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Highest-Paid Lawyers: Most Profitable Law Careers

December 20, 2023
7 min read
Contents

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Reviewed by:

David Merson

Former Head of Pre-Law Office, Northeastern University, & Admissions Officer, Brown University

Reviewed: 10/11/23

Looking into a law career and wondering what fields the highest-paid lawyers specialize in? Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about the highest-paid lawyers in the US.

Aspiring lawyers may have different motives for wanting to practice law. While some may want to be public defenders and bring justice to those who need it, others are drawn into the field for their academic interests or their desire for a certain lifestyle. 

While there is no single reason to pursue a career as a lawyer, salary is an essential consideration to make as you choose your legal specialty.

We’ve distilled all the pros and cons of some of the highest-paid types of lawyers. Performing well in your law career means coming prepared for the type of work ahead of you. As a result, deciding which specialty of law to work in can make all the difference.

Highest-Paid Types of Lawyers

While many factors play a part in determining a lawyer’s compensation, certain kinds of lawyers tend to make more than others. Some of the highest-paid lawyers include:

  • Patent attorney: $180,000
  • Intellectual property (IP) attorney: $162,000
  • Trial lawyer: $134,000
  • Tax attorney: $122,000
  • Corporate lawyer: $115,000

Intellectual Property (IP) Lawyer

One of the reasons IP lawyers are some of the highest-paid types of lawyers is the fact that they require very specialized knowledge in distinct fields. 

An attorney defending and making arguments for intellectual property needs to be well-versed in the domain it pertains to. This can include creative fields like music and entertainment and other areas such as science and technology.

Being familiar with and up to date on the current state of the industry you’re working in means any new developments will need to be researched and studied extensively. An IP lawyer is constantly expanding their body of knowledge to formulate the best and most current arguments to ensure no plagiarism or intellectual theft occurs.

Tax Attorneys

Pen, paper and calculator

Tax codes are complex. That’s why companies and individuals are willing to pay so much for credible tax attorneys. Tax laws aren’t written in stone and are being updated all the time. As a result, tax attorneys need to make sure they’re always familiar with any changes to evolving tax policies.

Although the profession may sound boring to some, keep in mind many tax attorneys spend a good deal of time in the courtroom. In this case, companies or individuals facing taxation issues rely on their tax attorneys. They’re able to provide comprehensive and robust legal representation while defending themselves.

If you have any background in business, then becoming a tax attorney can feel like a natural career progression. It’s not uncommon at all for tax attorneys to be well-versed in fundamental accounting practices. All things considered, a career as a tax attorney is a reliable pathway to becoming a top-paid lawyer.

Trial Attorney

Although there is a bit of variation when it comes to trial attorney salaries, handling courtroom processes can give you a leg up in your law career. The role of a trial attorney is as much about charisma as it is about facts and knowledge. Working in a live environment means you’ll need to be quick-thinking and adaptable.

In terms of legal background, trial attorneys should be familiar with many aspects of law and be able to apply it to the cases they’re working on. 

Cases in courtrooms are subject to change–new information is presented, and old information is revised all the time. A reason why trial attorneys are some of the highest-paid lawyers is a result of their persuasive social skills.

If the stereotypical image of a lawyer giving compelling arguments to judges and juries is appealing to you, then becoming a trial attorney may be a lucrative career option. Having the ability to connect with and convince people of differing points of view is a skill that can carry you through a prosperous law career.

Medical Lawyer

While the term medical lawyer immediately conjures up images of malpractice lawsuits, this isn’t the entire scope of the profession. Medical lawyers can work in a variety of settings to better the healthcare and well-being of all individuals in society. 

Some alternative areas of work include public health and pharmaceutical drug companies. In these positions, lawyers advise health bodies on overseeing infectious diseases and community-transmitted pathogens. With pharmaceutical drugs, they can provide insight into how the drugs are regulated.

Patent Attorney

Patent attorneys play a crucial role in the legal landscape. Crafting inventions and conducting research for the greater benefit of society is not without its difficulties. When a successful patent is filed, intellectual property owners can be assured they’ll have a set amount of time where copycat products aren’t allowed as competitors in the marketplace.

Patent law is actually a subcategory of intellectual property. A famous example is the personal computer patent, which Steve Jobs and colleagues filed in 1980. The right patent attorney can ensure that inventors can capitalize on their work and create incentives for originality and innovation.

Lawyer Salaries by State

As with any career, where you work has a huge impact on your salary, and law is no exception. Unsurprisingly, major cities tend to compensate lawyers more generously, as there are oftentimes more firms and higher-end clients to compete for top talent.

State Median Salary
National $127,990
Alabama $110,730
Alaska $103,680
Arizona $102,390
Arkansas $80,750
California $162,700
Colorado $126,990
Connecticut $132,300
Delaware $157,610 (2016 Average)
District of Columbia $172,490
Florida $100,420
Georgia $103,750
Hawaii $99,880
Idaho $80,860
Illinois $129,090
Indiana $101,110
Iowa $98,870
Kansas $91,090

State Median Salary
Kentucky $82,150
Louisiana $99,490
Maine $80,450
Maryland $126,360
Massachusetts $153,570
Michigan $101,190
Minnesota $124,560
Mississippi $80,650
Missouri $103,750
Montana $80,750
Nebraska $98,870
Nevada $128,370
New Hampshire $98,820
New Jersey $132,660
New Mexico $90,000
New York $164,180
North Carolina $105,140
North Dakota $95,840

State Median Salary
Ohio $102,290
Oklahoma $94,250
Oregon $128,000
Pennsylvania $121,060
Rhode Island $151,300
South Carolina $95,400
South Dakota $81,240
Tennessee $101,270
Texas $131,150
Utah $104,100
Vermont $78,480
Virginia $131,520
Washington $127,660
West Virginia $98,870
Wisconsin $115,340
Wyoming $77,010
Guam $103,010
Puerto Rico $58,660

Source: Biglaw Investor, Forbes

Even if the state you’re planning to work in doesn’t have the highest salary, don’t worry. A meaningful law career is more than your paycheck, and just because you don’t work in a large city doesn’t mean you can’t make a great living as a lawyer. This is especially the case if you practice a specialized branch of law.

Two male and one female lawyer talking in office

What Factors Affect a Lawyer’s Salary?

A lawyer’s total salary is determined by a few different metrics. Some of the most pivotal factors that will affect your compensation are where you work, what school you attend, and how much experience you have. Many of the highest-paid types of lawyers attend elite schools and are top of their class.

Big Law Firms

Unsurprisingly, lawyers who work for big law are some of the highest-paid lawyers. Big law firms have resources and quality assurance that smaller firms can’t compete with. With higher-paying clients, big law sets a standard where extended hours and high expectations are the norm.

Big law firms are usually concentrated in major cities. These include places such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. With larger cities and urban sprawl comes more clients willing to pay exorbitant fees for top-notch legal representation.

Which School You Attended

As a lawyer, the school you attended plays a large role in your future earnings. This is due to the fact that big law firms recruit from top-ranked schools

Oftentimes, top-25 schools act as a bidding ground for big law firms. These firms are constantly trying to attain the best and brightest, and more prestigious schools offer top-notch education. 

This is a result of having more stringent and competitive entry requirements. So, naturally, most of the top-earning lawyers have attended elite institutions.

Because of free market competition, big law firms will try to attract the best talent with promises of high salaries. In order to keep up with the demand, the law firms must match each others’ offers. If a firm can’t pay commensurate salaries, then they risk losing qualified lawyers to firms willing to compensate them better.

Experience

There’s no doubt a key metric in determining your salary as a lawyer is the years of experience you have. More experienced lawyers have a broader range of career options than their juvenile counterparts. Also affecting the average earnings is the fact that lawyers with more experience have often progressed from associate to partner at their firm.

Although the amount of associates that make partner varies considerably from firm to firm, there are a significant number of lawyers that opt for career paths with greater work-life balance. Regardless, the more years of experience you attain, the more likely you’ll be a high-earning lawyer.

Other than big law prospects, lawyers with more experience are simply more knowledgeable in their field. Many branches of law require very specific or niche information. More experienced lawyers can handle a larger variety of cases with increased depth and from multiple angles.

Two lawyers signing documents

FAQs: Highest-Paid Lawyers

Still have questions about what are the highest-paid lawyers? Give our FAQs a quick read!

1. What Type of Lawyer Makes the Most Money?

The highest-paid lawyers tend to have specialized knowledge or skills that put them ahead of others. It should be noted that working with a larger law firm may significantly impact your salary more than what kind of law you specialize in.

Some branches of law that offer high compensation include medical, tax, IP, and trial attorneys. Lawyers in these areas are well-versed in the legal framework of their respective fields. As a result, clients are willing to pay high fees for their services since there is a limited number of individuals with expertise in these areas.

Furthermore, specialized skills in the case of trial attorneys play a part in their compensation. While many lawyers may excel in the theoretical aspects of law, trial attorneys must apply legal knowledge in a live setting to persuade judges and juries of their perspective.

2. In What State Do Lawyers Make the Most Money?

The states that pay lawyers the most are generally concentrated in larger cities. Areas like Los Angeles and New York can provide some of the highest salaries to aspiring lawyers. This list also includes Chicago and San Francisco. As a rule of thumb, the highest-paid lawyers tend to work in urban environments.

Final Thoughts

Although some of the most profitable areas in law may not exactly align with your interests, there is enough variety within the field to secure a good salary–even if it’s not the highest-paying specialty. 

If you’re in the beginning stages of planning your career and want to maximize your earning potential, it makes sense to prioritize what school you go to and aim for academic excellence.

Being recruited by a big law firm and earning an exorbitant salary means you’ll need to prove yourself against others aspiring for that same position. The top three ways to ensure you become a high-earning lawyer are to attend an elite school, work in a large law firm, and accumulate several years of experience.

The career of a top-earning lawyer may not be for everybody. But with the tenacity and passion for it, there’s no doubt you’ll succeed!

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