Lawyer: Career Guide

Lawyers can act as legal defense representing clients in civil or criminal proceedings, as attorneys for a plaintiff in civil proceedings, or as prosecutors representing the government in criminal proceedings. They may initiate lawsuits, represent private citizens, corporations, or the government, or serve in advisory positions. Lawyers may legally practice after completing a Juris Doctor (JD) degree, which is a professional doctorate, and successfully passing the bar exam in the state(s) in which they want to work. Attorneys often forge their own career paths. In addition to practicing law, seasoned attorneys may teach at colleges or universities, become corporate executives, or enter politics. In fact, numerous presidents – including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Franklin Roosevelt – were all attorneys prior to becoming politicians. Experienced lawyers may also go on to run to become a judge. Lawyers may be employed by the government, private law firms, businesses, and non-profit organizations.

Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks

Lawyers generally perform actions on behalf of clients in court, advising them as to the proper course of action in civil and criminal activities. Attorneys tend to specialize in one aspect of the law, such as product liability, criminal justice, family law, or elder law. They may also advise companies on the validity of contracts and mergers or other aspects of corporate governance. Unlike many criminal justice careers, lawyers spend the majority of their time in offices or in the courtroom. Aspiring attorneys must have strong critical thinking and public speaking skills as well as research abilities.

Steps for Becoming a Lawyer

A Juris Doctor, or JD, which is a doctoral degree, typically takes three years and is required to become a lawyer. Most law schools require a bachelor's degree for admission, but many do not require a specific major. While political science, pre-law, and liberal arts degrees are all common choices for aspiring law students, they are not required. Prospective law students must take – and earn acceptable scores on – the Law School Admission Test, most commonly referred to as the LSAT. Once a prospective lawyer has earned a JD, he or she must pass the bar exam of the state(s) in which they wish to practice.

If you are interested in becoming a lawyer, you should:

  1. Earn a bachelor's degree in any subject.
  2. Take and pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
  3. Attend law school and acquire a Juris Doctor (JD).
  4. Complete a clerkship at a local law firm to gain experience (optional).
  5. Take and pass your state Bar Examination.
  6. Apply to become a lawyer at an established law firm (or start a private practice).
  7. Be interviewed.
  8. Get hired as a lawyer.

Lawyer Job Training

Aspiring lawyers generally begin their hands-on law training in law school. Law school clinics, which are usually non-profit organizations, allow students to gain real-world experience while working with seasoned lawyers. Students have the opportunity to advise clients under supervision, draft motions, present motions, communicate with the opposing counsel, and investigate cases. Graduates may also gain experience by offering their services pro bono. New attorneys generally join law firms and must work their way up through the ranks of the law practice or business for which they work. Some law firms also provide training for new attorneys. What that training entails depends on the individual law firm. Finally, some states require new attorneys to complete state-required training. For example, all new lawyers in Ohio must successfully complete seminars to fulfill their New Lawyer Training (NLT) requirements.

Other Helpful Skills and Experience

Prospective attorneys should have strong communication skills (both oral and written) and should feel comfortable with public speaking. Lawyers often work with a diverse clientele and should possess the patience and empathy necessary when working with clients who may be in stressful, emotional situations. Attorneys with previous law experience, including working for law clinics or non-profits, will generally have a hiring advantage.

Examples of Possible Job Titles for This Career

  • Attorney
  • Counsel
  • Esquire

Lawyer Salary and Job Outlook

The median salary for lawyers in the United States is $119,250 per year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).1 However, salary varies widely based on whether an attorney is working in private industry or in the government sector. Top-earning lawyers in the federal government, for example, make an annual average wage of $141,900, while those working in state government make an annual average wage of $85,260.1 The BLS projects job growth for lawyers to be about 8% from 2016 to 2026.1

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What type of hours do attorneys typically work?

Answer: Prospective lawyers should be prepared to work long hours. Attorneys often have to spend many hours in the office, interviewing clients, conducting research, preparing documents, and representing clients both in and out of court.

Question: What opportunities are available for lawyers who can't find a permanent job?

Answer: Aspiring attorneys who cannot find a position in their city may have to be open to moving to another city or to another state to secure a job. It's important to note, however, that moving out of state also requires becoming licensed in the new state. Legal temporary agencies have also become popular and allow attorneys to take short-term, temporary work while gaining the experience necessary for securing permanent employment.

Question: Is self-employment common among attorneys?

Answer: About one in five lawyers were self-employed in 2016.1 The majority of attorneys work for law firms, district attorney's offices, and other organizations involved in the US court system.

Question: How many lawyers work in the US?

Answer: Approximately 792,500 attorneys were working in the US in 2016, according to the BLS.1

Additional Resources

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Lawyers:

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