Law represents the system by which communities and countries regulate the actions of their members and citizens. The U.S. legal system is expansive and diverse, encompassing areas like civil rights, corporate operations, immigration, natural resource extraction and use, and even sports and entertainment.
Due to the multiplicity of law, professionals in this field benefit from career opportunities in private, nonprofit, and government/public sectors. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that positions for lawyers will grow 8% from 2016 to 2026, which translates to 65,000 new jobs. Professionals in this field often work as attorneys who actively practice law in courtrooms and within other settings. Lawyers may also act as counsel, giving legal advice to individuals and businesses. As is the case with other professional fields, law offers a variety of specializations, including technology, criminal, real estate, and health law.
To work as a lawyer, you need to earn a relevant college degree, like an online master's in legal studies. You can then attend law school to earn your juris doctor (JD) and sit for the bar exam. This guide delves into the academic preparation candidates need to pursue traditional law careers and provides professional development resources and information about alternative careers.
Law Employment by State
Due to the universal importance of the legal profession, careers in law can develop in every U.S. state. On average, lawyers earn from $58,220 (the bottom 10%) to $182,490 (the top 90%). BLS data also reveals that lawyers enjoy the highest employment level in California, followed by New York, Florida, Texas, and the District of Columbia. On a metropolitan-area scale, Washington, D.C. and the surrounding cities house the highest concentration of lawyers, with 14 legal professionals for every 1,000 jobs. Among nonmetropolitan areas, southwest Montana and central Kentucky boast the highest employment levels for lawyers.
Employment Data by State for Legal Professionals
Educational Paths to a Career in Law
Professionals can pursue entry-level administrative law careers by earning an associate degree and completing additional job training. For students who want to become lawyers, academic training includes at least a bachelor's program in legal studies or a similar discipline. In lieu of a traditional college track, students can enroll in online programs, which typically provide not only flexible scheduling through asynchronous classes but also affordable tuition prices that often disregard residency status.
Although students may apply for law school with only baccalaureate credentials, many candidates choose to earn their master's degree before pursuing their juris doctor. Graduate studies enable learners to build upon foundational knowledge, gain leadership skills, and explore alternative career opportunities through advanced electives and degree concentrations.
Associate degrees in legal studies total at least 60 credits, which you can typically complete in two years of full-time study. These programs can train you to support legal teams as paralegals and legal assistants. Curricula consist of foundational topics like legal concepts of business, legal writing, and applied ethics. Through classes in legal research and litigation processes, this degree helps you prepare for bachelor's programs and law school. Though professional certification is optional for paralegals, states like California and Washington provide credentialing options through their individual bar associations.
A bachelor's degree in legal studies requires at least 120 credits, a process that generally takes four years. Colleges and universities offer online accelerated tracks and degree completion programs that enable you to obtain your credentials in two years. The degree plan typically includes courses like American government, logic and legal reasoning, and criminal procedure. In lieu of a dedicated prelaw track, you can pursue concentrations in areas like criminal justice and public administration.
Master programs in public policy and legal studies usually total a minimum of 30 credits, which you can generally complete in two years. Candidates who want to expedite graduation can enroll in accelerated online tracks that operate eight-week classes year-round and let learners earn their credentials in just 12 months. A master's program trains you in topics like collaborative governance, data analysis, and local government management and provides opportunities to develop skills through internships and capstone projects. After graduating, you will be well-prepared to work as a public policy analyst, regional planner, or survey researcher.
Earning your JD requires you to complete approximately 90 credits over three years. Required courses cover civil and common law, including topics like property, contracts, and torts. During your tenure, you train in legal research and writing, learning how to use law libraries and online databases. You also develop problem-solving skills, which you apply by writing legal memoranda and appellate briefs.
While some JD programs may not offer distinct specializations, you can typically craft your own concentration by focusing on a type of law. Popular options include administrative law, environmental law, tax law, international and comparative law, and intellectual property and technology law. You can also enroll in master of business law programs, which are available in campus-based tracks and distance education options.
Career Paths in Law
Law careers vary depending on the level and nature of a professional's degree. At the associate level, you can expect to be prepared for occupations like paralegals, court reporters, and legal assistants, as well as law enforcement positions as police officers and private security. However, you should note that, depending on the employer and industry, some of these entry-level positions require baccalaureate credentials.
At the bachelor's and master's levels, your career options greatly expand and include public policy analysts, mediators, corporate compliance officers, and federal regulatory agents. A graduate degree can also provide the chance to work as a researcher or postsecondary teacher. Due to the diversity of law careers, you can often find value in pursuing optional licenses or certificates. These credentials include specialty certification from programs accredited by the American Bar Association. The section below comprises a list of careers in law by degree level.
Paralegal or Legal Assistant
- Median Annual Salary: $50,940
- Minimum Degree: Associate degree
- Projected Job Growth (2016-26): 15%
- Number of People Employed: 285,600
These professionals assist lawyers by conducting research, categorizing evidence, and preparing legal documents for trial. Paralegals and legal assistants use electronic filing systems to organize, maintain, and secure documents. They also oversee daily administrative tasks, including answering phone calls, scheduling appointments, and coordinating clients and witnesses. Like lawyers, paralegals and legal assistants can specialize in areas like family law, immigration, personal injury, and employee benefits.
- Median Annual Salary: $57,150
- Minimum Degree: Associate degree
- Projected Job Growth (2016-26): 3%
- Number of People Employed: 19,600
Court reporters attend court proceedings, hearings, and depositions, where they provide word-for-word transcriptions using stenography machines and recording devices. Some court reporters create media captioning and real-time translations for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. These legal professionals also help attorneys and judges capture, organize, and produce official records of trials and proceedings.
Arbitrator, Mediator, or Conciliator
- Median Annual Salary: $62,270
- Minimum Degree: Bachelor's degree
- Projected Job Growth (2016-26): 10%
- Number of People Employed: 7,800
These legal professionals facilitate dialogue and negotiations between disputing parties outside the courtroom. Arbitrators are usually attorneys or former judges who act as an impartial third party and define legal procedures, including types of evidence the parties may submit. Mediators help individuals resolve conflicts but do not render official decisions. Conciliators occupy similar positions as mediators but usually meet with opposing parties individually to offer their recommendations.
Public Policy Analyst
- Median Annual Salary: $56,735
- Minimum Degree: Bachelor's degree
Public policy analysts inspect public policies to determine the effects that laws and regulations have on individuals, communities, corporations, nations, and even the environment. They may occupy research or teaching positions in academic institutions and can also pursue work with private companies, ensuring their employer's actions and strategies align with government policies. Students can access this page for more information on the public policy field and related resources.
- Median Annual Salary: $120,910 Minimum Degree: Professional or doctoral degree
- Projected Job Growth (2016-26): 8%
- Number of People Employed: 792,500
Lawyers advise individuals, organizations, and government agencies on legal issues. They also represent their clients in criminal and civil trials and other proceedings. As covered above, bachelor's credentials are the minimum requirement to enter this field. However, many students opt for additional training at the master's level before earning their JD and sitting for the bar exam.
Judge or Hearing Officer
- Median Annual Salary: $117,190
- Minimum Degree: Professional or doctoral degree
- Projected Job Growth (2016-26): 5%
- Number of People Employed: 43,800
Judges and hearing officers uphold the law and oversee legal procedures in court. Depending on whether they occupy a local, state, or federal position, judges can preside over trials concerning traffic violations, misdemeanors, or criminal investigations. They determine validity of information, manage court proceedings, and reach judgments regarding disputes, claims, and cases. Hearing officers work for government agencies to oversee administrative law.
- Median Annual Salary: $78,470
- Minimum Degree: Master's or doctoral degree
- Projected Job Growth (2016-26): 15%
- Number of People Employed: 1,314,400
College and university educators provide classroom instruction in their field of study. These teachers offer extracurricular guidance, helping students pursue research, obtain internships, and prepare for career entry or additional college training. Postsecondary instructors also work as researchers who conduct studies and publish findings in peer-reviewed journals. Furthermore, they often occupy administrative roles in their department, helping develop curricula or improve student enrollment numbers.
Meet a Law Professional
Joseph Hoelscher is managing attorney of Hoelscher Gebbia Cepeda, PLLC, a law firm in San Antonio, Texas. He is an award-winning lawyer with over 100 jury trials in family law, child welfare law, and criminal law. Hoelscher's cases have been featured in national media, including "America's Most Wanted," and he is a frequent media commentator on legal matters. As managing attorney, Hoelscher developed his firm's recruitment program and has participated in multiple bar association mentorship and training committees.
- What are common law careers?
The experience of being a lawyer is determined primarily by where young lawyers work, not by the type of law they practice. A young lawyer can start a practice as a sole practitioner ("solo"), join a firm, seek government work, or go into a nonlegal career. A few may be able to obtain in-house counsel work, but those jobs are extremely difficult to find without experience in practice and connections. Each type of legal career has advantages and disadvantages, so prospective lawyers should think about what will suit their personalities.
Solos have the most autonomy but also the most challenges. As a solo, lawyers must also run a small business, which isn't a skill set taught in law school. Worse, law is a highly competitive field, so a new lawyer may have trouble attracting clients. Even senior lawyers struggle with the reality of running their own shop, but for a young lawyer with debt, the difficulty of building a business and learning how to actually practice law can be insurmountable. On the other hand, a successful solo will develop skill sets that few senior partners at a firm bring to the table. Solo practice is high-risk but high-reward for a very few. For many lawyers, however, soling is the only option because they don't have the credentials to get into a firm.
Joining a firm is more stable than soloing, but firms only hire lawyers to make money off them. The firm isn't interested in altruism, and a firm's loyalty lasts only so long as its employees make the firm money. Solos may work hard to make ends meet, but associates in a firm will be expected to work very long hours to make other people successful. Most associates will not become partners, and even if they do, the demands of the firm will only increase. These jobs are hard to win, too, with the largest, most prestigious firms hiring only top talent from a handful of schools. Still, for those with the right resume, firm jobs offer good pay, benefits, and prestige.
Government jobs, such as prosecutor or city attorney, are accessible to those with mediocre credentials but pay comparatively little and have limited chance for advancement. However, they are typically stable, safe jobs with solid benefits, including student loan forgiveness after 10 or more years. These jobs can provide experience and financial stability for graduates lacking both. So, for many young lawyers, a government job is a great way to gain experience without the stress of starting their own business or the long hours expected by a firm -- a solid, safe choice.
Nonlegal careers, such as real estate, teaching, or human resources, can provide decent pay, less stress, and opportunity for advancement. A law degree is a good way to stand out from a crowd of MBAs seeking executive positions, but few low-level management jobs will pay enough to service the student loan debt of law school. For someone with industry experience or connections, however, a law degree can help access upper management. The advantage of a JD outside of law is that it opens doors, often at multiple stages in your career. The disadvantage is that you may be paying student loan debt until you die.
- What is so valuable about earning a degree in this field right now?
There's always a shortage of good lawyers, meaning that skilled attorneys have plenty of opportunities. Good law schools teach the things college was supposed to be teaching: critical thinking, independence, self-motivation. Most importantly, the licensing requirements to become a practicing attorney still operate to control supply, at least to some degree. So, a good lawyer stands a strong chance of finding a good position and succeeding in it.
- Can graduates of law/legal studies programs find careers all over the country?
Absolutely. In fact, the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) is being adopted in more and more states. The UBE allows one test score to be used to obtain licensure in every state that accepts it. New York, D.C., and Texas use or will use the UBE, along with 35 other states and territories. As the UBE gains prominence, graduates will have even more flexibility in terms of where they can find careers as attorneys.
- What did your career trajectory look like after you graduated? How did you end up in your current position?
I applied for a lot of jobs, but none of the ones I was offered excited me. So, I hung out a shingle and started taking court appointments along with whatever clients walked through my door. I volunteered to help out other lawyers to gain experience and learn. I started during the Great Recession, which coincided with tort reform and a massive contraction in the legal field. As other lawyers gave up, I volunteered to take their clients so they could wind down their practices and move on. I learned how to run a business, market, develop a strong network, and choose good partners.
Eventually, three of us founded our own firm. We've been successful by developing a reputation for handling the kinds of hard cases that other lawyers reject. In the same way that I helped lawyers who didn't want to practice law anymore, we help lawyers by taking cases they don't want. In our market, these are multiparty family law cases, child abuse cases, and cases where our clients are accused of sex crimes or murder. Naturally, these can be high-profile. So, over time, I developed a reputation as a newsworthy lawyer. I'm now the front man for our firm, but we're only successful because our entire team is completely committed to protecting our clients. The phones do not ring when we're on at 10 o'clock losing.
On a personal level, I went from living with my parents and doing a lot of free work to stubbornly fighting big cases for which I was severely underpaid to getting a handful of clients with resources and making sure they were impressed to teaming up with a couple of other dedicated guys who shared a vision of seeking greatness. We're not there yet, but we are in the hunt.
- What are the pros and cons of working in the industry?
Law is mostly adversarial. There are winners and losers. Everybody wants to win, but you can't always. For me, the pros and cons of law all stem from that fact. The hours are long, we're never paid enough for that part of our souls we put into our cases, and the lawyer jokes are endless, but those things can be a source of pride. They feel a little pointless, though, when you lose.
So, a big downside is losing, but worse is losing when you believe you should've won. It's a hard day when you have to walk away from a good fight because your client runs out of money or is just tired. It's a worse day when you put everything you've got on the table, have faith in your client and your work, and just lose. For us, that loss might mean a client never sees their kids again or dies in prison. But every lawyer has a story about the one case that eats them up. Seeing injustice close up is rough. Knowing the injustice happened when it was your job to stop it is ... bad.
The upside is winning. You outwork or outhink or, best of all, out-lawyer another trained advocate and you will feel like your sacrifice has paid off. There is nothing like going up against a bigger, stronger opponent on a case that looks like garbage on paper and then finding a path to victory, especially when you've got a client who deserves that win. I'll always remember the day a jury found my client "not guilty" based on self-defense and then came out and told the prosecutor to arrest the guy who attacked him. That was an ass-whippin' on behalf of justice, and I enjoyed every bit of a very long, very tearful hug from my client.
- What advice would you give to legal studies graduates and lawyers just starting their job search?
The first piece of advice I give to people considering law is the advice I got when considering law school: don't do it. It's a tough business. Very few of us get rich or even make more than our counterparts in the business world. The demands in terms of performance and ethics are very high. Attorneys are stressed out. Suicide, substance abuse, and mental health issues are all far more prevalent for lawyers than in nearly any other field. Unless you are very passionate about the law, you can do just as well elsewhere. We don't need any more lawyers who hate their jobs and an awful lot of us do. Even if you've finished law school and gotten licensed, it isn't too late to consider other options. If something in your soul isn't telling you to be a lawyer, go do something else.
Being a lawyer isn't a job, it's your life. Your ethical duty is to place your clients' interests ahead of your own. That's a massive obligation that filters into every part of your identity: friends, family, politics, daily routine, sleep. If you still feel like law is your calling, then commit completely. Law is like religion -- you get nothing out of it if you don't believe. For the true believers, though, law is transformative and the good days are transcendent. I love being a lawyer, but I'm not sure I would've made it if I hadn't been warned away first and then just completely committed. If you won't take my advice to do something else, then take my advice to commit yourself fully and you'll be welcomed.
When I interview, my dream candidate is the person who got into law with their eyes wide open and is still a true believer. I know that person is going to work hard and won't fade.
As you complete your law degree, you can bolster your professional opportunities by engaging with industry organizations. These groups provide financial support, including academic scholarships and research grants. Professional organizations also deliver career guidance, job listings, and certification programs. The following list offers five resources for legal professionals.
Established in 1878, the ABA is the premier organization for lawyers and other legal professionals in the United States. In addition to facilitating program accreditation and individual certification, the ABA offers job listings, webinars, and a vast digital library. The organization connects its members through online forums, local groups, and national conferences. Legal professionals can also engage with the ABA through its Diversity and Inclusion Center and its Grassroots Advocacy Action Center.
ALA supports legal management professionals through research and policy advocacy. The association provides comprehensive online learning tools and certification programs. Professionals may access career guidance and job listings. They connect with colleagues and experts through conferences centering on areas like finance, intellectual property, and Legal Lean Sigma. Students also benefit from internships and fellowships.
APPAM strengthens the public policy field through research and education. Members collaborate through online forums and national networking events. The association offers career advice, job listings, and skill-developing webinars and podcasts. Legal studies students can seek out academic and professional guidance through mentorship programs. APPAM also funds scholarships and research grants.
NALA is the leading paralegal professional organization, supporting more than 18,000 members. The association advocates for paralegals at all levels of government and facilitates policy research initiatives. Members access webinars, leadership development training, and certification programs. They also benefit from career support through NALA's affiliate associations and an online job bank.
Established in 1921 as an organization for legal secretaries, NALS now supports all legal professionals. The association offers comprehensive skill development opportunities that include legal training courses, employee training programs, and online classes facilitated by the edX platform. Individuals can also earn certificates as an accredited legal professional, a certified legal professional, and a professional paralegal. The NALS foundation delivers scholarships and grants.