The field of legal studies encompasses a wide variety of rewarding and often lucrative careers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), lawyers earned a median salary of $120,910 in 2018, more than triple the median pay for all other occupations. Even jobs with fewer educational requirements, such as court reporter or paralegal, offer salaries significantly higher than the national average.
While you typically must hold a juris doctor (JD) degree to practice as a licensed attorney, many aspiring legal professionals first earn either an associate or bachelor's in legal studies. Students who wish to take on specialized roles or begin careers in academia can pursue either a master's or research doctorate in law.
This page provides a broad overview of legal studies careers, including information on the various degrees available, a list of vocations, and advice on how to find a job. It also features an interview with a current trial attorney.
Skills Gained in a Legal Studies Program
Legal studies programs can both prepare students for further education and equip them with the skills needed to succeed in practice. For example, someone pursuing a bachelor's degree in legal studies may focus on academic research and writing skills in advance of applying to law school. A student who plans to immediately seek work as an arbitrator after graduation may instead study subjects like conflict resolution and negotiation.
- Legal Research
Either directly representing clients or offering assistance to practicing attorneys, legal professionals must possess strong research skills. Paralegals often need to research and analyze laws and regulations to prepare lawyers for trials. Judges and hearing officers must also conduct research to resolve disputes and issue legal decisions.
Clear and effective writing is integral to all legal studies career paths. To succeed in law school, aspiring attorneys must be able to properly structure arguments and cite academic sources. Arbitrators write settlement agreements, legal assistants draft memos, court reporters create detailed summaries of trials and other proceedings, and judges author opinions.
When preparing for a case or a mediation, legal professionals often conduct investigations to uncover relevant facts. To hone students' investigatory skills, legal studies programs often feature coursework in areas like forensic analysis, evidence collection and chains of custody, and interview techniques.
Oral communication plays an important role in nearly all legal professions, especially those that require speaking on behalf of clients to judges and juries. Through case studies, class discussions, and mock trials, students in legal studies programs practice and refine their public speaking and presentation skills.
- Courtroom Procedure
Though not all legal professionals work in a courtroom, they can benefit from an understanding of courtroom procedure. For instance, paralegals providing support during jury selection need to know the laws and regulations that govern the voir dire process in their state or jurisdiction.
Why Pursue a Career in Legal Studies?
Many people pursue a career in legal studies because of a passion for justice and a desire to ensure all individuals enjoy equal protection under the law. While legal careers are often richly rewarding, they can also be quite demanding. Legal professionals may need to work long hours and cope with strict deadlines. However, the field offers above-average job security and excellent pay.
For example, the BLS projects that employment for paralegals and legal assistants will increase by 15% between 2016 and 2026, more than double the average growth rate for all other occupations. Lawyers, arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators should all experience greater than average employment growth in the coming years as well.
The legal profession provides various opportunities for career advancement. As an example, successful attorneys and legal scholars may be appointed or elected as judges. According to the BLS, judges and magistrates earned a median salary of $133,920 in 2018. The top 10% of these earners, typically judges with the most experience and those in senior positions in either state or federal courts, commanded salaries in excess of $193,330 that same year.
How Much Do Legal Studies Graduates Make?
Your earning potential as a legal studies graduate depends on a variety of factors. According to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, legal studies professionals with a master's degree earn approximately $27,000 more per year than those with only a bachelor's degree.
In addition to education level, your salary will likely also be affected by where you choose to live, the industry in which you work, and the amount of professional experience you've garnered. The table below illustrates salaries for different careers available to legal studies graduates.
Thomas J. Simeone
Thomas J. Simeone is a trial attorney and managing partner at Simeone & Miller. Mr. Simeone appeared on MSNBC in regard to his client who filed a civil rights action against the Library of Congress. He has appeared as a legal commentator on Fox News on several occasions. Mr. Simone also appeared in the Washington Post in regard to the settlement of a federal class-action suit brought on behalf of disabled persons.
- What is legal studies?
Legal studies is an undergraduate major that focuses on how law impacts and interacts with many areas of our lives. Its goal is to empower students to pursue work in the many jobs that deal with law, whether inside or outside the legal field, apart from being a lawyer.
In addition to lawyers, there are countless other jobs in which people interact with the law, including legal support staff, parole officers, process servers and investigators, courthouse staff, and many government positions. Understanding how our legal system is structured and the various roles that each component of the system plays is a useful foundation for actually working in the legal system.
- What is so valuable about earning a degree in this field right now?
A degree in legal studies can equip a graduate to find enjoyable work in the legal field. It can lead to a permanent position or offer graduates an entry-level position in the legal field so they can determine whether they wish to pursue a law degree. There are many jobs that interact with the legal system and for which a degree in legal studies would provide a strong background. In the criminal field, police workers, probation and parole officers, legal assistants, paralegals, and investigators could all benefit from a legal studies degree.
Likewise, in the civil law area, there is a need for paralegals and legal assistants, court reporters, investigators, courtroom staff, and courthouse administrative staff. And the fields of real estate law, trusts and estates, tax law, corporate law, and environmental law all require work by people other than lawyers and it would be helpful if those people knowledge about the legal field.
- Can graduates of legal studies programs find careers all over the country?
Yes, legal studies graduates can find work across the nation. Every state has local, state, and federal-level laws. As a result, each state will likely have several courthouses, prosecutors, and government offices -- as well as lawyers and the companies that support them, such as process servers, court reporters, and investigators. The concepts learned with a legal studies degree can equip a graduate to work in every state in the nation.
- What did your career trajectory look like after you graduated? How did you end up in your current position?
I started with a degree in accounting, worked for two years as an accountant, and then attended law school. Like many law school graduates, immediately after graduation I worked for a large law firm which provided excellent training and compensation. After several years, I moved to a smaller firm and eventually opened my own firm. I did not know the exact legal area in which I wanted to focus right out of law school, but after practicing I realized I enjoyed litigation and also working on behalf of people. Therefore, I now focus on personal injury cases.
- What are the pros and cons of working in the industry?
The advantages of working in the legal system are that there are many job opportunities throughout the country and the work can be very interesting. Each case or client presents a unique story or problem, which provides a variety of challenges to work on. Plus, it can be both intellectually and personally satisfying to use your knowledge and skills to help and guide people who are facing complex legal issues that they cannot handle by themselves.
One of the primary disadvantages is that the legal field can be stressful because law is detail-oriented, at times adversarial, and very deadline-driven. Therefore, there is always significant job pressure.
- What advice would you give to legal studies graduates and lawyers just starting their job search?
The best advice would be to find a position in the legal field in which you are happy. Many people find law interesting based on seeing movies or television shows about lawyers, but the reality is much different. To enjoy law, you must be able to deal with deadlines, conflict, and a high level of detail. Plus, some areas require contact with clients and other people, while others are more solitary.
So, to be most satisfied with your career choice, it is not enough to simply work in the legal field. Instead, find a position or area of law that matches your tolerance for stress and your interest in dealing with people. For example, a position with a law firm may pay more but will also entail more stress than a position at the courthouse. Likewise, document review may pay more but not provide as much client contact as other work.
Overall, there are a lot of people in the legal field who are stressed out and overworked. Part of the reason is they do not feel comfortable in their specific position in the legal field.
How to Become an Arbitrator
Earn Your Degree
Arbitrators and mediators typically need at least a bachelor's degree. While majoring in legal studies provides a comprehensive introduction to this line of work, it is usually not required to qualify for these positions.
Undergraduate programs in legal studies typically begin with general education classes in areas like English and psychology. After selecting their major, students explore subjects such as the foundations of law, constitutional governance, litigation and trial advocacy, and legal research and writing. Many programs also feature a capstone, a culminating project requiring learners to apply their knowledge to a real or case-based legal issue.
Some states require arbitrators to gain licensure or professional certification after earning their degree. While requirements vary, most states mandate that applicants complete an approved training program or pass an exam.
When hiring for more specialized roles, some companies may prefer to hire candidates with a master's degree in legal studies or another relevant discipline. In addition to more advanced instruction in subjects like ethics and compliance, master's programs often allow students to pursue a formal concentration to prepare for specific careers. For example, if you hope to serve as a healthcare arbitrator, you may benefit from graduate-level coursework on patient safety, medical device legal regulation, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.
How Many Years of College Does It Take to Become an Arbitrator?
Most bachelor's programs in legal studies consist of 120 credits, and full-time students typically need four years to graduate. Part-time learners without prior college credit may need anywhere from 6-8 years to earn their degree.
Self-paced programs, however, may allow you to graduate even faster. Rather than studying alongside a cohort of classmates, students in self-paced programs view lectures, complete assignments, and even take exams on their own schedule. Although learners on accelerated tracks may advance through their coursework as soon as they demonstrate mastery of the material, they do not benefit from the support and attention available in more traditional programs. Be sure to carefully consider your learning style and mentoring needs before enrolling in a self-paced curriculum.
Some jobs in arbitration may require a master's degree. While the length of these graduate programs may vary considerably, most consist of approximately 30 credits and require roughly one year of full-time study.
Concentrations Available for Legal Studies Majors
- Criminal Law
- Students may pursue a concentration in criminal law in order to prepare for law school and careers as criminal attorneys. They may also choose to become paralegals or legal assistants supporting trial lawyers. Coursework in this concentration often covers subjects like criminal procedure, investigations, and corrections law.
- Specializing in cybersecurity may help position learners for jobs in information security, criminal justice administration, or private investigation. Graduates may also use their expertise to mediate disputes related to privacy or data breaches at large companies. Cybersecurity students usually explore topics such as data protection and legal strategies in information security compliance.
- Financial Regulatory Compliance
- Through coursework in investment law and broker regulation, students in this concentration develop skills and knowledge needed to oversee financial regulation compliance for banks and other financial institutions. Learners may also examine issues related to organizational behavior and financial accounting.
- Healthcare Compliance
- Professionals working in the healthcare industry must navigate a complex web of laws, regulations, and institutional policies. This specialization requires learners to study subjects like the regulation of pharmaceutical marketing practices, laws surrounding a patient's right to privacy, and risk management in healthcare settings.
- Higher Education Law
- Higher education law touches on issues related to employee hiring and termination, campus safety, compliance with federal grant regulations, and the constitutional rights of students, particularly as they relate to free speech and expression. This concentration lays the groundwork for continued study or work as a college or university mediator.
What Can You Do with a Legal Studies Degree?
Your career path in legal studies will depend in large part on the type of degree you earn. For example, an associate degree in legal studies qualifies you for entry-level positions such as paralegal, legal assistant, private investigator, or court reporter.
With a bachelor's degree, you can take on more advanced roles including arbitrator, mediator, or conciliator. Note that larger law firms may also prefer paralegals and assistants to have completed a four-year degree.
Although typically not a requirement, a master's degree may give you a competitive edge for specialized jobs in legal studies, such as compliance officer for a health insurance company or in-house arbitrator for a financial institution.
Finally, to practice law as an attorney, you will need to earn a JD and receive a license from your state's bar. Students interested in teaching law at a college or university may instead seek a Ph.D. or an equivalent doctorate.
Associate Degree in Legal Studies
While an associate degree may allow you to find entry-level work at a small firm or government agency, jobs in legal studies increasingly require a bachelor's degree. You should consider earning an associate as a convenient and relatively inexpensive first step before transferring into a four-year program at a college or university.
Associate programs typically consist of 60 credits and require about two years of full-time study. They feature both general education coursework and introductory instruction in legal subjects such as interviewing and investigation, administrative law for paralegals, and business and technical writing.
- Legal Assistant
Legal assistants provide basic research and administrative assistance to lawyers. They may investigate the facts of a case, organize and maintain a firm's client files, arrange interviews with witnesses, or draft certain legal documents. Most legal assistants hold an associate degree or a postsecondary certificate.
Average Annual Salary: $47,373
- Administrative Assistant
Administrative assistants manage the daily operations of law firms and legal organizations. They may answer phones and greet visitors, coordinate the calendars of attorneys and senior staff, and oversee the maintenance of office equipment. Though usually not a job requirement, an associate in legal studies may improve your chances of finding work and advancing in your career.
Average Annual Salary: $38,957
Bachelor's Degree in Legal Studies
Many careers in legal studies, including arbitrator, mediator, and managerial paralegal roles, require a bachelor's degree. You also need a bachelor's degree to apply to law school, though most programs do not specifically require applicants to major in legal studies.
Undergraduate programs at four-year colleges introduce students to more advanced topics in legal studies such as labor and employment law, white-collar crime, and intellectual property and cyberlaw. They may also require or strongly encourage students to participate in an internship to develop practical legal experience. Finally, some programs feature a capstone or independent research project.
Paralegals perform many of the same functions as legal assistants, though attorneys may rely more on paralegals for legal research, witness preparation, and client intakes and interviews. During their undergraduate studies, paralegals may also specialize in a specific branch of law such as corporate or international law. Especially for supervisory roles, many employers prefer to hire candidates with a bachelor's degree.
Average Annual Salary: $47,373
- Claims Adjuster
Claims adjusters investigate property damage and personal injury claims to help insurance companies determine appropriate compensation for their clients' losses. They must often interview claimants and witnesses, review police reports and other legal documents, and collect additional evidence.
Average Annual Salary: $50,301
Master's Degree in Legal Studies
While earning a master's degree in legal studies does not qualify you to practice law, it does prepare you for specialized and senior-level positions. For example, a student wishing to take on a supervisory role in state law enforcement may benefit from graduate-level coursework in subjects like criminal law and procedures.
Master's programs usually consist of 30 credits and require one year of full-time study. Students may also need to write a research-based thesis or draft a scholarly article on a legal topic. More practice-oriented programs may instead require learners to complete a field experience at a law firm or law enforcement agency.
- Contract Compliance Officer
Contract compliance officers ensure that companies remain in full compliance with various laws, regulations, and contractual stipulations. Their work helps organizations manage risk, adhere to ethical and professional standards, and avoid lawsuits. Jobs in industries with complex regulations and contract agreements, such as healthcare or finance, may require a master's degree or significant professional experience.
Average Annual Salary: $71,940
- Computer or Information Research Scientist
Social and community service managers oversee the operations and programming of nonprofit organizations and government agencies. Though not always required, an advanced degree provides a distinct advantage in the job market. For example, a legal aid clinic may prefer to hire a director with a master's degree in legal studies or a closely related field.
Average Annual Salary: $65,320
Doctoral Degree in Legal Studies
A doctoral degree in legal studies prepares students for careers in legal research and academia. In most states, however, it does not qualify you to sit for the bar or become a practicing attorney.
Doctoral programs such as those for a doctor of judicial science or a Ph.D. in law typically require 4-7 years of full-time study. Doctoral candidates must complete approximately three years of coursework, pass a comprehensive examination, conduct original research, and write a dissertation. Prior to earning their degree, candidates must defend the methodology and findings of their dissertation before a faculty committee.
- Postsecondary Law Teacher
Postsecondary law teachers instruct students at colleges and universities. They typically also conduct research, advise students, participate in the admissions process, and vote on administrative and academic issues at their institution. Other than instructor-level roles at some community colleges, these teaching positions require a doctorate.
Average Annual Salary: $111,140
Where Can I Work as a Legal Studies Graduate?
Earning a legal studies degree opens up a wide variety of career paths in both the public and private sectors. For example, you may want to use your expertise to serve low-income individuals at a legal aid clinic or public defender's office. Alternatively, you may find work at a law firm or in the legal department of a large corporation. Some legal studies graduates also choose careers in law enforcement or corrections.
Where you live shapes your professional opportunities to a large degree. For example, California employs the most arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators in the country, though Washington, D.C. boasts the highest percentage of these jobs per capita.
Location also affects compensation. In New Jersey, arbitration professionals earn an annual mean wage of $98,930, while those working in Nebraska make an average of less than $44,000 per year.
In addition to job prospects and earning potential, remember to consider factors like quality of life, state licensing requirements, and ongoing educational opportunities when deciding where to begin your career.
- Local Government, Excluding Schools and Hospitals
Mediators and arbitrators working in local government help resolve disputes related to issues like property taxes and school district assignments. They may also support the work of city or county attorneys.
Average Salary: $71,760
- State Government, Excluding Schools and Hospitals
Arbitration professionals employed by state agencies may mediate child custody challenges or disputed access to certain healthcare services. A state may also employ mediators and conciliators to reduce the burden on its court system.
Average Salary: $76,440
- Legal Services
This category primarily includes those authorized to practice law in their state. Many lawyers transition into roles as arbitrators, and some mediators pursue a law degree to enhance their job prospects and provide more specialized services.
Average Salary: $79,540
- Other Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services
This sector comprises individuals who provide legal services but do not necessarily represent clients in a court of law. Professionals in this sector may oversee contract negotiations or serve in corporate human resources departments.
Average Salary: $72,930
- Individual and Family Services
Many mediators specialize in working with families. Whether employed by a community service agency or working independently, these professionals help draft prenuptial agreements, create divorce settlements, and resolve conflicts related to mental health or substance abuse issues.
Average Salary: $51,380
How Do You Find a Job in Legal Studies?
When looking for a job in legal studies, start by getting organized. Update your resume, online networking profiles, and your list of professional references. Create a spreadsheet to track job opportunities, important contact information, and next steps. Prepare answers to common interview questions.
Next, begin networking. Tell your friends and family that you are looking for a new job. Contact lawyers and other legal professionals to arrange for informational interviews. Attend formal networking events organized by your school's alumni office or your local chamber of commerce.
As you grow your professional network, review job listings and start submitting applications. Sites like Indeed and Monster advertise job opportunities across all industries, but you can also find more specific listings hosted by professional associations like the Association of Legal Administrators, the National Association of Legal Assistants, and the American Bar Association. Customize your application materials for each job.
Professional Resources for Legal Studies Majors
Harvard Law School offers free access to a variety of legal research resources. Students and professionals alike can review primary federal and state law, a complete list of all international treaties, selected foreign laws, and open datasets. You can also chat directly with a Harvard librarian to identify additional resources.
NCRA represents more than 14,000 court reporters and captioners working in the United States. The association organizes business summits and networking events, offers six forms of professional certification, provides scholarships to aspiring legal professionals, and publishes a scholarly journal. NCRA also hosts a nationwide listing of job opportunities for court reporters.
While the AAA provides private alternative dispute resolution services, the association also offers professional resources for arbitrators and mediators working independently. Members can watch webinars and take online courses on subjects like the arbitration of disputes in government contracting, best practices in franchise arbitration, and ethical considerations for mediators.
NADN serves professional mediators and arbitrators working in civil and commercial dispute resolution. In addition to hosting a member directory, the academy curates and disseminates news of interest to arbitration professionals, maintains local chapters in 42 states, and convenes a biannual training retreat covering topics like the impact of culture on mediation and conflict de-escalation.
Since 1999, NACM has provided professional certification to mediators and conciliators who resolve family and business disputes. Individuals without prior training in mediation must complete a 40-hour online course and pass a certification exam. The course and exam cost $1,000, and the credential must be renewed every three years.