For those who study history in college, the legal field is one of the most popular future landing spots. Lawyers enjoy tremendous benefits, including above average compensation, intellectually stimulating work, and in many cases, the garnering of respect from society at large. In order to become a lawyer, though, one must take a number of specific steps. The field is accessible, but it requires work and a strategic plan. From there, a number of different choices can shape the nature of one’s work and one’s overall success level as a lawyer.
In order to become a lawyer, one must have a law degree, and in order to get into law school, one must have a bachelor’s degree. This effectively means that one will need both a bachelor’s and a juris doctor (JD) in order to get into the profession. Lawyers come from a range of different undergraduate focus areas. Everything from psychology to engineering to history will be represented in the typical law school, with students choosing a career focus area that matches their interests and background in most cases.
For most lawyers, the work is almost entirely done inside. Lawyers will spend significant amounts of time in their offices, researching various issues. Depending upon the type of legal work, lawyers may bounce from an office setting to a courtroom setting, but in most cases, they will be doing their own at a small, set grouping of locations. Some travel can be required, especially for lawyers who work on the civil side. In representing clients, lawyers often have to travel in order to conduct depositions, take interviews, conduct site visits, or even to negotiate a deal with another company. As a criminal lawyer, an attorney’s job will also revolve around interviews, with much of the attorney’s work going to the investigation of a case and discussions with the person who has been accused of a crime. Criminal attorneys also spend their days in court. This does not mean that they are always going to trial, however.
A very small percentage of cases make it all the way to trial. This means that lawyers are usually negotiating plea agreements and conducting various hearings in front of a judge. Some lawyers take more cases to trial than others, but on the average, a criminal lawyer can expect one trial or less each month. In the civil context, lawyers are divided in their work based upon their area of focus. One who works in “corporate” or real estate will mostly deal with documentation, contract drafting, and deal-making. These individuals do not often go to court, and their focus is almost entirely on the mechanics of various deals. Civil litigation lawyers will occasionally go to court. Their work is focused on resolving commercial disputes between their clients and other companies or other individuals. In most cases, these individuals spend their time researching complex legal issues. Very rarely will they take things to trial, though they will often file motions with the court and go through the motions that would lead to the trial.
There are many different career paths that one might take. In most cases, a lawyer will start off as an associate in a law firm. From there, the person might progress to the role of partner if the person has enough skill and puts in enough hours. Partners are paid more and they often have an ownership interest in the firm. In many firms, there is a senior partner level where the compensation is even higher. This structure is more distinct on the civil side, with firms often having an ingrained partnership “track.” In criminal practice, firms tend to be smaller, and they make determinations on a case-by-case basis.
Salaries for attorneys can vary depending upon one’s firm, one’s job, and one’s experience level. An attorney starting out in a large firm can expect to make the standard salary of $160,000 per year in larger cities. Most national firms are in lock-step on the salary issue, with employee raises happening every year. In this field, the salary distribution is bi-modal. Those who get into big firms often make that $160,000 figure, while those who work in small firms or in non-profit organizations tend to make something closer to $50,000 per year (Joy, 2014). It is very difficult to locate jobs in the middle, though some medium sized firms will pay their associates closer to the $100,000 mark. Partners have salary packages that vary wildly. In smaller firms, partners make $300,000 or so, while partners in the bigger firms can make seven figures in some cases (Dinovitzer, 2011).
The legal field took a major hit around 2009, when the financial markets collapsed and firms had to stop hiring. Over the last few years, the field has made a comeback, and though hiring has not returned to pre-collapse levels, it is getting better. This is true nationally, but some cities have done better than others. The Chicago market was hit harder than the New York market, and cities like Houston and Dallas have seen the best recent growth. Over the next five to ten years, most suspect that this field will experience moderate growth, but there is little expectation that it will return to the robust hiring figures that were present before the financial collapse (Flood, 2011).
There are many major firms that students will want to work for in order to take home the best salaries. Firms like Watchell or Davis Polk are two of the best in New York City. Baker Hostetller is one of the world’s biggest firms. In addition, students might find employment at any company that has its own in-house legal department, though these jobs are hard to get for people with no experience. Non-profit organizations also hire their fair share of attorneys.
The legal field is a good one for people who want a combination of interesting work and good long-term prospects. It does require many hours per week, but most of the work is intellectually stimulating. It can be stressful, but for people who are willing to work both hard and smart, the rewards can be tremendous.
- Dinovitzer, R. (2011). The Financial Rewards of Elite Status in the Legal Profession. Law & Social Inquiry, 36(4), 971-998.
- Flood, J. (2011). The re-landscaping of the legal profession: Large law firms and professional re- regulation. Current Sociology, 59(4), 507-529.
- Joy, P. A. (2014). Law Schools and the Legal Profession: A Way Forward. AKRON L. REV., 47, 177.