Lawyers are known for their generous pay packages. Some star defense attorneys and corporate lawyers charge their clients millions of dollars, while even the average professional can expect to earn a six-figure salary in the U.S. However, nonprofit lawyers on average make less than half what their peers do, usually because nonprofit organizations have smaller budgets; indeed, some lawyers will take on cases for charity or underprivileged individuals for free, a practice known as pro bono.
On average, lawyers who work for nonprofit organizations made approximately $64,000 a year in 2007, according to CNN Money. However, many lawyers make even less than that, depending on what organizations they work for. "The New York Times" reports that public-interest attorneys, who work on large cases that affect a wide swath of the population -- such as environmental and civil-rights lawsuits -- earned as little as $35,000 to $39,000 a year in 2010.
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Compared to the Average
The salary of a nonprofit lawyer looks even smaller when compared to his peers. On average, lawyers in general earn $129,440, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Moreover, lawyers who specialize in particularly lucrative fields can expect even bigger paychecks. For example, those working in petroleum and coal-products manufacturing -- the highest-paying industry -- earned an average salary of $208,410 in 2010. The second-highest paying employers, tobacco companies, offered salaries of $193,020 a year.
Nonprofit lawyers have to make their paychecks stretch much further than their corporate peers. Some lawyers work for high-paying companies and do pro bono work on the side -- or retire early from corporate life after collecting large compensation packages -- to do lower-paying nonprofit work after securing their finances. Those who want to go straight into nonprofit law should consider working for larger organizations first, as these companies can more often afford higher-paying packages. They may also want to look for openings in Washington D.C., California, Delaware, New York and Connecticut -- the five regions in the U.S. that pay lawyers the highest salaries, according to the BLS.
Lawyers must earn an undergraduate degree, graduate from law school and pass a bar exam before they can practice law. This specialized knowledge allows them to charge high fees for their services, but also means that they can accumulate very large amounts of educational debt; therefore, some lawyers simply may not be able to do low-paying nonprofit work until later in their careers, after paying their student loans. However, nonprofit work more often allows people to pursue their passions. Working to help an underprivileged group of people or protecting the environment can be so personally rewarding that nonprofit lawyers are more than willing to make less money for their work.