How Much Money Do Lawyers Make?

How Much Money Do Lawyers Make?

Every Australian wants to do well in life, but “doing well” isn’t necessarily the same as having a high income. Lawyers perform a public service by helping people navigate a legal system that can be bewildering and intimidating. Criminal defense lawyers, in particular, protect the rights of Australians who may be facing a loss of freedom or a stiff fine. When accusations are false or overblown, a criminal defense lawyer fights to make the truth known so that individuals accused of crime do not face unjust punishments.

Naturally, lawyers want to be compensated for their services, just like teachers and welders. Yet criminal defense lawyers enter their profession with an understanding that they will not be as highly paid as many other professionals who perform important work, including doctors and engineers. Even compared to other lawyers, criminal defense lawyers usually earn less than business lawyers, and considerably less than judges.

Australian Incomes

According to 2015-16 data compiled by the Australian Tax Office (table 14B in the spreadsheet), Australians with the highest average taxable income ($600,153) are male neurosurgeons. Male ophthalmologists and otorhinolaryngologists are in the second and third positions, each earning an average annual income of more than half a million dollars.

In fact, the top thirteen occupations, ranked by income and gender, are all in the medical professions (and are all males). Females break into the list at position fourteen; female futures traders average $388,681.

Judges are in the top twenty, with average incomes of $383,642 (males) and $363,544 (females). All other occupations in the top twenty, when ranked by average incomes, are in the medical profession.

Averages can be skewed by unusually high incomes earned by a small number of professionals, but ranking the occupations by median income only changes the order at the top of the list in modest ways. Otorhinolaryngologists have the highest median incomes at $536,781, while neurosurgeons drop to second place. The first females to be ranked by median income are neurosurgeons, at position ten. Male judges are ranked ninth by median income; female judges are ranked twelfth.

Other notable occupations outside of the medical professions, ranked by median income, include:

Position Occupation Median Income
26 Magistrate (male) $ 289,127
30 Magistrate (female) $ 281,234
47 Member of Parliament (male) $ 187,772
51 Member of Parliament (female) $ 177,264
56 Dental specialist (male) $ 163,610
63 Actuary (male) $ 152,823
79 Commercial pilot (male) $ 135,340
91 Actuary (female) $ 123,758
110 School principal (male) $ 114,256
112 Cricketeer (male) $ 114,033


Also in the top 120 are mining and chemical engineers, geologists, economists, IT managers, bank managers, business executives, and bulldozer operators.

Legal Professionals

The Tax Office statistics show that judges and magistrates, who hold positions of substantial responsibility, earn substantial incomes. Practicing lawyers, however, are not within the top one hundred occupations when ranked by median income.

The first practicing lawyers on the list are male intellectual property lawyers (practicing patent and trademark law) at position 121, with a median income of $111,392. Male solicitors ($108,296) are at position 129, two spots below human resources managers. Male barristers ($100,348) occupy position 161, well below male police detectives at position 149.

Female solicitors, with median income of $85,420, are in position 310, two spots behind male train conductors. Female barristers have an average income of $69,287 but a mean income of $29,775, placing them in position 2,027 when ranked by mean income, just below male farm hands.

Legal Salaries

Of course, some lawyers earn more than others. As with any other profession, income tends to rise with experience.

The kind of law a lawyer practices also affects salary. Here are some examples of median salaries earned by different kinds of lawyers:


Occupation Median Salary
Regulatory lawyer $90,200
Corporate lawyer (in-house) $87,425
Corporate lawyer (private) $77,083
Criminal defense lawyer $76,144
Sports lawyer $75,000
Divorce lawyer $70,350
Immigration lawyer $66,925


Other factors, such as geographic location, also affect salaries. Lawyers in large cities tend to have larger salaries than lawyers in rural areas.

Where Do My Fees Go?

The statistics make clear that the compensation of lawyers is commensurate with, and often less than, the earnings of other skilled professionals. The myth that clients are paying legal fees to support a lawyer’s lavish lifestyle is just that — a myth.

Most of the fees charged by lawyers pay the expenses of keeping a law office operating. Those expenses typically include:

  • Salaries for secretaries, paralegals, and other staff members
  • Rent
  • Professional liability insurance
  • Premises insurance
  • Library upkeep and online research service subscriptions
  • Professional memberships and dues
  • Advertising
  • Accounting and bookkeeping services
  • Taxes

Lawyers strive to be competitive and fair when they set their fees, but they need to charge enough to pay the expenses that make it possible to serve their clients. Like everyone else, lawyers also hope to earn a decent living.

In the end, criminal defense lawyers provide a valuable service to their clients and to the nation by assuring that the innocent are not punished, that convicted offenders are sentenced fairly, and that the government respects the rights of the accused. The most valuable compensation they receive is the knowledge that clients were happy to be represented by a skilled advocate who worked diligently on their behalf.