Competition for job openings should be keen because of the
large number of students graduating from law school each year.
Formal requirements to become a lawyer generally include a
4-year college degree, 3 years of law school, and passing a
written bar examination; however, some requirements may vary
Competition for admission to most law schools is intense.
About 3 out of 4 lawyers practiced privately, either as partners
in law firms or in solo practices.
Nature of the Work
The legal system affects nearly every aspect of our society,
from buying a home to crossing the street. Lawyers form the backbone
of this vital system, linking it to society in numerous ways.
For that reason, they hold positions of great responsibility and
are obligated to adhere to a strict code of ethics.
Lawyers, also called attorneys, act as both advocates
and advisors in our society. As advocates, they represent one
of the parties in criminal and civil trials by presenting evidence
and arguing in court to support their client. As advisors, lawyers
counsel their clients concerning their legal rights and obligations
and suggest particular courses of action in business and personal
matters. Whether acting as an advocate or an advisor, all attorneys
research the intent of laws and judicial decisions and apply the
law to the specific circumstances faced by their client.
The more detailed aspects of a lawyer’s job depend upon his or
her field of specialization and position. Although all lawyers
are licensed to represent parties in court, some appear in court
more frequently than others. Trial lawyers, who specialize in
trial work, must be able to think quickly and speak with ease
and authority. In addition, familiarity with courtroom rules and
strategy is particularly important in trial work. Still, trial
lawyers spend the majority of their time outside the courtroom,
conducting research, interviewing clients and witnesses, and handling
other details in preparation for a trial.
Lawyers may specialize in a number of areas, such as bankruptcy,
probate, international, or elder law. Those specializing in environmental
law, for example, may represent interest groups, waste disposal
companies, or construction firms in their dealings with the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other Federal and State
agencies. These lawyers help clients prepare and file for licenses
and applications for approval before certain activities may occur.
In addition, they represent clients’ interests in administrative
Some lawyers specialize in the growing field of intellectual
property, helping to protect clients’ claims to copyrights, artwork
under contract, product designs, and computer programs. Still
other lawyers advise insurance companies about the legality of
insurance transactions, guiding the company in writing insurance
policies to conform with the law and to protect the companies
from unwarranted claims. When claims are filed against insurance
companies, these attorneys review the claims and represent the
companies in court.
Most lawyers are in private practice, concentrating on criminal
or civil law. In criminal law, lawyers represent individuals who
have been charged with crimes and argue their cases in courts
of law. Attorneys dealing with civil law assist clients with litigation,
wills, trusts, contracts, mortgages, titles, and leases. Other
lawyers handle only public-interest cases—civil or criminal—which
may have an impact extending well beyond the individual client.
Lawyers are sometimes employed full time by a single client.
If the client is a corporation, the lawyer is known as “house
counsel” and usually advises the company concerning legal issues
related to its business activities. These issues might involve
patents, government regulations, contracts with other companies,
property interests, or collective bargaining agreements with unions.
A significant number of attorneys are employed at the various
levels of government. Lawyers who work for State attorneys general,
prosecutors, public defenders, and courts play a key role in the
criminal justice system. At the Federal level, attorneys investigate
cases for the U.S. Department of Justice and other agencies. Government
lawyers also help develop programs, draft and interpret laws and
legislation, establish enforcement procedures, and argue civil
and criminal cases on behalf of the government.
Other lawyers work for legal aid societies—private, nonprofit
organizations established to serve disadvantaged people. These
lawyers generally handle civil, rather than criminal, cases. A
relatively small number of trained attorneys work in law schools.
Most are faculty members who specialize in one or more subjects;
however, some serve as administrators. Others work full time in
nonacademic settings and teach part time.
Lawyers are increasingly using various forms of technology to
perform their varied tasks more efficiently. Although all lawyers
continue to use law libraries to prepare cases, some supplement
conventional printed sources with computer sources, such as the
Internet and legal databases. Software is used to search this
legal literature automatically and to identify legal texts relevant
to a specific case. In litigation involving many supporting documents,
lawyers may use computers to organize and index material. Lawyers
also utilize electronic filing, videoconferencing, and voice-recognition
technology to share information more effectively with other parties
involved in a case.
Lawyers do most of their work in offices, law libraries, and
courtrooms. They sometimes meet in clients’ homes or places of
business and, when necessary, in hospitals or prisons. They may
travel to attend meetings, gather evidence, and appear before
courts, legislative bodies, and other authorities.
Salaried lawyers usually have structured work schedules. Lawyers
who are in private practice may work irregular hours while conducting
research, conferring with clients, or preparing briefs during
nonoffice hours. Lawyers often work long hours, and of those who
regularly work full time, about half work 50 hours or more per
week. They may face particularly heavy pressure when a case is
being tried. Preparation for court includes keeping abreast of
the latest laws and judicial decisions.
Although legal work generally is not seasonal, the work of tax
lawyers and other specialists may be an exception. Because lawyers
in private practice often can determine their own workload and
the point at which they will retire, many stay in practice well
beyond the usual retirement age.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
To practice law in the courts of any State or other jurisdiction,
a person must be licensed, or admitted to its bar, under rules
established by the jurisdiction’s highest court. All States require
that applicants for admission to the bar pass a written bar examination;
most States also require applicants to pass a separate written
ethics examination. Lawyers who have been admitted to the bar
in one State occasionally may be admitted to the bar in another
without taking an examination if they meet the latter jurisdiction’s
standards of good moral character and a specified period of legal
experience. In most cases, however, lawyers must pass the bar
examination in each State in which they plan to practice. Federal
courts and agencies set their own qualifications for those practicing
before or in them.
To qualify for the bar examination in most States, an applicant
usually must earn a college degree and graduate from a law school
accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) or the proper
State authorities. ABA accreditation signifies that the law school—particularly
its library and faculty—meets certain standards developed to promote
quality legal education. As of 2005, there were 191 ABA-accredited
law schools; others were approved by State authorities only. With
certain exceptions, graduates of schools not approved by the ABA
are restricted to taking the bar examination and practicing in
the State or other jurisdiction in which the school is located;
most of these schools are in California. In 2005, seven States—California,
Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming—accepted
the study of law in a law office as qualification for taking the
bar examination; three jurisdictions—California, the District
of Columbia, and New Mexico—now accept the study of law by correspondence.
Several States require registration and approval of students by
the State Board of Law Examiners, either before the students enter
law school or during their early years of legal study.
Although there is no nationwide bar examination, 48 States, the
District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto
Rico, and the Virgin Islands require the 6-hour Multistate Bar
Examination (MBE) as part of the overall bar examination; the
MBE is not required in Louisiana or Washington. The MBE covers
a broad range of issues, and sometimes a locally prepared State
bar examination is given in addition to it. The 3-hour Multistate
Essay Examination (MEE) is used as part of the bar examination
in several States. States vary in their use of MBE and MEE scores.
Many States also require Multistate Performance Testing (MPT)
to test the practical skills of beginning lawyers. Requirements
vary by State, although the test usually is taken at the same
time as the bar exam and is a one-time requirement.
The required college and law school education usually takes 7
years of full-time study after high school—4 years of undergraduate
study, followed by 3 years of law school. Law school applicants
must have a bachelor’s degree to qualify for admission. To meet
the needs of students who can attend only part time, a number
of law schools have night or part-time divisions, which usually
require 4 years of study; about 1 in 10 graduates from ABA-approved
schools attended part time.
Although there is no recommended “prelaw” major, prospective
lawyers should develop proficiency in writing and speaking, reading,
researching, analyzing, and thinking logically—skills needed to
succeed both in law school and in the profession. Regardless of
major, a multidisciplinary background is recommended. Courses
in English, foreign languages, public speaking, government, philosophy,
history, economics, mathematics, and computer science, among others,
are useful. Students interested in a particular aspect of law
may find related courses helpful. For example, prospective patent
lawyers need a strong background in engineering or science, and
future tax lawyers must have extensive knowledge of accounting.
Acceptance by most law schools depends on the applicant’s ability
to demonstrate an aptitude for the study of law, usually through
good undergraduate grades, the Law School Admission Test (LSAT),
the quality of the applicant’s undergraduate school, any prior
work experience, and sometimes, a personal interview. However,
law schools vary in the weight they place on each of these and
All law schools approved by the ABA require applicants to take
the LSAT. Nearly all law schools require applicants to have certified
transcripts sent to the Law School Data Assembly Service, which
then submits the applicants’ LSAT scores and their standardized
records of college grades to the law schools of their choice.
Both this service and the LSAT are administered by the Law School
Admission Council. Competition for admission to many law schools—especially
the most prestigious ones—generally is intense, with the number
of applicants greatly exceeding the number that can be admitted.
During the first year or year and a half of law school, students
usually study core courses, such as constitutional law, contracts,
property law, torts, civil procedure, and legal writing. In the
remaining time, they may elect specialized courses in fields such
as tax, labor, or corporate law. Law students often acquire practical
experience by participating in school-sponsored legal clinic activities;
in the school’s moot court competitions, in which students conduct
appellate arguments; in practice trials under the supervision
of experienced lawyers and judges; and through research and writing
on legal issues for the school’s law journal.
A number of law schools have clinical programs in which students
gain legal experience through practice trials and projects under
the supervision of practicing lawyers and law school faculty.
Law school clinical programs might include work in legal aid clinics,
for example, or on the staff of legislative committees. Part-time
or summer clerkships in law firms, government agencies, and corporate
legal departments also provide valuable experience. Such training
can lead directly to a job after graduation and can help students
decide what kind of practice best suits them. Clerkships also
may be an important source of financial aid.
In 2004, law school graduates in 52 jurisdictions were required
to pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination
(MPRE), which tests their knowledge of the ABA codes on professional
responsibility and judicial conduct. In some States, the MPRE
may be taken during law school, usually after completing a course
on legal ethics.
Law school graduates receive the degree of juris doctor
(J.D.) as the first professional degree. Advanced law degrees
may be desirable for those planning to specialize, research, or
teach. Some law students pursue joint degree programs, which usually
require an additional semester or year of study. Joint degree
programs are offered in a number of areas, including law and business
administration or public administration.
After graduation, lawyers must keep informed about legal and
nonlegal developments that affect their practices. Currently,
40 States and jurisdictions mandate continuing legal education
(CLE). Many law schools and State and local bar associations provide
continuing education courses that help lawyers stay abreast of
recent developments. Some States allow CLE credits to be obtained
through participation in seminars on the Internet.
The practice of law involves a great deal of responsibility.
Individuals planning careers in law should like to work with people
and be able to win the respect and confidence of their clients,
associates, and the public. Perseverance, creativity, and reasoning
ability also are essential to lawyers, who often analyze complex
cases and handle new and unique legal problems.
Most beginning lawyers start in salaried positions. Newly hired
salaried attorneys usually start as associates and work with more
experienced lawyers or judges. After several years of gaining
more responsibilities, some lawyers are admitted to partnership
in their firm or go into practice for themselves. Some experienced
lawyers are nominated or elected to judgeships. Others become
full-time law school faculty or administrators; a growing number
of these lawyers have advanced degrees in other fields as well.
Some attorneys use their legal training in administrative or
managerial positions in various departments of large corporations.
A transfer from a corporation’s legal department to another department
often is viewed as a way to gain administrative experience and
rise in the ranks of management.
Lawyers held about 735,000 jobs in 2004. Approximately 3 out
of 4 lawyers practiced privately, either as partners in law firms
or in solo practices. Most salaried lawyers held positions in
government or with corporations or nonprofit organizations. The
greatest number of lawyers working in government were employed
at the local level. In the Federal Government, lawyers work for
many different agencies, but are concentrated in the Departments
of Justice, Treasury, and Defense. Many salaried lawyers working
outside of government are employed as house counsel by public
utilities, banks, insurance companies, real estate agencies, manufacturing
firms, and other business firms and nonprofit organizations. Some
also have part-time independent practices, while others work part
time as lawyers and full time in another occupation.
Employment of lawyers is expected to grow about as fast as average
for all occupations through 2014, primarily as a result of growth
in the population and in the general level of business activities.
Job growth among lawyers also will result from increasing demand
for legal services in such areas as health care, intellectual
property, venture capital, energy, elder, antitrust, and environmental
law. In addition, the wider availability and affordability of
legal clinics should result in increased use of legal services
by middle-income people. However, growth in demand for lawyers
will be limited as businesses, in an effort to reduce costs, increasingly
use large accounting firms and paralegals to perform some of the
same functions that lawyers do. For example, accounting firms
may provide employee-benefit counseling, process documents, or
handle various other services previously performed by a law firm.
Also, mediation and dispute resolution increasingly are being
used as alternatives to litigation.
Competition for job openings should continue to be keen because
of the large number of students graduating from law school each
year. Graduates with superior academic records from highly regarded
law schools will have the best job opportunities. Perhaps as a
result of competition for attorney positions, lawyers are increasingly
finding work in nontraditional areas for which legal training
is an asset, but not normally a requirement—for example, administrative,
managerial, and business positions in banks, insurance firms,
real estate companies, government agencies, and other organizations.
Employment opportunities are expected to continue to arise in
these organizations at a growing rate.
As in the past, some graduates may have to accept positions in
areas outside of their field of interest or for which they feel
overqualified. Some recent law school graduates who have been
unable to find permanent positions are turning to the growing
number of temporary staffing firms that place attorneys in short-term
jobs until they are able to secure full-time positions. This service
allows companies to hire lawyers on an “as-needed” basis and permits
beginning lawyers to develop practical skills while looking for
Because of the keen competition for jobs, a law graduate’s geographic
mobility and work experience assume greater importance. The willingness
to relocate may be an advantage in getting a job, but to be licensed
in another State, a lawyer may have to take an additional State
bar examination. In addition, employers are increasingly seeking
graduates who have advanced law degrees and experience in a specialty,
such as tax, patent, or admiralty law.
Employment growth for lawyers will continue to be concentrated
in salaried jobs, as businesses and all levels of government employ
a growing number of staff attorneys and as employment in the legal
services industry grows. Most salaried positions are in urban
areas where government agencies, law firms, and big corporations
are concentrated. The number of self-employed lawyers is expected
to decrease slowly, reflecting the difficulty of establishing
a profitable new practice in the face of competition from larger,
established law firms. Moreover, the growing complexity of law,
which encourages specialization, along with the cost of maintaining
up-to-date legal research materials, favors larger firms.
For lawyers who wish to work independently, establishing a new
practice will probably be easiest in small towns and expanding
suburban areas. In such communities, competition from larger,
established law firms is likely to be less keen than in big cities,
and new lawyers may find it easier to become known to potential
Some lawyers are adversely affected by cyclical swings in the
economy. During recessions, demand declines for some discretionary
legal services, such as planning estates, drafting wills, and
handling real estate transactions. Also, corporations are less
likely to litigate cases when declining sales and profits result
in budgetary restrictions. Some corporations and law firms will
not hire new attorneys until business improves, and these establishments
may even cut staff to contain costs. Several factors, however,
mitigate the overall impact of recessions on lawyers; during recessions,
for example, individuals and corporations face other legal problems,
such as bankruptcies, foreclosures, and divorces requiring legal
In May 2004, the median annual earnings of all lawyers were $94,930.
The middle half of the occupation earned between $64,620 and $143,620.
Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest
numbers of lawyers in May 2004 were as follows:
Management of companies and enterprises
Median salaries of lawyers 9 months after graduation from law
school in 2004 varied by type of work, as indicated in table 1.
Table 1. Median salaries of
lawyers 9 months after graduation, 2004
Type of work
Type of work
Judicial clerkship and government
Source: National Association of Law Placement
Salaries of experienced attorneys vary widely according to the
type, size, and location of their employer. Lawyers who own their
own practices usually earn less than those who are partners in
law firms. Lawyers starting their own practice may need to work
part time in other occupations to supplement their income until
their practice is well established.
Most salaried lawyers are provided health and life insurance,
and contributions are made to retirement plans on their behalf.
Lawyers who practice independently are covered only if they arrange
and pay for such benefits themselves.
Information on obtaining positions as occupational health and
safety specialists and technicians with the Federal Government
is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS,
the Federal Government’s official employment information system.
This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities
can be accessed through the Internet at http://www.usajobs.opm.gov/ or through an interactive
voice response telephone system at (703) 724-1850 or TDD (978)
461-8404. These numbers are not tollfree, and charges may result.
The requirements for admission to the bar in a particular State
or other jurisdiction also may be obtained at the State capital,
from the clerk of the Supreme Court, or from the administrator
of the State Board of Bar Examiners.
Source: Bureau of Labor
Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational
Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition,