Have you ever considered a legal career? Maybe your mom said you should be a lawyer because you would argue with a post. Or maybe you’re naturally curious and enjoy research and writing. Maybe you’re known as a peacemaker with a talent for bringing people together. Whatever your motivation, you’re probably wondering what it takes and if you’ll be able to earn a living at it.
About five or six years ago, there was a glut of lawyers on the market. It drove down salaries and increased competition for the scarce available jobs. Worse yet, those graduates were leaving law school with an alarming amount of debt that they were trying to pay back on less than a typical paralegal’s salary. Thankfully, things have changed and a career in law is looking better every day.
The Florida Bar News & Journal recently published information on attorney and paralegal salaries, billable hours, and student debt. Attorneys charge differently, based on the type of law they practice. At Fasig Brooks, we work on a contingency fee basis, meaning we are paid a percentage of what we recover for our clients. Some attorneys charge a flat fee or one lump sum to handle a legal matter. But most attorneys bill by the hour and that rate can vary wildly, based on the type of law and the level of difficulty or specialty involved.
In Florida, for attorneys who bill by the hour, the median rate is $300.00, meaning half the attorneys bill at a rate higher than that. In 2012, only 24% of attorneys billed at a rate greater than $300 an hour. About 37% of Florida attorneys reported that they plan to increase their hourly rate in 2019. Typically, a lawyer earns one-third of what she bills. If she billed 40 hours a week times 50 weeks (which is a typical requirement for lawyers), that would be $600,000 annually. One-third goes to overhead, one-third is profit to the firm, and one-third is salary to the lawyer. So, a lawyer working full time, billing $300 an hour, could expect to earn $200,000 a year – not too shabby.
But before you sign up to take the LSAT, consider what it takes to get to that point. You need a bachelor’s degree and those are not free. Then you need extremely good test scores and a stellar GPA to get admitted to law school and the one you attend informs your debt. Private schools and out of state tuition drive up costs as does living a lawyer’s lifestyle while still a law student. In 2018, a survey of young lawyers showed that 75% of them had outstanding student loan debt and the median debt level was $150,000. Most attorneys do not start out earning $200,000 but it seems most do start out owing as much as a mortgage in student loans. Yikes.
You may be wondering if there is some other job in the legal field – not quite a lawyer but a position where you can be intellectually challenged and earn a decent salary. Well, you’re in luck. It’s never been a better time to be a paralegal. Unlike lawyers, paralegals are not regulated and there is no educational requirement. Many paralegals do have degrees – some even have law degrees – but many are high school graduates who learned through on the job training.
In 2018, 62% of Florida law firms employed paralegals. Of those, 25% billed them at between $81 and $100 an hour and 53% billed them at greater than $120 an hour. For annual billable hours, 51% reported their paralegals billing more than 1000 hours, 25% billed up to 500 hours, and 16% billed more than 1500 hours. Keep in mind that billing is the only way law firms make money so the higher the number of billable hours, the more money the individual earns.
Like lawyers, paralegal earnings can vary greatly, depending on area of practice, years of experience, and location.
MEDIAN STATEWIDE PARALEGAL SALARIES BREAK DOWN LIKE THIS:
New hires, no experience $35,000
Less than five years of experience $40,000
Five to ten years of experience $50,000
More than ten years of experience $55,000
IN NORTH FLORIDA, MEDIAN SALARIES ARE LOWER:
New hires, no experience $30,000
Less than five years of experience $32,000
Five to ten years of experience $37,500
More than ten years of experience $45,000
Although these are median reported salaries, in my experience, they are low for the Tallahassee area. It is not uncommon for an experienced paralegal in Tallahassee to earn in excess of $65,000, not including bonuses.
If you have been considering a legal career, the outlook is pretty good. Think about contacting some attorneys and seeing if you could shadow them or their paralegals. Maybe get a part-time job working in a law firm, lobbying firm, or governmental agency while still in school. Who knows? It might be just the right fit!