Lawyer Careers

Lawyers represent clients in criminal and civil litigation and other legal proceedings, manage and advice clients in matters of law, draw up legal documents, and perform other services for individuals, companies or government agencies regarding the law.

Job Responsibilities of a Lawyer

Lawyers act as representatives for businesses or individuals and advise their clients on issues such as legal rights, business transactions, and claim liability. They prepare cases through research, interviews, analyzing probable outcome and developing strategies and arguments to present a case. Lawyers work in either civil or criminal areas.

Those who work for big firms have an ongoing relationship with their clients and handle their companies’ needs beyond lawsuits. Lawyers can specialize in a number of areas including entertainment, environmental, family and other types of law.

Paths to this Job

Lawyers complete an undergraduate degree and then three years at an American Bar Association (ABA)-accredited law school. Law school lasts three years for the traditional full-time route; part time students usually take four years to finish. There is no “major”; students study everything and pick the classes that interest them, though they can choose to officially specialize: some of the many areas include Banking Corporate, Finance, and Securities Law (LL.M., J.S.D./S.J.D), Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources Law (LL.M., M.S., J.S.D./S.J.D.), Health Law, (LL.M., M.J., J.S.D./S.J.D.), International Business, Trade, and Tax Law (LL.M., J.S.D./S.J.D), and Tax Law/Taxation (LL.M., J.S.D./S.J.D).

Law school teaches national law and how to be a lawyer – the concepts, how to think, and so on. The bar exam to become a lawyer is state-specific and lawyers learn state law through internships and working in the field. Students prepare for their state-specific bar exam by studying up on information pertaining to that state and readying for the state-law focused essays on the exam.

The process for getting a job can be kicked off during law school. The summer before graduation, students can work as Summer Associates for firms in positions gained through on campus recruiting systems. If “you’re reasonably competent and they like you” associates often get an offer in the fall contingent upon their passing the bar the following year. Smaller firms may take longer to make offers. Besides summer associate programs, students may do clerkships where they work for a judge, write briefs, and conduct legal research. Externships (for credit) and internships (paid or unpaid) can also be a good means of making contacts for future positions.

“The best way to get jobs beyond on campus recruiting is networking. Meet alumni of your school, and go to American Bar Association events (held in every city)” says graduate Chantal Artur, J.D., Rutgers University School of Law, Camden, New Jersey.

To get into a top firm, being in one of the top twenty schools can be an advantage simply because they offer more interviews. Fewer spots are reserved for lower ranked schools, but students that perform well at smaller schools go on to good positions. Students in the top of their class at smaller schools snag jobs at the same big firms that Harvard grads get into (with less tuition debt).

Top locations for the legal industry are New York and Los Angeles, followed by Chicago and Philadelphia, and competition to get a good position in these locations can be tough. The more high profile locations offer higher pay and demand longer hours. Big firms in these locations can pay from $100,000 to $150,000 to entering lawyers, and usually pay a bonus along with salary. In general, firms require a minimum of 1900 billable hours per year (hours spent working on client’s cases – actual work time will exceed these hours).

Some of the top firms in New York City start at 2,000 hours as a minimum. Other firms offer $5,000 bonuses for hours exceeding 2,000.

In Focus: Forging a Successful Law Career

Lawyers that go into practice in a large firm often start out in litigation, spending years preparing cases to be brought to court and writing briefs before they actually see the inside of a courtroom. Lawyers gradually settle into a practice area and may specify their requested area of interest in a firm, for example copyright law, and be permitted to try out their different interests.

The organization and hierarchy of a law firm can vary. Firms are either LLPs (Limited Liability Partnership) or partnerships where lawyers become financially invested in the firm. Making partner in a firm takes an average of eight years, working five to seven days a week, twelve to thirteen hours a day to get on the partner track. Lawyers can also work independently or with a few associates. Public defenders’ salaries are far lower than that of big firm lawyers, although loan forgiveness programs are in place in some U.S. cities.

For mature students who have come into law after a career change, the law school and career process is no different. Doctors and other professionals who want to enter law must go through the school program like everyone else. When it comes to getting jobs, having an MBA or business degree can always be useful depending on the firm and type of work. Engineering backgrounds can also be very helpful with particular firms such as those working with patent law.

Of course, some notably paid lawyers have simply fallen in with the right people, the right location or the right line of work. Charlie Munger put his legal skills to work as the lawyer for Warren Buffett, the world’s richest man. Marianne Ajemian, a partner with Nutter, McClennan & Fish, takes in a nice percentage from her $377 million deals.

Some firms overall bring cash to its best lawyers: L.A.-based law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges does business litigation and is an example of the highest level of the corporate legal world. 109 partners took home an average of three million last year, with a 62% profit margin for the firm. How do they make so much money? “Light management, team work, hard work and long hours.” (Lacter)

Lawyer Pay Information

$110,590 average annual salary ( Here’s a little more salary information.

Lawyer Salary | More details for Lawyer Jobs | Salary


Top Law School Rankings

(According to U.S. News & World Report)

  1. Yale University
  2. Harvard University
  3. Stanford University
  4. Columbia University
  5. New York University
  6. University of California – Berkeley
  7. University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern University,
    University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, and University of Virginia


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