Over the last 20 years, the average attorney is making twice what their late-90s counterpart made. That sure sounds like an encouraging headline for all the lawyers out there. But it’s not that simple.

The ABA Profile of the Legal Profession provides a wealth of knowledge about the state of the industry . It’s the sort of data compilation across segments of the legal landscape that only the largest lawyers’ association in the country could pull off.

But it’s also the sort of undertaking that lends itself to dubious factoids. Across the 100 pages of information, there’s a lot of cherry-picking available. One of the easiest tidbits to fixate upon is the fact that attorney salaries have doubled in the last 20 years, rising from $72,840 in 1997 to $144,230 today (or at least in 2018).

That looks great, but the truth is a lot murkier. First of all, this doesn’t account for inflation. That 1997 figure is actually worth $113,960 in 2018 dollars, meaning attorneys are only making on average about $30K/year over the 1997 cohort. A $30K raise is nothing to sneeze at, but “Lawyers Earn 26 Percent Raise Over 20 Years” doesn’t make for a particularly exciting headline.

It also overlooks a massive spike in law school tuition that outpaced inflation over that run. According to Law School Transparency’s data on tuition , the average annual tuition for a resident public law school student in 1997 was $6,251. That would be $9,779 in 2018 — but in reality, the average resident public law school student in 2018 is $27,160. That’s a 170 percent bump that students are expected to cover with their 26 percent raises. Not a great deal.

It doesn’t get better for non-resident public school or private school students. In 1997 non-residents were paying on average $13,234 or $20,704 in 2018 dollars while in 2018 they actually pay $40,101 which is almost double. Private school averaged $18,726 in 1997 for an equivalent of $29,297 in 2018 and they now pay $47,754. So… private school is a comparative bargain? Maybe. But more to the point, there’s no scenario where lawyers […]

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