Most law careers involve helping clients deal with legal issues impacting their personal or business interests. Professionals in this field prepare legal documents, create contracts, and defend cases in court.
This guide lays out the steps you must take to launch a law career, as well as the types of degrees you can consider.
Career Paths in Law
Some careers in law require diligent work behind the scenes gathering facts, while others involve defending cases in court. Law students often focus on a specific type of law, such as corporate, criminal, or tax law. Selecting a focus allows students to gain expert knowledge in their area before launching a career.
There are two main categories of law careers: legal studies and public policy. Legal studies focuses on the general meaning, practice, and institution of law. Alternatively, public policy involves working with government agencies to create laws and policies.
A legal studies concentration can lead to positions like mediator, paralegal, lawyer, and court reporter. Many of these positions require a bachelor's degree or higher, although an associate degree may qualify you for some entry-level clerical or paralegal positions.
A public policy concentration focuses on creating programs, developing public information materials, and advocating for positive social change. Common roles for these graduates include political scientist, lobbyist, program manager, and consultant. Candidates must hold a bachelor's degree to qualify for most positions in this field.
Law Career Outlook
Individuals, businesses, and government agencies need law professionals to help mitigate risks, create productive partnerships, and protect property. This demand leads to lucrative and rewarding job opportunities in the field.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for law professionals is $81,820. The BLS also projects 5% job growth for law occupations between 2019 and 2029.
Read on to learn more about how to launch your legal career.
How to Start a Career in Law
To begin a law career, you must possess strong communication, research, analytical, and time management skills. You can hone these skills in law school.
Before enrolling in a program, determine which law career aligns with your interests. Then, determine the type of degree you need to qualify for that career. Some entry-level positions only require an associate degree, but many career paths require a bachelor's or graduate degree.
You may need to take extra steps — in addition to earning a degree — depending on the career you choose. For example, if you want to become a lawyer, you must earn an undergraduate degree, pass the LSAT, complete law school, and pass the multistate professional responsibility and bar exams.
The type of degree you need to earn depends on your career goals. The following sections describe features of associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral programs, as well as the law careers you can qualify for at each educational level.
An associate degree typically consists of 60 credits and takes full-time learners two years to complete. Students pursuing law often earn an associate in criminal justice, a paralegal associate degree, or an associate in criminology. Curricula vary depending on the degree you choose, but common courses include psychology, legal research and writing, criminal justice, and social work.
Admission requirements vary by school, but you typically need to have a high school or GED diploma to qualify. Many schools also require you to pass a placement exam.
Earning an associate degree develops the administrative, research, and legal knowledge you need to launch a career as a paralegal, police officer, legal assistant, or probation officer. However, without continuing your education, your career growth and earning potential may be limited.
A bachelor's degree requires approximately 120 credits and takes full-time students about four years to complete. However, some schools offer accelerated or degree completion programs that allow you to earn a bachelor's degree in significantly less time. These programs often cater to students with previous college credits or professional experience.
Many students who are interested in law pursue a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, legal studies, or law enforcement. Some bachelor's programs also offer relevant concentrations like pre-law, paralegal studies, criminal justice, and business law. Concentrations allow you to align your degree with your career goals.
Earning a bachelor's degree can help qualify you to work as a paralegal, detective, emergency dispatcher, or nonprofit manager. For aspiring lawyers, a bachelor's degree serves as a stepping stone to taking the LSAT and applying for law school.
Earning a master's degree often leads to advanced careers in law. Students who are interested in the law but do not plan to become lawyers often pursue a master's degree in law enforcement administration or legal studies. Popular careers with a master's in these fields include forensic science technician, emergency management director, and financial examiner.
A master's degree typically requires 30-45 credits and takes around two years to complete. Some schools offer one-year accelerated programs that deliver eight-week classes throughout the year. Core courses in these master's programs often include criminology, criminal law, research methods in criminal justice, and foundations of legal thought.
Admission requirements often include work experience and a minimum GPA, which varies by school. To learn more, research the best online master's programs in law enforcement administration and legal studies.
Earning a doctorate requires a significant investment of time and money. Professionals with a doctorate can pursue careers as lawyers, professors, and forensic scientists. Research the best online doctoral programs to gain an understanding of what these programs entail.
If you plan to become an attorney, you must earn a juris doctor (JD), which takes about three years to complete. The curriculum of a JD program focuses on civil and common laws, preparing graduates to construct cases, develop contracts, and protect intellectual property.
To qualify for other law careers, you can consider earning a doctorate in criminal justice, which usually takes full-time students 3-5 years to complete. Core courses include corrections, juvenile justice, and criminal justice organizational leadership. To learn more, research the best online doctorates in criminal justice.
Certifications and/or Licensure
Some law professions require a government-issued license, while others do not. Additionally, earning a voluntary certificate can provide a competitive advantage and increase your earning potential. Adding an advanced credential to your resume helps show potential employers that you possess the skills, knowledge, and training needed to succeed in your field.
To work as a lawyer, you must maintain a license. Some investigators and educators must also earn licenses. Each state maintains its own licensure process, so exact requirements vary. You may also consider earning career-specific certifications, such as the professional paralegal, accredited tax preparer, and registered landman credentials.
Gaining professional experience develops your skills and increases your expertise. Additional experience can qualify you for career promotions and increase your salary. In addition to on-the-job experience, employers also value employees and job candidates who actively pursue education beyond the basic requirements for certification or licensure.
In today's world, industries, regulations, and laws continuously evolve to address new situations and meet new social and environmental standards. As such, pursuing continuing education opportunities in law is especially important.
Online courses provide an affordable and flexible option to further your education. Sites like edX and Coursera offer access to free online courses from top schools like Harvard University, Yale University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
You can also attend seminars and local events, which allow you to hear from industry experts and network with peers. You can find these opportunities through your employer, coworkers, and professional organizations.
Law careers rely on up-to-date knowledge of local, state, federal, and/or international rules and regulations. As such, it is important to find ways to connect with peers and continue your education throughout your career by pursuing online classes, an advanced degree, a license, or a professional certification.
Joining a professional organization is another great way to stay on top of your profession. These organizations provide access to educational resources, industry publications, and job listings. Many also offer networking opportunities through annual events or seminars. Networking with peers allows you to collaborate and explore new career opportunities.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What are career options for law students?
You can pursue many careers with a law degree, including positions as a paralegal, legal assistant, mediator, court reporter, and lawyer. Lawyers often focus on a subfield like business, tax, or criminal law. Law students can also pursue careers in business, criminal justice, politics, and law enforcement.
- How do I start a career in law?
Most law careers require at least some college education. Determine which degree you need to pursue your target career. The degree you earn impacts your career advancement opportunities and earning potential.
- What are the highest-paying jobs in law?
According to the BLS, legal professionals earn a mean annual salary of $108,690. The most lucrative positions in the field include intellectual property attorney, corporate lawyer, and trial lawyer.
- Is a law degree worth it?
Earning a law degree opens the door to many rewarding and lucrative careers. Since most positions require some college education, it is imperative to pursue a postsecondary degree. Before selecting a program, establish your goals to determine which degree is right for you.