At first glance, the path to becoming a lawyer might seem simple. Students earn a bachelor’s degree, complete the required testing to apply to law school, and earn a degree called a Juris Doctor (J.D.). However, aspiring attorneys have a number of decisions to make, including what subject to major in as undergraduates and what types of law they may wish to specialize in during law school. The multiple pathways to a law degree provide freedom and latitude during the undergraduate years but can make choosing a major difficult. Law is an increasingly specialized career, so specific majors may have more career relevance, depending on what type of law is practiced upon graduation. Despite the long road to becoming a lawyer, the profession pays well and is highly regarded in society.
Undergraduate Options for Aspiring Lawyers
There is no single undergraduate degree path that is best for preparing students to enter law school. Several possible undergraduate degrees for future lawyers aim to improve students’ skills in different ways. For example, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recommends studying history, economics, English, and public speaking, among other courses. History courses can help students understand how laws came to be. Coursework in economics and mathematics prepares aspiring attorneys to understand the financial aspects of law. English and literature studies get students used to reading massive amounts of text, as they will have to do when they are lawyers studying laws and preparing for cases. Skills in public speaking are necessary for trial lawyers. Ultimately, students should seek to build fundamental skills like in-depth analysis, critical thinking, written communication, and oral communication.
Students might be surprised to learn that majoring in pre-law or criminal justice may not give them an advantage in gaining admittance into law school, according to U.S. News & World Report. Statistically, fewer students accepted into law school had majored in either of these seemingly obvious courses of study than had majored in subjects such as journalism and economics. In fact, philosophy majors had the best numbers, with 82 percent of law school applicants admitted.
Regardless of which major aspiring attorneys choose during their undergraduate educational careers, there are two absolute requirements for entering law school. Students must earn top grades to gain admission to an accredited program. They must also get an acceptable score on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
Law School Curriculum
When selecting a law school, students should be sure to choose a program that is accredited by the American Bar Association. During their law school education, students will learn how to write legal documents and how civil procedures are conducted. They will also learn various types of law, including tax law, constitutional law, corporate law, property law, and labor law. They must then pass their state’s bar exam, a written test, to be admitted to the bar and begin practicing law. Throughout their professional careers, lawyers must either uphold certain ethical obligations or risk being disbarred from practicing law.
Though the path to becoming a lawyer isn’t simple, it ultimately leads to a career that is rewarding financially and professionally. From the first class a freshman student takes, a lawyer’s education is primarily about developing the core capabilities that make a person an analytical thinker and a compelling, persuasive communicator.
Career Advancement for Lawyers
Attorneys fresh out of law school generally begin as associates that work on teams led by experienced lawyers, who provide oversight and mentorship. After serving in this capacity and gaining experience and trust with both supervisors and colleagues, associates lead their own teams and can become partners at the firm. A partnership means the attorney has an ownership stake in the firm. Becoming a partner takes several years of solid performance. Individuals that do not advance are often forced to leave, but they may choose to quit their job and open up their own practice. Other lawyers may choose to work in legal departments at medium- or large-size firms. It is rare for newly graduated attorneys to be hired as in-house counsel at an organization.
Being a partner or opening a practice to represent clients is not the only upward path for licensed attorneys, though. Many also choose teaching positions as law professors at colleges or universities, where they can conduct research and mentor the next generation of attorneys. Others may choose to pursue a career as a judge or a magistrate. Judges and magistrates are very similar, and they are both generally elected to their positions. The main differences are that magistrates do not have as much authority as judges, and they do not work with juries. In addition to an active state bar association license, judges and magistrates must undergo whatever legal training is required by their particular state.
Certification, Licensing, and Registration for Lawyers
To legally practice law in any state, prospective lawyers must pass the licensing exam commonly referred to as the “bar exam.” Passing this exam means the individual is admitted to that particular state’s bar association. Some states require that multiple exams are successfully completed. Other requirements include graduating from an ABA-accredited law school. Attorneys who want to practice in multiple states must successfully pass all required bar exams for each state.
The most common bar exam consists of a two-day test with 200 standardized items covering six areas of law, including constitutional law, contract law, evidence, real property law, and torts. The final day of testing is generally in essay format with questions being developed at the local level that cover a wide range of topics. Bar exams are given twice per year, in February and July. Most applicants choose the July testing date, as it falls shortly after law school graduation.
Since laws are always changing, it is critically important that licensed attorneys keep their education up to date. Nearly every state requires attorneys to participate in approved continuing education training and courses either annually or every three years. Classes and training all vary by state and typically cover a specific area of law like healthcare, personal injury, taxation, and the like. It is becoming more common for states to allow online classes and training.
Earnings Potential for Lawyers
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for lawyers is $126,930, as of May 2020. The bottom 10% of lawyers earn $61,490, with the top 10% bringing in $208,000. As with other occupations, industry matters. Lawyers working for the federal government earn the highest industry-related wage with an average wage of $152,220. The lowest-payed attorneys work for state governments and earn an average wage of $91,450. The data demonstrate that becoming a licensed and practicing lawyer results in a much higher wage than the average wage for all occupations, which is $41,950.
While lawyer remuneration is not what it once was, lawyers still earn top salaries when compared to most professions. The ubiquitous nature of the profession leads to wide-ranging salary data that can vary greatly depending on certain metrics, such as geographic location, industry, and work experience.
The highest-paying industries have limited employment opportunities, ranging from .06% to .53% of industry employment. For example, motion picture and video industries pay a mean annual wage of $218,360, which equates to $105 an hour. However, there are only 300 employed in this specific sector. It should be noted that the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track all lawyer positions, so the numbers may be higher. Other top-paying industries include computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing ($221,000) and navigational and measuring instruments ($208,460). While there are limited openings in these niche sectors, this information reveals just how unique and abundant a career in law can be.
35.28% of lawyers are employed in the legal services industry. That 35.28% represents 401,340 individuals. The average mean wage is $153,630, which equates to $73.86 per hour, based upon a 40-hour workweek. Other large employers include state and federal government organizations, which pay average wages of $97,440 and $146,560, respectively.
Geographic location plays an integral role in salary as well. The highest-paying states/regions include the District of Columbia ($197100), California ($179,470), and New York ($174,060). When looking at metropolitan data, the top areas include San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara ($231,610), San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward ($201,920), Washington-Arlington-Alexandria ($186,070), and New York-Newark-Jersey City ($180,160).
The data indicate attorneys working in metro areas earn far more than their rural colleagues. For example, Central Kentucky lawyers earn $62,920 per year, which is comparable to the $70,280 annual wage paid to Western Montana lawyers, but lower than the wages for some city lawyers.
Important Qualities for Lawyers
Critical Thinking – Ultimately, lawyers are problem-solvers that understand the boundaries of the laws and regulations under which they operate. Successful attorneys can synthesize large amounts of complex information regarding both their specific cases and complicated laws to help their clients.
Communication Skills – Lawyers must be adept communicators at both the interpersonal and group levels. Competition is fierce among clients, and attorneys must be able to garner trust through building relationships. They also may need to persuade parties in an effort to win cases and cause positive outcomes for their clients.
Research Skills – Media portrayals often show the bombastic attorney wowing a jury in a courtroom. While those scenarios do sometimes play out in real life, much of the work of an attorney is grueling and fastidious research. They are often poring over documents, laws, and regulations to provide appropriate legal advice to their clients.
Writing Skills – Strong writing is a must for any lawyer. One of their main duties is preparing documents that must be clear and concise. Wills, contracts, and powers of attorney are highly technical and must be prepared correctly.
Job Outlook for Lawyers
The expected growth rate for lawyers is four percent from 2019 – 2029. This rate of growth is on par with the approximately four percent growth rate for all other occupations. The competition for jobs is expected to be high, as more individuals graduate from law school each year than there are available jobs. This makes practical experiences such as networking, internships, and which law school was attended even more important with each graduating class. A new law school graduate can increase the odds of obtaining stable employment by having a willingness to relocate, although that may require an additional bar exam if it is in a new state. Law firms will continue to be a large employer of newly graduated lawyers, but there has been a recent trend of organizations increasing their in-house legal teams as a cost-cutting measure.
State and area data show the highest employment levels are in major metropolitan areas. The top three cities are New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles. Other top employment areas include Chicago, Philadelphia, and Miami. Due to the need for legal services in every part of the country, graduates are not beholden to working in large cities, but they may find it more difficult to find work in smaller cities and towns.
The Work Environment of a Lawyer
Lawyers mostly work in office settings, with occasional travel to meet with clients or to conduct work at outside agencies and organizations like hospitals, prisons, courthouses, and individual homes. The environment is fast-paced with heavy amounts of pressure to meet deadlines and perform well for clients. Most legal professionals work well over 40 hours per week and spend time away from the office researching and preparing or reviewing documents. Associate-level lawyers may work especially heavy hours as they try to increase their standing in a firm and move up to partner status.
Final Thoughts on the Best Degree Path to Becoming a Lawyer
The “best” degree path to becoming a lawyer continues to be an individual choice between several options. There are a large number of undergraduate degrees that fit well for aspiring lawyers, but the best choice is often the one that will inspire the undergraduate to engage in the coursework and perform at a high academic level.
While competition remains very strong, becoming an attorney is still a prestigious profession that pays well above most other occupations. And because legal services and consultation are needed everywhere, lawyers have exceptional latitude on what type of work they want to engage in.