18.05.2017 : Tom Morten

Why don’t engineers earn as much as lawyers?

Despite both engineering and law degrees taking four years, lawyers are perceived as being more highly paid than engineers. Is this perception accurate? If it is accurate, why do lawyers earn so much more? Are they smarter, harder working, more professional or just lucky?

It’s an old debate – engineers v's lawyers!

Both are such highly regarded professions yet lawyers seem to earn more. I say ‘seem’ because there are so many variables just how can you tell? A former colleague, Jim Douglas, and I had some good discussions and debates about this topic. After a while, we decided it was time to do some research to get to the bottom of it.

Intelligence
Could the average lawyer simply possess a higher level of intelligence than the average engineer and  therefore rightfully be paid more? If you look at leading Australian university entrance requirements, you could conclude this. These universities look at students’ state-wide academic achievement records which rank students in bands, from 1 (highest) to 25 (lowest). If you intend to study law, you need to score between 1 and 3, while if you want to study engineering you can score between a 1 and 7.

On the basis of more stringent degree requirements, you could almost say that lawyers are on average more intelligent than engineers! Almost!

Employment
For those that do manage to enrol and complete law degrees, they are faced with a tougher employment market. In 2014 the full time employment rate of law graduates, within four months of completing their degrees, reached an all-time low of 74%. In comparison, 82% of engineering graduates had full time work within four months of completing their degree.

Working hours
After completing your tertiary studies and successfully getting a full time job, the real test begins. Unfortunately it is difficult to find data that accurately depicts the number of hours worked by various graduates due to companies and personnel preferring this data to remain private.

One survey showed the average graduate lawyer worked 48.8 hours per week compared to engineering graduates who work an average of 40 hours per week. From this alone, it’s difficult to say whether graduate lawyers work harder than their engineering counterparts, but you can conclude they work longer hours.

Professionalism
As an engineer it pains me to say there is almost a certain level of prestige associated with being a lawyer. According to a 2013 Men’s Health public survey...

...being a lawyer was seen as the 5th most respectable career choice in comparison to engineering which was ranked 8th.

Is this because upholding and administering the law is seemingly more important? Or is it because lawyers use complex legal jargon; while many people still think professional engineers drive trains?

Salary comparison
It is overly simplistic to describe lawyers as being better paid than engineers. Trademe’s 2014 Salary Guide reports the median engineering salary and private practice law salary are the same - both $75,000 and ranging from $40,000 to $125,000.

Hay’s (New Zealand) 2015 Salary Guide shows the average starting salary for lawyers is approximately 30% lower than engineers. However lawyers’ salaries increase more quickly, achieving parity with engineers at the Associate/Senior Associate level. Partner salaries are on average 7% higher than those of Principal Engineers, with lawyers’ salaries increasing further if they become Equity Partners.

Therefore, both professions appear to have similar average pay levels with engineers being better paid at a graduate level, and lawyers better paid at more senior levels.

Comparison between average NZ Engineer and Lawyer salaries at different career.

So do lawyers earn more than engineers?
It is difficult to simply say that lawyers are paid more than engineers, with salaries varying widely based upon a number of factors including company size, discipline and years of experience. It appears to be accurate that senior level (i.e. Associates and above) lawyers are paid more than their engineering counterparts.

Reviewed statistics indicate that law students have a more difficult time obtaining their undergraduate degrees and securing full time work. Then those that do secure a full time job, work longer hours than the average engineer. So perhaps lawyers who successfully negotiate law school, find a job and then work longer hours are entitled to their larger salaries at a senior level?

Both engineers and lawyers are well respected professions, there is no debating that.

Both have salaries and job opportunities well above average, so neither is a bad choice. As to why engineers aren’t paid as much as lawyers (if this indeed the case), it could well be the just rewards for more difficult studies, longer work hours, lower starting salaries all within a more regulated profession. What do you think?

About the Author

Tom Morten

Senior Associate - Project Management

Tom is a Senior Associate - Project Management in our Christchurch team, with more than 15 years’ of diverse experience including mining and industrial projects. He specialises in managing study and execution phases of multidisciplinary projects.

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What Do You Think?

ADD A COMMENT
Chris Muller · 18/05/2016 2:48:01 p.m.
Hi Tom, interesting article. Fundamentally I think that the basis of this debate is formed around the "public perception" or "professionalism" as you have described it. A lawyer's profession is usually well defined in the public eye and a lot of us become familiar with their involvement in society from a young age, similar to police, fire fighters, doctors, etc. If you go up to a child and ask them what an engineer actually does, I think you will have a hard time getting a direct answer. In saying this promoting the engineering brand and their involvement in society may be the solution to this dilemma, making society aware of what we do and how we help them. Illuminating our professional image may very well bring the engineering value back into the public eye. Secondly I think dress code is important, lawyers are affiliated with that corporate suit and tie image, very rarely do I see engineers “suiting up” to go to work. If engineers want to be portrayed with the same degree of professionalism as a lawyer should we start by building up from the smaller things?

Lester Sherman · 9/05/2016 11:34:09 a.m.
Speaking as a parent of two lawyers, one aged 33 and one aged 29, I understand from what I have gleaned from conversations with them over the years, that the average productivity in the big five law firms is significantly less than our 78% - 85%, which I think we would all agree is lower than we would like. So, I guess that for law firms to stay profitable, they need much higher rates than engineers.

Having stated that, it is clear that the large firm model is somewhat under threat. Especially from the commoditisation of standard contracts, many of which can now be dragged off the internet and used by savvy non-lawyers; probably imperfectly, but likely more effectively than a lawyer trying to solve engineering questions using "Engineering Toolbox" or the like.

Tom Morten · 5/05/2016 9:12:13 a.m.
Hi Amber, Simple answer - because they can. Presumably clients feel that the value lawyers provide justifies their high fees, there are a large number of law graduates and intermediates prepared to work very long hours in support roles for lower levels of remuneration, and there are barriers to practicing that reduce competition.

Tom Morten · 5/05/2016 9:07:55 a.m.
Hi Matt, Thank you for your comments. It certainly appears that law firms have a great margin between their high rates and, at least at junior levels, low remuneration. While this makes the industry an attractive target for disruption, there are also an number of barriers to entry that have prevented this already occurring. I feel that in many ways this makes their business model more robust than those in our industry with their healthy margin providing a buffer.

Amber Murphy · 29/04/2016 4:33:30 p.m.
So the next question is: why do Lawyers charge more than engineers?

Matt Ensor · 29/04/2016 8:53:42 a.m.
Hi Tom - great article! Lawyers' hourly rates are often double engineers' rates, yet they are paid similarly. Do legal firms need to cut costs? How long can their business model last?