The high salaries typically associated with the legal profession are a major draw for many people considering the career. Simplified to its most fundamental form, this assumption of above-average salaries is generally true. However, the reality is far more nuanced, and for solicitors, barristers and CILEx lawyers. The salaries on offer are actually dependent on a combination of various factors.
In short, the average solicitor salary in the UK is around £62,000. The top end is the elite US firms, where NQs will bring in around £150,000, progressing to around £240,000 as a senior associate and into seven figures at partnership level (the variation becomes much wider at this level).
In brief, the average barrister salary in the UK is around £90,000. 2% of barristers (the most experienced QCs) earn seven figures a year, but the averages are also impacted significantly by poorly paid barristers in areas such as criminal law.
The average salary for a CILEX lawyer in the UK is around £56,441 per year.
Here is a breakdown of average CILEX lawyer salaries by experience level:
CILEX lawyers can expect to earn higher salaries as they gain more experience and take on more senior roles. Some CILEX lawyers may also choose to specialise in a particular area of law, which can also lead to higher salaries.
Note that these are just an estimate and will vary depending on factors such as your employer and location.
The location in which a lawyer is based has a significant impact on their salary. In the context of England and Wales (the area covered by the Law Society), London is by far the best-paying location. Other popular regions for major law firms and chambers include Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol. Larger cities and towns tend to mean higher salaries.
Of course, these salaries are also usually roughly proportionate to the cost of living in these cities. While London lawyers might earn twice their counterparts in another part of the country, they’ll likely also be paying twice the rent.
It is also worth noting that some lawyers will commute from outside of the city their firm is based in (e.g. London lawyers who live in Cambridge or Oxford), especially now that hybrid working setups are increasingly common (with some lawyers only going into the office once or twice a week).
Solicitors in London are a good example of this salary gap. At the top end, newly qualified lawyers at elite US firms are now collecting pay packets in the region of £150,000 per year, while Magic Circle firms dish out approximately £120,000 to their newly qualified associates. At the other end of the spectrum, however, newly qualified solicitors at smaller regional firms might be earning £30,000-£40,000.
The reasons for these differences between firms in terms of salaries are numerous, but mostly come down to working hours and the monetary value of the projects being worked on.
Barristers are in a similar situation in terms of salary variation based on type of organisation. The top commercial chambers might pay their juniors around £70,000, while those working in a lesser-known chambers might start on £20,000-£25,000. Again, the type of work (e.g. practice area) is a major factor in differentiating these employers.
Some lawyers will avoid private practice altogether and go in-house. Salaries are much more difficult to predict in this area, since there is both a wide range of earnings and less transparency on salaries to the public. At the junior levels, going in-house might mean comparable or slightly lower salaries for most lawyers compared to private practice. General Counsels (head lawyers) working within large organisations regularly claim compensation into seven figures, however.
The most highly paid lawyers are naturally those working in practice areas which bring in the most money. At the top end of the spectrum, financial or corporate practice areas such as M&A and private equity are notoriously very well paid. At the other extreme, practice areas such as family law are typically far less well paid. This is very apparent in the case of criminal barristers, who recently conducted large-scale strikes over their relatively minimal pay.
Lawyers are generally trusted far more (and thus earn more) based on their experience – this often means the cases that they’ve worked on, but building up such a deep CV naturally requires time, and so older lawyers tend to earn much more.
Many law firms actually operate on a ‘lockstep’ model where pay is directly tied to years of post-qualification experience (PQE). This was particularly prevalent amongst British law firms (e.g. the Magic Circle), but the growing dominance of elite US firms in London (known for greater salary flexibility via their eat-what-you-kill model) has started to erode this practice a little across the whole City.
Barristers experience similar salary shifts throughout their career. For example, the most experienced barristers are often awarded the title of KC (King’s Counsel), and usually command higher fees at that point.
The public generally assume that lawyers are very well-paid. While not generally untrue, as this article has outlined, the reality is that salaries vary widely between lawyers due to a number of factors.
On the whole, though, lawyers are some of the highest-earning individuals – and this is for a number of general reasons.
In short, it is clear that lawyer salaries are hard to pin down for a number of reasons. The law firm or chambers you work within, or the practice area involved, among many other factors, have a significant impact on earnings for both solicitors and barristers. The industry can also be rather opaque about salaries at times from the outside, and so taking the time to network and foster informal conversations with practising lawyers about salaries in the industry is always useful.
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