Becoming a Lawyer: Careers, Salary Info & Job Description

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The average annual wage for lawyers is $133,470. Is it worth the education and licensure requirements? See a real job description and get the truth about career prospects to find out if becoming a lawyer is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Lawyer

As a lawyer, or attorney, you'll represent clients in court and advise companies or individuals on legal compliance. You'll research laws, make arguments, and write legal documents. Check out the pros and cons below to see if this field is a good fit for you.

PROS of Becoming a Lawyer
Among the highest paid workers with a median annual salary of $114,970*
Various specialty areas from which to choose*
Needed in a wide range of industries*
Opportunities to help clients resolve problems and pursue justice*

CONS of Becoming a Lawyer
Often face heavy pressure during trials*
Usually takes 7 years of study after high school*
Long work hours, particularly during court trials*
Strong competition for admission to law school*

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Career Information

Job Description

Lawyers serve as advisors and advocates. They counsel clients about legal obligations and rights and give suggestions about actions in both business and personal situations. They also represent people in civil and criminal court trials by showing evidence to support these clients' cases. Most lawyers concentrate on civil and criminal law in private practices, while others work for the government, corporations or legal aid societies, among a variety of other settings. Civil and criminal lawyers focus on representing clients in court trials, whereas other lawyers tend to focus more on advising clients outside of court. You may also choose to focus your practice on a specialty area, such as civil, tax, bankruptcy, international, environmental, elder or labor law.

As a new lawyer, you'd probably start as an associate and gain experience by working alongside other lawyers and judges. It might take several years as an associate to be admitted to a partnership in a firm. Alternatively, you could start your own practice or seek employment with a corporation. As a salaried lawyer, you may have a regular work schedule. On the other hand, if you work in a private practice or for a large company, you'd probably have long and irregular hours.

Career Prospects and Salary

Employment for lawyers was expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations at a rate of 10% from 2012-2022, according to the BLS. Although people, government agencies, and businesses still need lawyers to represent them, growth will be stifled by budget constraints as well as increasing prevalence of other professionals to perform legal tasks for companies, such as preparing documents and offering advice on business issues. Additionally, competition for jobs will be keen due to the growing number of law school graduates seeking employment. You may have better job prospects if you're willing to relocate.

According to the BLS, the average (mean) annual wage for all lawyers was $133,470 as of May 2014. State governments paid more than $30,000 less than this mean wage. The highest-paying industries included various types of manufacturing, securities and commodities, and information services. The top paying locations were the District of Columbia, California, New York, Delaware, and Massachusetts.

What Are the Requirements?

Education

To become a lawyer, you'll generally need to complete four years of undergraduate school and three years of a law program accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). You do not need to hold a bachelor's degree in a specific major, though law schools typically require you to have completed prerequisites in topics like history, English and economics. You will likely experience intense competition when applying to law school, because the number of applicants greatly exceeds the number of admissions. You will have to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) to assess your potential as a legal student.

Once in law school, you'll prepare for a career as a lawyer through in-class instruction, research and writing projects, practice trials and moot court competitions. In the first year or so of study, you'll take general law classes, like torts, civil procedure, contracts and constitutional law. The remainder of your coursework will focus on electives in specialized areas. Upon graduation, you'll earn your Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree.

Licensure

In order to practice law in any state, you'll need to be admitted to its bar by passing a written examination. The bar exam generally takes two days to complete. On the first day, you'll take the Multistate Bar Examination, which is comprised of 200 questions covering topics like contracts, criminal law and evidence. On the second day, you'll sit for exams administered by your state's licensing board. Most states also require you to pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Strong verbal and written communication skills are essential to a career in law, as is the ability to conduct research, analyze data and solve problems. Many companies and organizations also seek lawyers who are experienced in specific sectors of industry. Read the following excerpts from real job postings in March 2012, to find out what employers were seeking:

  • A hospital in Illinois advertised for a staff attorney with an advanced law degree or certificate focusing on healthcare law and 1-3 years of experience as an attorney for a healthcare organization. This employer also preferred members of the American Health Lawyers Association.
  • A law firm in California was looking for a tax associate with strong analytical and writing skills as well as good law school credentials.
  • An electronics design company in Florida advertised for an in-house attorney with 7-9 years of experience in corporate counseling, a background in engineering or product design and Florida's Authorized House Counsel certification.
  • A law firm in Colorado was looking for an associate lawyer with 2-5 years of experience in corporate and estate planning. While not mandatory, this employer favored applicants with LL.M. degrees in tax law.

How Can I Beat the Competition?

Competition will be strong from the very beginning. Earning high grades in your bachelor's degree courses, choosing a prestigious law school and then earning high grades towards your law degree are all important. You might also consider becoming licensed in multiple states to open yourself to career opportunities in a wider range of locations.

Get Specialized

To increase your desirability as an applicant, consider earning an advanced law degree, called a Master of Laws (LL.M.). Though not required for licensure or accredited by the ABA, these 1-year programs allow you to concentrate on a specialty subject. This may be beneficial when seeking employment, since companies and specialty law firms often prefer candidates with expertise in a specific field of law. Additionally, employers often favor applicants with advanced law degrees, according to job listings on the ABA's website (www.americanbar.org).

Other Career Paths

Paralegal or Legal Assistant

If you're interested in a career in law, but becoming a lawyer just isn't right for you, consider a career in legal assistance. Paralegals, also called legal assistants, perform much of the same work as lawyers, but don't give legal advice or present cases in court. As a paralegal, you might investigate the facts for cases, help a lawyer prepare for a trial, analyze information and prepare written reports. You might also draft contracts, prepare tax returns and keep financial office records. You could earn an associate's or a bachelor's degree in paralegal studies to become a paralegal; however, if you already hold a bachelor's degree in another major, you could earn a certificate in paralegal studies to qualify for the career.

Jobs for paralegals were projected to grow by 18% from 2010-2020, according to the BLS. This projection is due to employers' tendencies to hire paralegals rather than lawyers, because paralegals cost less to employ and can perform a wider range of job duties. Competition, however, will continue to be strong due to the large number of applicants for these positions. As of May 2011, paralegals earned a mean annual wage of $49,960.

Related Career Possibilities

There are also a variety of opportunities to use your law degree outside of a legal career. Legal training could be an asset when working in banks, insurance companies, government agencies and real estate companies. You could, for example, serve as a claims adjuster for an insurance company or a financial advisor for a corporation. Legal training could also lead to a career as a title examiner, abstractor or law clerk. Additionally, you could become a law school teacher.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Regent University

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      • Master of Arts in Government - Law and Public Policy
      • Master of Arts in Law - General Legal Studies
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      • Bachelor of Science in Paralegal Studies
      • Bachelor of Arts in Government - Pre-Law
      • Bachelor of Arts in Leadership Studies - Government
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  • Online Programs Available
    2. Kaplan University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master: Legal Studies
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      • AAS in Legal Support and Services
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      • Postbaccalaureate Certificate - Pathway to Paralegal
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    3. South College

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    Associate's
      • Associate of Science in Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Penn Foster

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    Certificate
      • Career Diploma - Legal Secretary
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    5. Saint Leo University

    Program Options

    Bachelor's
      • BA: Criminal Justice
      • BA: Criminal Justice - Criminalistics
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      • AA: Criminal Justice
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    6. Post University

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • A.S. in Legal Studies
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    7. Central Christian College of Kansas

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    Associate's
      • AA in Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    8. Penn Foster High School

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    High School Diploma
      • HS Diploma
  • Online Programs Available
    9. Grand Canyon University

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    Master's
      • MS in Criminal Justice: Legal Studies
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Featured Schools

Regent University

  • Master of Arts in Government - Law and Public Policy
  • Master of Arts in Law - General Legal Studies
  • Bachelor of Science in Paralegal Studies
  • Bachelor of Arts in Government - Pre-Law

What is your highest level of education completed?

Kaplan University

  • Master: Legal Studies
  • AAS in Legal Support and Services
  • Postbaccalaureate Certificate - Pathway to Paralegal

Which subject are you interested in?

South College

  • Associate of Science in Criminal Justice

What is your highest level of education completed?

Penn Foster

  • Career Diploma - Legal Secretary

What is your highest level of education?

Saint Leo University

  • BA: Criminal Justice
  • BA: Criminal Justice - Criminalistics
  • AA: Criminal Justice

What is your highest level of education completed?

Post University

  • A.S. in Legal Studies
  • A.S. in Criminal Justice

Education Level:

Central Christian College of Kansas

  • AA in Criminal Justice

What is your highest level of education completed?

Penn Foster High School

  • HS Diploma

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