How Much Does a Lawyer Earn in Australia?

by Sonia Hickey & Ugur Nedim

According to figures released by the Australian Tax Office (ATO) on 17 July 2020, being a lawyer is not among the top earning jobs in Australia.

If that surprises you, then consider this – lawyers don’t even make the top twenty.

So, if you’re thinking of becoming a lawyer to earn big bucks, perhaps think again.

Highest earning jobs

According to the ATO, the highest earning jobs in Australia during the 2018/2019 financial year are represented by the table below.

It is important to bear in mind that the ATO table represents median (midpoint) income rather than average income (all income divided by number of individuals), which is normally higher.

Rank Job Median income
1. Anaesthetist $385,242
2. Surgeon $320,186
3. Internal medical specialist $268,247
4. Psychiatrist $213,683
5. Mining engineer $156,126
6. Financial dealer $153,551
7. Other medical practitioner $149,548
8. Engineering manager $135,164
9. Air transport professionals $126,959
10. School principal $124,275
11. General medial practitioner $122,350
12. Dental practitioner $120.364
13. Driller, miner or shot firer $118,978
14. IT manager $118,674
15. Train or tram driver $118,333
16. Economist 114,290
17. Chemical, gas, petroleum or power generation plant operator $112,914
18. Electrical engineer $112,475
19. Engineer – type not specified $111,970
20. Geologist or geophysicist $111,332

What does a lawyer earn?

Being a lawyer is a demanding job that requires high marks in the first place, years of study and foregoing the opportunity to earn money during that time, a big HECS debt, working long hours under a great deal of pressure in difficult situations. I can involve arguing cases inside the courtroom on a daily basis, under the critical judgment of not only the magistrate or judge, but also everyone else present.

There can be a lot of ups and downs, and mental health issues are prevalent across the profession. Like many jobs, being a lawyer requires dedication, diligence and a very thick skin.

That said, most lawyers consider the job to be both challenging and rewarding – involving supporting those who are going through very tough times in their lives.

The average income for a male lawyer in Australia is $112,258 per annum, and for a female is $91,928. Again, the average takes into account all lawyers, including the top earners.

Despite the fact that it’s 2020, and women have been fighting for pay parity for some time, the legal profession remains one where men are paid more than women.

Specialist lawyers

Many lawyers practise across a number of areas, but there’s also the opportunity to specialise.

If you choose to specialise, for example, as an intellectual property lawyer, then you can earn more than the average, for example, an average income for an IP lawyer is $132,976.

Of course, income can differ depending on the state or territory of practise. There are variances across each jurisdiction, and it is not always the case that the salaries in Sydney and Melbourne are higher than other places. As with every profession, salaries also reflect experience and competency in the role.

Criminal defence lawyers tend to earn significantly less than other lawyers, which dispels the myth that all lawyers are well-paid.

Criminal lawyers

An entry-level criminal defence lawyer with less than 1 year experience can expect to earn an average income of $62,353, while a criminal defence lawyer with years of experience through to the end of their career earns an average of $113,728.

Of all types of lawyers, criminal lawyers tend to spend the most time in court, because in any given week, they can find themselves representing clients across a range of criminal matters from defending the most serious murder and manslaughter charges, to drugs, assaults, fraud, and even straight-forward  traffic cases.

Criminal defence lawyers represent clients who have been charged by police in court to protect their rights, to act as advocates through the justice system, and to guide clients through the process, for the best possible outcome.

What’s the difference between a lawyer, a solicitor and a barrister?

In New South Wales, a lawyer is considered someone who has a valid practising certificate to be allowed to practise as a lawyer in Australia – that is, can legally advise clients about the law, their rights under the law, and who can also represent them in court.

A solicitor is a term that is sometimes given to a lawyer who provides legal advice and guidance and who can be very much involved in a client’s case, but won’t necessarily represent them in court. If you have engaged a law firm, your team may include both.

A barrister is specifically someone who predominantly represents clients in court, including trials, but this is not always the case.

Female barristers earn an average income of only $31,544 and males $106,944 per annum. It is important to bear in mind that barristers work in what are essentially contract positions – they only get paid for work undertaken, rather that a wage or salary.

A history lesson

Before 1986, only barristers (meaning those who work at the bar table) were permitted to speak in court without the court’s leave (permission).

Under this regime, solicitors would solicit the clients, advise them, and then refer the cases to barristers who would then run the cases in court.

Barristers would wear a wig and a gown and this would create a distinction between solicitors and barristers.

But this is no longer the case – courts have become much less formal for small everyday matters, particularly, and many lawyers represent clients in court proficiently without the need for a barrister.

Over time, as the profession has matured and roles have merged, there has been a call for these traditional and potentially outdated professional job titles to be disbanded, and to simply refer to lawyers as ‘lawyers’ to avoid confusion.

In America, the term attorney is used, short for ‘Attorney at Law’. The prefix to the title determines which area an attorney specialises in, for example, trial attorney, family law attorney, patent Attorney etc. It’s a much simpler system than the convoluted one that currently exists in Australia.

Senior Counsel or ‘Silk’

The position of Senior Counsel (SC), also colloquially referred to as ‘silks’ because of their robes, is highly revered in legal circles.

It is described by the Bar Association as a recognition of “seniority and eminence”. As such, ‘silks’ can charge top fees, with some earning as much as $10,000 a day.

The title is highly sought after but positions are chosen annually by the Bar Association in each state, and only a handful make the cut.

Prior to the 1980s, SCs were called QCs which stood for ‘Queen’s Counsel’ – but a title change was effected by the Whitlam Government when Australia first began to consider the idea of becoming a republic. New South Wales has retained the title of SC since that time.

Becoming an SC is considered a mark of respect and it also gives appointees the right to wear the special silk robes.

In complicated, high profile cases, many people choose to have an SC represent them, based on the perception that barristers with this title are considered to be the ‘best of the best’ and sometimes people engage them simply because they can afford to, but there is no need. Many lawyers and barristers who don’t have the SC title are just as skilled, experienced and capable at representing clients.

Fixed fees

If you need a lawyer and you are concerned about the cost of legal fees, you can always ask for an estimate ‘up front’. Depending on the complexity of the case, you should be able to get a fairly accurate summation from the legal firm.

Some firms, including Sydney Criminal Lawyers have a fixed fee structure to give clients certainty about exactly what they will be charged.

Many law firms also offer a free first appointment for those who are going to court.

Authors

Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice, and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team.

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with over 20 years of experience as a criminal defence lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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