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Median vs. Mean Lawyer Salaries: Is Law School Worth It?


A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), "Hard Case: Job Market Wanes for U.S. Lawyers", reported on the large number of law school graduates suffering under large debt with surprisingly low salary prospects.

If only these prospective law students had been reading this blog. They would have understood the difference between median and mean, and that only 10% of students can be in the 90th percentile of salaries 🙂

While the Wall Street Journal focused on the somewhat misleading marketing done by second tier law schools, in truth there is plenty of data available, e.g., from PayScale's research center, on just how low the typical median starting lawyer salaries are.

In this post, I'll look at lawyers salaries: the top, the bottom, and the middle. Yes, for specific skill sets and employers, the attorney salaries are still good. That pay just is not the typical (median) law student's experience.

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Attorney Salaries in Pictures

Everyone likes to talk about the top performers:

However, only a small fraction of all CEOs, athletes, and starting lawyers get the top salaries. By definition, half get below the median. For athletes, the median pay is $0 per year – most are not paided to play. Law graduates are not so far behind 🙂

Fortunately, data on the typical starting lawyer salaries are easy to come by. In addition to PayScale’s data, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), while criticized in the WSJ article for letting law schools report only a fraction of their graduates pay (sample bias), actually gives some pretty straight forward answers.

For example, NALP has a press release, “A Picture Worth 1000 Words“, that shows exactly the distribution of starting full-time salaries for law graduates in the class of 2006. Here is the graph:

Talk about a distribution that is not well described by a “typical” value like the median or mean!

Mean Salary, Median Salary, Mode Salary

As the WSJ article points out, this NALP data are likely still biased towards higher pay. For example:

  • The chart only captures the income of half (22,000 of 43,000) of all law graduates; students who are more highly paid are more likely to report their income – lawyers are competitive people.
  • The chart only shows law graduates who are working full-time as lawyers; it does not include those who wish they were, but are underemployed as contract temps or unemployed.

Even with those caveats, the chart shows a pretty bleak employment picture for the majority of new law graduates:

  • Mode: The most common (mode) pay is ~$42,000 per year, on par with the median (typical) college grad. Second most common? $135,000!
  • Median: half make less than $62,000/year (median)
  • Mean: The “average” (mean) pay is ~$80,000/year, and is nearly the least common pay for starting lawyers (lowest point on the graph)!

No Typical Starting Attorney Salary

All this variation says describing the “typical” law graduate is impossible. There are several distinct subgroups who go on to very different jobs and pay.

In this, lawyers are typical of a fairly large number of professional positions with widely varying levels of productivity and compensation. Describing the kind of lawyer a law graduate becomes requires more information than just the job title of Attorney or Lawyer.

There are huge variations in pay of lawyers with practice area, work setting, etc. There are about 1,000,000 lawyers in the US, with about 40,000 new ones added each year.

Yale, Harvard, and Stanford only graduate ~1000 law students per year, so the “top 3” law schools represent less than 2.5% of the practicing lawyers. The pay for these graduates, and other top 10th percentile graduates, may be solid six figures, but that is far from the “typical” law graduate pay.

People often have their own assumptions of what the “typical” lawyer is. These assumptions usually are atypical, like assuming all lawyers are like Harvard Law grads.

For example, the “typical” (median) starting lawyer in Seattle is close to the national median salary of $60,000. However, if we focus on lawyers at larger law firms doing mergers and acquisitions, the starting pay jumps up to a median of $88,000/year, according to PayScale data, with the top tier making over $100,000, as is common nationally.

This is a long-winded way of saying it is not possible to talk about the “typical” law graduate, and his/her pay, just as it is impossible to talk about the “typical” bachelor’s degree recipient. There is just too much variation for typical to be meaningful.

How does your salary compare to starting lawyers? The PayScale Salary Calculator is a quick and easy way to compare positions. When you want powerful salary data and comparisons customized for your exact position, be sure to build a complete profile by taking PayScale’s full salary survey.


Dr. Al Lee

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