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Highest Paying Legal Jobs

6 Jobs in Law that Pay The Most


Lawyers reviewing case file in corridor
Chris Ryan

The legal industry offers hundreds of career options ranging from court messenger to trial lawyer. Legal salaries range from minimum wage to nine-digit incomes, but what legal jobs pay the most?

Salaries hinge on many factors including geographic location, market demand, experience level, practice environment (i.e., law firm, corporation,public interest) and employer size. The legal industry has taken a hit in the recent recession, yet despite layoffs, demanding clients and falling billing rates, many in the legal industry are faring quite well. Below is a list of the six most highly compensated legal jobs in today's workforce.

5 Highest Paying Legal Careers

1. Trial Lawyer

Trial lawyers are among the highest paid legal professionals in the world. While thousands of trial lawyers practice across the globe, the most highly compensated lawyers are litigators that handle high-dollar, high-profile and high-stakes cases.

Not all lawyers rake in high incomes; many public interest lawyers and solo practitioners earn modest salaries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for all lawyers is $110,590. Lawyers in the middle 50% earn between $74,980 and $163,320. However, the nation's top trial lawyers can earn millions. For example, these top plaintiff attorneys earn between $11 and $40 million a year.

2. Chief Legal Officer

Chief legal officers, also known as general counsels, head the law departments of corporations. Generally, the larger the corporation, the larger the general counsel's salary; earnings for CLO's heading large, multi-national corporations can reach seven figures. In addition to base salaries, chief legal officers also earn bonuses, stock options and other perks that can considerably sweeten their compensation package.

U.S. chief legal officer total cash compensation (salaries plus bonuses) increased by more than 13 percent to $467,100, according to a recent Law Department Compensation Benchmarking Survey. While median salaries rose just seven percent, median bonuses grew by almost 27 percent.

Women are rising in the CLO pay ranks, according to the 2011 General Counsel Compensation Survey. For the first time in the history of the survey, a woman (the top legal officer at tobacco giant Altria Group, Inc.) topped the survey, taking home $6.5 million in total cash compensation. Check out this list of the top 100 earners.

3. Judge

Judges preside over court proceedings in federal, state and local courts. Judges and magistrates earn a median annual salary of $110,220, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The middle 50 percent earned between $51,760 and $141,190 while the top 10 percent earned more than $162,140.

The highest paying judgeships are those within the federal court system while local judges and magistrates earn the least. In the federal court system, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court earns $217,400, and the Associate Justices average $208,100. Federal court of appeals judges earn an average of $179,500 a year, while district court judges, the Court of Federal Claims and the Court of International Trade pull in average salaries of $169,300. Federal judges with limited jurisdiction, such as magistrates and bankruptcy judges, earn average salaries of $155,756.

In addition to generous salaries, most judges enjoy healthy benefits, expense accounts and contributions to retirement plans made on their behalf, increasing the size of their compensation package.

4. Law School Professor

Law school professors teach courses in law, perform research and publish scholarly works in their field of expertise.

Law school professors rank among America's best-paying jobs, according to a recent list by Forbes.com.

Law school professor salaries vary by region and by school. According to the Society of American Law Teachers' 2009-2010 Salary Survey, salaries for full professors ranged from $113,691 to $242,500 per year. This list of public law school faculty salaries reveals that some professor salaries reach beyond $300,000 while salaries for law school deans top out at around $450,000.

Healthy law school professor salaries might be attributed, in part, to rising law school tuition. Tuition hikes have remained well above inflation for the last 25 years, including double-digit increases in many years. In addition, law school enrollment has increased over the years; about 43,000 J.D.'s were handed out in 2009, 11 percent more than a decade earlier, and the number of law schools keeps rising. Nine new law schools opened in the last 10 years, and five more are seeking approval to open in the future, creating new positions for law professors.

Securing a position as a law school professor is competitive, however. Qualifications for top candidates include a law degree from a top law school, law review, high class-standing, judicial clerkship experience, law practice experience and publication credits in scholarly journals.

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