Lawyer: Career Guide
Some lawyers pursue careers as consultants, judges, or politicians, but most lawyers work in the legal field, advising or representing individual citizens, companies, or governments. Suited to ambitious, rational individuals with excellent research, writing, and speaking skills, lawyer jobs typically require a juris doctor (JD) degree and successful performance on a state bar exam.
Lawyers may serve as legal defense or as prosecuting attorneys. They usually specialize in areas of law such as criminal law, family law, constitutional law, or business law. Other law specializations include personal injury, worker's compensation, contract, and disability or social security. Some lawyers advocate for human rights, filing court actions that can lead to potentially impactful official orders.
Lawyer salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates a median annual salary of $122,960 -- more than twice the annual median wage for all occupations. The BLS also projects a promising job outlook of 6% growth between 2018-2028.
Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks
Lawyer jobs and duties vary depending on employer, field, and work context. Some professionals primarily provide legal counsel, while other lawyers represent clients regularly in court. Other possible work contexts include private practices, law firms, government organizations, and corporate offices. Possible roles include public interest lawyer, government prosecutor, in-house corporate counsel, or public defense attorney.
Whether tasked with representing their clients in private legal matters or in court, lawyers often spend considerable time researching and preparing cases. These duties may begin with interviewing and counseling clients concerning their legal rights, responsibilities, and decisions. Lawyers may also research and analyze legal problems and interpret existing laws, precedents, and regulations. These professionals usually prepare and present cases using persuasive arguments and evidence.
Other duties include communicating with other legal professionals, supervising legal assistants and secretaries, and liaising between involved parties. Lawyers may also prepare and file legal documents such as contracts, wills, or lawsuits.
When representing clients in the courtroom, lawyers need to manage stress and speak well under pressure. Lawyer jobs also typically require advanced critical thinking, research, and interpersonal skills. Legal careers typically afford professionals considerable variety in daily tasks, which may include meeting with clients, conducting research, composing legal documents, or conducting trials.
Steps to Become a Lawyer
Earn an Undergraduate Degree
For admission to law school, aspiring lawyers usually need to hold a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university. Most law schools do not require specific major prerequisites. Students interested in intellectual property law may benefit from an undergraduate degree in math or technical science to prepare for the patent bar examination. Law schools often look for top students with a minimum 3.0 undergraduate GPA.
Pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)
Students applying to law school must pass the LSAT, a standardized test that evaluates reading and verbal reasoning skills. The test takes half a day and is offered four times per year at many locations. Students interested in fall admission should take the test in October or June, although December scores are usually accepted. LSAT scores weigh heavily in admission and financial aid decisions.
Earn a Law Degree
Lawyer requirements typically include a graduate law degree (usually a JD) from an accredited law school. Most states require that aspiring lawyers obtain this degree before taking the bar exam. Law school typically entails three years of full-time study, and many graduates complete a one-year clerkship afterward.
Pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE)
Required by all U.S. states and jurisdictions except Wisconsin, Maryland, and Puerto Rico, this two-hour ethics exam consists of 60 multiple choice questions and is a prerequisite for the bar exam.
Pass the Bar Examination
Aspiring lawyers usually must pass the bar exam in their future state of practice. Passing rates for the bar exam drop as low as 40% in some states, so solid preparation is crucial.
Lawyer Job Training
On-the-job training for lawyers depends somewhat on specialization, sector, and career goals. Many law students begin their professional training during law school through law school clinics with nonprofit organizations. Working under the supervision of experienced lawyers, students in these clinics engage in real-world legal duties such as investigating cases and counseling clients.
Some successful law school graduates qualify for clerkships assisting judges or other legal professionals. These clerkships often precede passing the bar and seeking other full-time work. Clerkship duties may include conducting legal research and drafting important documents such as legal briefs, decisions, and verdicts. Clerkships provide on-the-job training that helps prepare students for the legal profession.
When eventually hired by law firms, new lawyers often complete additional training with the firm. Some states also mandate state-specific training and other requirements for new lawyers.
Other Helpful Skills and Experience
Aspiring lawyers need advanced skills in active listening and oral and written communication. Skills in rhetorical persuasion and argumentation prove essential in presenting cases effectively, and logical thinking helps lawyers identify when and where laws apply in a given situation. Lawyers representing clients in the courtroom must manage stress effectively and speak well in front of others, even under high pressure.
As lawyers must often deal with difficult people, they also benefit from considerable empathy, patience, and interpersonal skills. Negotiation skills help lawyers communicate with opposing counsel.
Analyzing complex legal issues and sifting through long legal documents require sophisticated critical thinking, persistence, and concentration abilities. Organization skills prove beneficial, particularly when managing long, complex cases. Lawyers also benefit from technological skills when navigating case management systems or software for preparing legal documents or conducting research.
Attorneys who have professional experience with nonprofits, legal clinics, or clerkships often appear more attractive to employers. Business management backgrounds can help lawyers who wish to open and run a private practice, since entrepreneurs usually need fluency in business areas such as financial management, strategic planning, and personnel management. Students with business backgrounds may also appear more qualified to prospective corporate employers.
Salary and Career Outlook
Successful lawyers usually earn hefty salaries, evident in the $122,960 median annual salary indicated by 2019 BLS data. However, lawyer salaries vary considerably based on experience level, with less experienced associate attorneys earning about $74,000 annually according to PayScale. PayScale reports $84,00 as the average annual salary for attorneys and lawyers.
Salaries also vary by sector, industry, and employer, with corporate lawyers making around $111,500 annually and public defenders making $62,000. Lawyers employed by the federal government make about $30,000 more than state government lawyers do, according to the BLS. Top-paying industries include cable and subscription programming, motion picture and video production, infrastructure construction, and computer and equipment manufacturing.
Geographical location also influences lawyer salaries. BLS data indicates that lawyers based in California and New York boast higher average salaries than lawyers in other states.
The BLS projects an average job growth rate of 6% between 2018 and 2028, but keep in mind that job growth rates, like salaries, often vary by field. Lawyers seeking to boost their salaries often pursue specialized continuing education in growing, profitable industries and fields.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What type of hours do attorneys typically work?
- Lawyers often work during normal business hours, although some professionals enjoy flexible schedules. Given the often time-sensitive nature of their work, attorneys often put in long days. Some tasks, such as conducting research, require unpredictable amounts of time. Other potentially time-consuming job aspects include court trials, consultations with clients, and document preparation. Factors such as hung juries or new evidence can prolong hours and days in court.
- What opportunities are available for lawyers who can't find a permanent job?
- Legal positions can be competitive to obtain, so lawyers may need to extend their job search to include a wider geographical area. Major cities typically boast more diverse legal position options, so relocation to an urban or suburban area can improve career prospects. However, keep in mind that moving across state lines will require practicing lawyers to pass another state bar exam. Other helpful job-finding resources include the networking tools, career centers, and continuing education provided by professional organizations. Legal temp agencies can also provide short-term work for job seekers pursuing full-time employment.
- Is self-employment common among attorneys?
Most attorneys work for district attorney offices, law firms, governments, or companies, but some lawyers operate private practices or work independently as consultants. The flexible career of consulting can allow lawyers to choose which organizations they serve. Consultants may work for businesses, nonprofit organizations, governments, or individual clients. According to the BLS, 20% of lawyers are self-employed.