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Top Five Highest-Paying Lawyer Jobs and Then Some

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

If you are looking for the best-paying lawyer jobs, you should probably look elsewhere. That's because the top salaries are probably not where you are. According to U.S. News & World Report, the highest mean salaries for lawyers are in Washington, DC, at $186,560. California is a distant second with $168,200.

Location, location, location, however, is more the mantra of real estate professionals. Lawyers are more like fisherman. You have to go where the fish are if you want to catch the big ones.

The Big Ones

Trial lawyers know this. Joe Jamail, for example, was the richest attorney in the world. In 1985, he won a $10.5 billion verdict in Houston. With inflation, that would be about $30 billion today. Jamail's passed away, so fellow billionaire Richard Scruggs would be the wealthiest lawyer at $1.7 billion, but he was disbarred, so he doesn't quite qualify.

In any case, the top paying law jobs depend on your practice area as much as the area where you practice. Here are the top average salaries by practice area today:

  1. Corporate lawyer - $165,000
  2. IP lawyer - $131,728
  3. Patent lawyer - $129,000
  4. Private criminal defense lawyer - $115,000
  5. Tax lawyer - $99,690

Of course, statistics can be misleading.  All lawyer jobs are not created equal -- Google's general counsel, for instance, could skew the numbers for the in house crowd. Besides, everybody knows the biggest law firms pay the biggest salaries -- even if it's just a starting job. You already know the equation: BigLaw + big billables = big bucks.

And just like in business, salary isn't the best way to get to the really big bucks. Start your own company, or get in on one that is about to IPO (and pray the stock doesn't drop).  

Starting Pay

The top pay for new associates is $190,000 at the big firms. Add a year-end bonus, and you're talking more than $200,000 in your first year. It's even better the longer you're in practice. An eight-year journeyman or woman will make $340,00 plus a $25,000 bonus at BigLaw. Big firms push the envelope for top dollar each year as the compete for top talent. That's why the best-paying places for lawyers are located where the biggest firms are: Washington DC, California, and New York.

But Jamail's home state is changing all that. Houston-based Vinson & Elkins and Dallas' Akin Gump raised their starting salaries to $190,000, plus a $5,000 signing bonus.  

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