04/16/2012 11:25 am ET

Lawyers Face Widening Pay Gap

Income inequality is a problem among lawyers, too.

As The Wall Street Journal notes, the country's richest lawyers have gotten richer since the Great Recession, while the lawyers who earn the least still earn roughly what they used to.

Among the top 25 percent of lawyers, hourly rates climbed 4.9 percent in 2011 from the year before, according to the WSJ, which cites a report from the companies TyMetrix and the Corporate Executive Board. On the other hand, hourly rates for the bottom 25 percent of lawyers rose just 1.3 percent in the same time -- a rate of growth that doesn't even keep pace with rising costs. That means the lifestyles of the country's worst-paid lawyers are taking a hit.

For much of the country, the post-recession period has been a time of rising hunger and poverty -- circumstances that can make the troubles of lawyers look minor by comparison. But the economic downturn has been felt in the corporate world too, with many professionals discovering that opportunities for advancement aren't as common as they used to be -- and that they themselves aren't immune to the growing income gap that exists in American society.

This is especially apparent in the legal profession, where jobs have been hard to come by in recent years, and those that exist tend to fall into one of two categories -- something that pays in the modest five figures, or something that pays much better, around $160,000 a year. Young lawyers can find themselves on track for one or the other before they even realize such a stratification exists, according to The New York Times.

A similar dynamic exists on Wall Street, where executives can take home a paycheck that's between 50 and 100 times larger than what the average worker in the company earns.

The recession has delivered such a blow to the legal field that employment in the industry fell for three straight years following the downturn, according to The Economist -- a sharp reversal from the past decade, when legal employment had grown by some amount every year.

That's worn on recent law school graduates, many of whom have struggled to find work in the face of stiffer competition, likely dragging down industry pay. Some have even moved to try and find work outside of the legal world altogether.