Becoming an Attorney: Job Description & Salary Information

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An attorney's average annual salary is about $133,000. However, is that salary worth seven years of schooling and examinations? View the real job description and hear the truth about salary information to find out if becoming an attorney is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of an Attorney Career

Attorneys represent and advise clients on legal matters both in and out of the courtroom. Read the pros and cons of being an attorney to find out if it's right for you.

Pros of Being an Attorney
High earning potential ($133,470 mean annual wage)*
Several specialties available*
Job opportunities in state and federal government*
Independence (22% of attorneys are self-employed or own law firms)*

Cons of Being an Attorney
Long hours (over 50 hours a week of work)*
High competition (average job growth of 10% from 2012-2022)*
School background and grades are major factor to employment*
Investment in college and law school may be financially burdensome*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Job Description, Salary and Career Info

Often synonymous with a lawyer, an attorney advises and represents a client concerning legal matters privately or publicly in a court of law for civil and criminal suits. Attorneys can work for a number of institutions, such as law firms, or be self-employed.

The job is research-intensive as each case that you receive needs your undivided attention and investment. You may need to travel to court, jail, your client's residency or work, government facilities, police stations or hospitals. As an attorney, you'll have office hours to study a case, meet a client or other attorneys, as well as meet and discuss any administrative affairs or major case discussions with law firm personnel.

Salary and Career Paths

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) stated that because attorneys can find jobs based on specialties, such as corporate or environmental law, salaries varied for attorneys (www.bls.gov). For example, in May 2014 salary figures show that an attorney working for a state government, such as a district attorney's office, may earn an average salary of $85,310 per year, while an attorney working in legal services may average $139,110 annually.

In addition, membership in a law firm is typically hierarchical; the senior members or partners most likely have the most experience under them and have won very important cases. Hence, salaries are typically lower at the bottom of a law firm chain of command and higher as your experience and work progresses. According to the BLS in May 2014, the bottom 10% of attorneys earned an annual salary of $55,400 or below. In the same year, the top 25% (who could be executives or senior partners) earned an annual average salary of more than $172,540. It is important to note that it is harder for an attorney who starts their own law firm to hold a salary congruent to a senior partner since most of the revenue and investments are going to help the firm.

Education and Career Skills

The American Bar Association (ABA), the accrediting body of all law schools in the United States, advises that you need to begin your legal career by holding a baccalaureate degree (www.americanbar.org). The ABA does not stipulate that any bachelor's degree is preferred over another. Instead, the ABA stresses that any degree that emphasizes research, writing and analytical skills is appropriate for admission to law school. Indeed, the ABA promotes that you should pursue an undergraduate degree that most interests you, in order to prepare for law practice in a specialized field. For example, if you enjoy the sciences and hold a bachelor's degree in biology, a law degree may help you defend and prosecute firms specializing in the sciences and industry.

Beyond your undergraduate degree, you need to hold a Juris Doctor (J.D.) from an ABA-accredited institution. To enroll in a law school, you need to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Each law school will look at your LSAT scores, your undergraduate transcript, your interests and your relevant work-experience as a consideration for admission.

Licensure and Exams

Although there is no national licensing examination, passing the bar exam in your state is required to become an attorney. Each state varies with their examination; however, 48 states except for Washington and Louisiana accept the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE). There is also a written examination called the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE), a practical skill measurement examination called the Multistate Performance Test (MPT) and an ABA professional responsibility code test called the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) that are used in many states or jurisdictions. It is important to note that each state may cater the MBE to their own standards or accept certain scores.

What Do Employers Look For?

The ABA outlines that you need skills ranging from critical thinking to time management skills. Attorneys need to analyze and assess both written and spoken testimony in a defense or prosecution. Possessing the time, the energy and the analytical insight to understand an argument, break it apart, counter or advocate a point and know the entire scope of a case is necessary to win a trial. In addition, the power of persuasion, through your logic and speaking abilities, help sway the jury, the judge or public opinion. Below are some examples from actual job posts in February 2012:

  • A defense company in Manassas, Virginia needs an attorney to provide counsel and advice to senior members of the board concerning business acquisitions. The employer would prefer attorneys with government contract knowledge and international business experience.
  • A private law firm in Los Angeles, California needs a new litigator. The candidate needs to be proficient and knowledgeable in personal injury and employment laws and hold 4-9 years of experience.
  • A marketing company in Burnsville, Minnesota needs an attorney who will help the marketing team with copyright laws and specific Minnesota business regulations. The candidate should know some information concerning marketing, as well as have an understanding of the laws regulating trademarks and advertising.

How to Beat the Competition?

To get ahead of the pack, you need to understand some realities about the legal profession. One is that competition is extremely fierce; the BLS noted graduates with superior academic records would be in highest demand. Another factor is that certain specializations in law see low demand through economic cycles. Bad economic cycles, for example, might hurt some employment opportunities for attorneys specializing in the troublesome sector of the economy, such as real estate or estate planning.

Get Specialized

You can also stand out by honing in on a particular sector of law. Although certain industry or economic trends could harm your employment opportunities, having a specialty in a niche helps you stand out. Your niche may be related to your undergraduate degree, coursework and internships you took in law school or from work experience you had before or after law school that may help you understand a sector or professional field more. Sectors of the economy where a specialized attorney is helpful include bankruptcy law, intellectual property, labor law and international law.

Other Careers to Consider

Magistrates, Adjudicators, Mediators and Judges

If you have decided you do not want to become an attorney after earning a J.D., there are some options for you. One path is becoming a judge or another type of judicial worker. Magistrates, adjudicators, mediators and judges mitigate arbitration hearings and trials. Though a J.D. isn't required it is preferred for these careers, and individuals may have to complete to additional training or experience requirements. The annual median salary of judges and magistrates is $119,270 as of May 2010, while mediators earn an annual median salary of $66,460 and adjudicators earn a median salary of $85,500.

Paralegal

Alternatively, if you are interested in law, but want a career that requires much less schooling, you can become a paralegal. Paralegal training typically only takes the completion of an associate's degree program in paralegal studies. Though you can't practice law, you are vital in managing a legal office and conducting legal research for attorneys. However, the pay is much less with paralegals earning a median wage of only $46,680 annually.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Kaplan University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MSCJ: Law
      • Master: Legal Studies
      • Master: Criminal Justice
      • MSCJ: Global Issues in Criminal Justice
    Bachelor's
      • Undergraduate in Legal Studies
      • Bachelor: Criminal Justice
    Associate's
      • AAS in Legal Support and Services
      • Associate: Criminal Justice
    Certificate
      • Postbaccalaureate Certificate - Pathway to Paralegal
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Capella University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • PhD: Criminal Justice
    Master's
      • Master: Criminal Justice
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor: Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Grand Canyon University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS in Criminal Justice: Legal Studies
      • Master of Public Administration - Government and Policy
    Bachelor's
      • B.A. in Government with an Emphasis in Legal Studies
      • B.A. in Government with an Emphasis in State and Local Public Policy
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Ashford University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS-Criminal Justice
    Bachelor's
      • B.A. - Social and Criminal Justice
      • BA/Real Estate Studies
      • B.A. - International Business
  • Online Programs Available
    5. University of the Rockies

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Doctor of Psychology - Criminology and Justice Studies
    Master's
      • Master of Arts in Psychology - Criminology and Justice Studies
  • Online Programs Available
    6. Saint Joseph's University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS - Criminal Justice with Intelligence & Crime Analysis
  • Online Programs Available
    7. Southern New Hampshire University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS in Criminal Justice
      • International MBA in Criminal Justice
      • MBA in Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    8. Regent University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Arts in Government - Law and Public Policy
      • Master of Arts in Law
      • Master of Arts in Law - Administration and Regulatory Law
      • Master of Arts in Law - General Legal Studies
      • Master of Arts in Law - Criminal Justice
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor of Arts in Government - Pre-Law
      • Bachelor of Arts in Leadership Studies - Government
      • Bachelor of Applied Science in Criminal Justice
      • Bachelor of Arts in Leadership Studies - Criminal Justice
      • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice
      • Bachelor of Science in Professional Studies - Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    9. Penn Foster Career School

    Program Options

    Certificate
      • Career Diploma: Paralegal
      • Career Diploma: Legal Secretary
      • Career Diploma - Legal Transcriptionist
      • Certificate - Advanced Paralegal Applications
      • Certificate - Real Estate, Wills and Estates for Paralegals
  • Online Programs Available
    10. Indiana Wesleyan University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Public Administration - Criminal Justice
    Bachelor's
      • B.S. Criminal Justice
      • B.S. General Studies - Criminal Justice
    Associate's
      • A.S. Criminal Justice
      • A.S. General Studies - Criminal Justice
    Certificate
      • Undergraduate Certificate - Criminal Justice

Featured Schools

Kaplan University

  • MSCJ: Law
  • Undergraduate in Legal Studies
  • AAS in Legal Support and Services
  • Postbaccalaureate Certificate - Pathway to Paralegal

Which subject are you interested in?

Capella University

  • PhD: Criminal Justice
  • Master: Criminal Justice
  • Bachelor: Criminal Justice

What is your highest level of education completed?

Grand Canyon University

  • MS in Criminal Justice: Legal Studies
  • Master of Public Administration - Government and Policy
  • B.A. in Government with an Emphasis in Legal Studies
  • B.A. in Government with an Emphasis in State and Local Public Policy

What is your highest level of education?

Ashford University

  • MS-Criminal Justice
  • B.A. - Social and Criminal Justice
  • BA/Real Estate Studies

What is your highest level of education?

University of the Rockies

  • Doctor of Psychology - Criminology and Justice Studies
  • Master of Arts in Psychology - Criminology and Justice Studies

What is your highest level of education?

Saint Joseph's University

  • MS - Criminal Justice with Intelligence & Crime Analysis

What is your highest level of education completed?

Southern New Hampshire University

  • MS in Criminal Justice
  • International MBA in Criminal Justice
  • MBA in Criminal Justice

What is your highest level of education?

Regent University

  • Master of Arts in Government - Law and Public Policy
  • Master of Arts in Law
  • Bachelor of Arts in Government - Pre-Law
  • Bachelor of Arts in Leadership Studies - Government

What is your highest level of education completed?