. However, this is not always accurate. I review a fair amount of physician contracts, and it seems that medical professionals earn significantly more than even highly paid lawyers. Moreover, individuals who work in finance can earn even more, and many financial professionals do not need to spend the time and money on graduate degrees. I am willing to bet that of the learned professionals that people tend to group together when discussing comfortable careers, attorneys on average earn the least. Of course, I would appreciate any feedback if someone can think of another professional career that tends to be less compensated.
Inflated notions of how much lawyers make can lead to a number of negative outcomes since people might be persuaded to enter the legal profession for the promise of a higher payday and be disappointed when they become an attorney. As a result, people should be more transparent about the actual compensation most lawyers can expect to earn in the legal profession. Of course, lawyers usually do well for themselves, and being a lawyer can be the pathway to a comfortable life. However, people should have a realistic understanding of how much an attorney can expect to earn that is divorced from depictions of lawyers in television shows and movies.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at email@example.com.