May 13, 2021 11 min read

20 Best (and Worst) U.S. Cities for Lawyers

Illustration of man walking through city checking the time

You’ve worked hard for your law degree, passed the bar, and you’re practicing your craft. The next important step in your career is to find the optimal location to work and settle down.

With so many great cities to choose from, it may be hard to narrow your choices. Should you move to a city where there’s a high demand for lawyers? Or to a city where lawyer salaries are among the highest?

To help you with the decision-making process, we’ve compiled a list of the best and worst cities for lawyers. Our study compared and ranked 384 metropolitan areas in the U.S. based on annual salary, cost of living, and job demand.

Using our data, we put together lists of the 20 best and worst cities for lawyers to give you a better idea of how legal industries vary across the country.

Lawyer Salary Map

While it’s widely known that lawyers have high salaries, salary ranges vary depending on the city you’re practicing in. Lawyers in California get the highest pay, but the cost of living is also more expensive, so keep these factors in mind when deciding.

Check out the interactive map below to see the median lawyer salaries in different cities across the U.S.

Please select a state to see the salary.

Top Cities for Lawyers

After comparing hundreds of cities, we found that bigger cities have higher salaries and job demand, along with a higher cost of living. Major cities also have higher concentrations of legal firms, businesses, and organizations, providing more opportunities to practice different areas of law and form legal partnerships. Here’s a breakdown of the top 10 cities for lawyers.

1. San Francisco, CA

San Francisco Illustration

San Francisco tops the chart for the best city for lawyers. Lawyers here earn the second-highest median salary of $168,990, which helps to offset the high cost of living. Even first-year associate attorneys earn an average salary of $70,529, which is $6,000 more than the national average.

As you accumulate experience, your salary will steadily increase as well. With an increase in income and job growth rate for lawyers over the last six years, California’s expanding legal industry provides a great environment for new or experienced lawyers.

Several big companies that have faced past CEO lawsuits are also headquartered in San Francisco, including Juul and Pinterest, so there may be opportunities to work with major clients.

San Francisco Chart

2. San Jose, CA

San Jose Illustration

Home to the esteemed Silicon Valley, San Jose is the second-best city for lawyers, beating out San Francisco for the highest median salary at $207,130. The cost of living is also lower compared to San Francisco, which allows for more financial flexibility. However, it falls behind San Francisco in terms of job demand, putting the city in second place.

Being surrounded by big tech companies means more opportunities to gain experience in corporate or tech law, and learn more about cybersecurity and tech-related risks in the legal space. Since there’s an abundance of up-and-coming startups, there may also be more demand for in-house lawyers.

Additionally, San Jose is one of the best cities for lawyers of color to become partners, adding to the city’s appeal.

3. Los Angeles, CA

Los Angeles Illustration

The City of Angels is not only one of the best cities for those in the arts industry, but also the third best city for lawyers. Being in close proximity to the booming entertainment industry increases potential openings to practice entertainment or media law. If you end up getting big clients like Netflix or Paramount Pictures, you could make above $180,000 as a senior entertainment attorney.

Some of the biggest firms in the city have experienced growth in attorney numbers by over eight percent, which translates to high potential for future growth as well. Many entertainment attorneys from here are also actively working to promote diversity in the legal field, paving the path for future lawyers.

4. New York City, NY

New York City Illustration

The Big Apple attracts all kinds of professionals, lawyers included. New York State has the highest concentration of lawyers compared to any other state, resulting in higher demand for the profession — nearly double the average national demand. The diversity of the population also makes New York one of the best cities for lawyers of color to become partners.

If you want to work for a reputable firm, New York is the ideal location since the city is the home base for many big law firms like DLA Piper LLP, Norton Rose Fulbright LLP, and Latham & Watkins LLP.

While New York is known for its notoriously high housing prices, if you choose your neighborhood strategically, you can still live in the city without breaking the bank. For example, the most affordable neighborhoods to live in include Marble Hill in Manhattan, Glendale in Queens, and Dyker Heights in Brooklyn.

5. Boston, MA

Boston Illustration

Lawyers in Boston benefit from being in the state capital, where there’s high job demand. Being in close proximity to major finance, government, and business centers in the city also presents opportunities to specialize in different types of law — patent litigation, insurance litigation, and finance law, to name a few.

A number of top international firms have opened offices in Boston, including Ropes & Gray LLP, with especially high demand for lawyers in the life sciences and tech spaces. While the median salary is not as high as the other big cities, the lower cost of living makes it an attractive prospect.

6. Washington, DC

Washington DC Illustration

As the political epicenter of the nation, Washington has the highest location quotient out of the top 10 cities, making it the best location in terms of job demand and lawyer population. Washington also has nine times as many lawyers per capita than New York City, making it an ideal place to network and learn from other accomplished attorneys.

The abundance of government institutions, administrative agencies, and lobbying associations creates many job opportunities. Legal practice in this city is closely connected to government work. If you’re interested in practicing in the administrative and policy fields, Washington is an ideal place to gain experience. If you’re vying to practice inside some of the highest courts in the U.S. someday, start developing your career in the nation’s capital.

7. Santa Cruz, CA

Santa Cruz Illustration

This small coastal city is known for its beautiful beaches and moderate climate, but that’s not all. Santa Cruz is also one of the highest-paid metro areas for lawyers, with a median salary of close to $140,000.

Though Santa Cruz is smaller in size, the achievements of local firms are just as impressive as other big cities. Six of the city’s law firms were awarded “Law Firm of the Year” titles for accomplishments in different branches of law: construction law, environmental law, oil and gas law, patent litigation, insurance law, and financial services regulation law. Santa Cruz provides not only an ideal living environment, but also a good learning environment for ambitious lawyers.

8. Oxnard, CA

Oxnard Illustration

You may not be as familiar with this small southern-California city, but it earned its spot in the top 10 cities thanks to its low cost of living coupled with a relatively high median salary of $150,000.

Since the entire state of California is projected to have a job growth rate of 3.5 percent, there will be a bounty of opportunities even in smaller cities like Oxnard. The city’s growing trade and real estate markets also presents chances to practice in those areas.

Median rent comes to less than $2,000, comparatively lower than other California cities. With its balanced economy, low crime rate, and mild climate, Oxnard provides a high quality of life for working professionals.

9. Denver, CO

Denver Illustration

Among one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. over the last decade, Denver has also reaped the benefits of an expanding client base in the legal market. Denver’s lawyer population is also the third fastest-growing in the nation, according to a 2019 report.

For those looking to settle down long-term, Denver is an ideal location since the job growth rate for lawyers in Colorado is expected to go up by 20 percent by 2028. The city is also a good fit for you if you’re seeking to delve into immigration or agricultural law. The dynamic legal landscape in Denver boasts high numbers of lateral partner moves and steady growth in law firms, opening more doors for career advancement.

10. Miami, FL

Miami Illustration

This southern-Florida city has a growing population and economy, which fuels growth in the legal sector as well. Miami has a high demand for litigation attorneys specializing in real estate and bankruptcy. During active economic periods, the city’s law firms also see a surge in corporate law activity, particularly private equity, securities, and international arbitration.

There’s a potential increase in diversity in the legal profession as well. Over a third of all firm partners in Miami are lawyers of color, the highest percentage in the country. In addition to career development opportunities, lawyers in Miami can enjoy the benefits of no state income tax, high quality of life, and the lowest cost of living compared to the other metropolises.

Worst Cities for Lawyers

Now let’s take a look at the 10 cities at the bottom of this list. These smaller cities scattered across the country had lower median salaries as well as lower job demand, making them less ideal for lawyers seeking career opportunities.

  1. Waterloo, IA: Waterloo has the lowest location quotient out of all the cities in this study, so job prospects aren’t ideal. Lawyers make just over $71,000 per year, but given that Iowa has a high income tax, the financial gains may not be worth it. The state of Iowa also had the second highest rate for disciplinary actions against lawyers for legal malpractice, so the reputation of the legal profession may be affected.
  2. Bay City, MI: Lawyers make about $72,000 a year, but given that lawyer wages in the state of Michigan went down over five percent between 2014 to 2018, this downward trend may continue as the job market fluctuates. The law industry in Michigan is also projected to experience very little growth — less than two percent — over the next several years.
  3. Terre Haute, IN: With a state average of less than three lawyers per 1,000 workers in 2018, there’s likely to be even fewer lawyers in Terre Haute. The median salary of about $71,000 is a fraction less than the average base salary of over $90,000 for lawyers in the capital city.
  4. Lebanon, PA: Lawyers in Lebanon have to contend with making less than $60,000 a year as well as the highest cost of living compared with the other nine cities in this list. The location quotient is also relatively low at 0.31, which means job opportunities are limited.
  5. Pine Bluff, AR: With a population of about 90,000, it’s within expectations that this small city also has a small number of lawyers. The median lawyer salary of $67,920, which has gone down over the years, should be taken into consideration if pay is an important deciding factor.
  6. Mansfield, OH: The median salary for lawyers is just under $64,000. With the number of lawyer jobs projected to go down in Ohio over the next few years. Openings in mid-sized cities like Mansfield may be even more limited.
  7. Johnstown, PA: The small legal market in Johnstown might mean more competition for jobs that pay a median salary of less than $68,000. Johnstown had one of the lowest location quotients, so it’s not the ideal place for those seeking jobs.
  8. Kokomo, IN: This city had the lowest median annual salary for lawyers at $52,590. A lower salary combined with relatively higher cost of living out of the other nine cities is why this Kokomo is near the bottom of the rankings.
  9. Lima, OH: The lawyer salary of $62,450 a year is relatively low in Lima, Ohio compared to other cities in the list. The job outlook is also relatively bleak in Lima given its second lowest location quotient of 0.26, and a projected decrease in job openings over the next seven years.
  10. Danville, IL: Danville was deemed the worst city for lawyers due to its lower median salary and low job demand. Though the cost of living is equal to that in Lima, lawyers in Danville make about $2,000 less than lawyers in Lima.

Different cities present different types of opportunities for both new and practicing lawyers, whether you’re thinking of becoming a partner, specializing in certain branches of law, or starting your own law firm. When deciding on a city to practice your craft, choose a place that best suits your career aspirations and your lifestyle preferences.

Methodology

To come up with a list of the best and worst cities for lawyers, we aggregated data from three different sources and compared the cities using the following three metrics:

1. Median Annual Pay

We analyzed data from CareerOneStop by the U.S. Department of Labor to figure out the median annual pay for lawyers for different cities. These numbers came from 2019.

2. Cost of Living Index

The cost of living index (COI) refers to the affordability of each city, with housing costs being a major factor. The numbers came from BestPlaces, and is presented in relation to the national COI average of 100. If a city’s COI is below 100, it’s cheaper than the national average, and if above, it’s more expensive than the national average.

3. Location Quotient

The location quotient represents the level of demand for lawyers — the higher the quotient, the higher the relative demand for lawyers. These statistics came from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and is based on 2019 data. The percentage of concentration of lawyers in an area is compared to the national average.

After comparing each city using these three metrics, we came up with the ranking based on the final score of each city. The higher the score, the more optimal the city is for lawyers.

Sources: CareerOneStop | BestPlaces | U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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