So you want to become a lawyer? Or perhaps you’ve just completed a law degree, and are looking to map out your next steps. While being a lawyer takes a huge time commitment (and financial commitment to law school), the profession can be extremely rewarding — intellectually, financially and socially — no matter where you’re employed. From criminal justice litigation to environmental law, there are many fields you can delve into as a lawyer. Which one is right for you, and how do you work your way up there? Here are the basics of climbing the career ladder as a lawyer.
What Does a Lawyer Do?
Lawyers represent their clients in criminal and civil trials by building a case and arguing in support of their client. Lawyers may work in both the public and the private sector. Lawyers may also give their clients advice and counsel on how to navigate their legal circumstances. The duties of lawyers can be very diverse, including arguing in a courtroom, interviewing witnesses, preparing legal documents, advising clients, facilitating depositions and conducting legal research. There are many areas of law that lawyers may specialize in, from business law and intellectual property law to criminal law and constitutional law.
How to Become a Lawyer
Becoming a lawyer doesn’t happen overnight. There are six critical steps you must take before you’re able to become a practicing lawyer in your state.
Steps Required to Become a Lawyer:
- Get an undergraduate degree — While some colleges have pre-law programs, many aspiring lawyers major in fields as diverse as French literature to environmental studies. Popular majors for prospective lawyers include political science, economics, philosophy and history.
- Pass the LSAT — The LSAT is the main barrier to law school. While passing should be your main goal, the higher score you receive, the more likely you are to be accepted into competitive law school programs, especially if your college GPA wasn’t stellar.
- Apply to law school —Law schools take a variety of factors into consideration when evaluating applications, including undergraduate GPA, LSAT scores, letters of recommendation and application essays.
- Graduate with a Juris Doctor degree — In order to take the bar exam, you must hold a Juris Doctor degree from an accredited institution. Law school is also where, as a lawyer, you can start your track of specialization into a particular area of law, such as environmental law or contract law.
- Pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) —In the majority of states, passing the MPRE is a prerequisite for being eligible to take the bar examination. The MPRE is a multiple choice exam focusing on ethics and professional conduct.
- Pass the bar exam — The final obstacle in your path to becoming a lawyer is the bar exam. It’s a formidable test, lasting for two to three days, and in some states, yielding a pass rate of only 40 percent. The bar exam tests a wide variety of legal knowledge, from torts to civil procedures to contract law.
Lawyer Career Path Ladder
Right now, job prospects for lawyers are optimistic — the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates an 8% job growth for lawyers over the next ten years.
The majority of lawyers work in law firms, which means private practice. In law firms both small and large, there is usually a standard progression of job titles you’ll take as you work your way up in a firm. As a law student, you may work as a summer associate or law clerk during your breaks. You can also prepare for your career as a lawyer by working as a paralegal (an assistant to lawyers who sometimes performs similar duties to lawyers). Once you have your law degree, you’ll usually start out at a law firm as an associate. After around six to nine years at the firm, you’ll have a shot at becoming a partner, and eventually a managing partner. Some lawyers also choose to start their own firm after gaining experience within the field.
Outside of law firms, there are a variety of places where lawyers work. Many corporations retain their own legal departments, which means you would be a full-time employee of that corporation, rather than a law firm. Another large area of legal practice is public interest lawyers, who work for private or nonprofit organizations and provide legal services to disadvantaged populations, dealing with areas such as immigration and labor disputes.
There are also many spaces for lawyers in government positions, which range from prosecutors, who file lawsuits and charge parties on behalf of the government, to public defense attorneys, who represent parties who cannot afford their own attorney. In addition, government counsels work as lawyers in the executive and legislative branches of government, writing and interpreting laws, writing legal reviews and arguing civil and criminal cases for the government.
How Much Do Lawyers Make?
Additionally, according to Glassdoor data, the median base pay for lawyers is $117,188, which means that even when starting out on the bottom rung of the lawyer career ladder, you already have good salary prospects. Depending on the field of law you practice, your earning potential as you advance up the lawyer career ladder may vary.
Lawyer Job Market
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that that employment for lawyers, judges, and related workers will grow by 8% between 2016 and 2026. In addition, the BLS, projects that employment for paralegals and law clerks will grow by 14.6% within the same time span.
What Different Types of Jobs for Lawyers Are There?
Lawyer careers can take many different shapes. Specializations with the field of law include:
- Contract Law
- Environmental Law
- Tax Law
- Constitutional Law
- Worker’s Compensation
- Family Law
- Bankruptcy Law
- Intellectual Property Law
- Criminal Law
- Social Security/Disability
- Corporate Law
- Estate Planning Law
- Employment Law
- Immigration Law
The majority of these fields are open to specialize in whether you work in a private law firm, as a corporate counsel, for the government or for an advocacy organization. Specialization can begin in law school and continue from there. In addition to working as a lawyer, there are other professions that those who train as a lawyer often go into, including:
- Mediation and Conflict Resolution
- Legal Journalism
- Public Interest Advocacy
- Management Consulting
Related Careers in Law
While law school isn’t for everyone, there are a variety of careers within the legal field that take less schooling to break into, and can be equally as fulfilling. Here are just a few of the many careers available in the legal field:
Average Salary: $40,662
Degrees required: Associates degree or Bachelor’s degree
Average Salary: $72,714
Degrees required: Bachelor’s degree
Average Salary: $60,433
Degrees required: Associate’s degree