- 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 by State.
- Competition for admission to most law schools is
- About 3 out of 4 lawyers practiced privately, either
as partners in law firms or in solo practices.
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 lawyers 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
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
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
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
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
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
non office 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 jurisdictions 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
jurisdictions 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 school4 years of undergraduate
study, followed by 3 years of law school. Law school applicants must have a
bachelors 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
applicants 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 applicants 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 other factors.
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 schools 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 schools 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 non legal 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 corporations 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
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
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 permanent positions.
Because of the keen competition for jobs, a law
graduates 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
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 clients.
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 action.
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
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
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.
Legal training is necessary in many other occupations,
including paralegals and legal assistants; law clerks; title examiners,
abstractors, and searchers; and judges, magistrates, and other judicial workers.
Sources of Additional Information
Information on law schools and a career in law may be
obtained from the following organizations:
- American Bar Association, 321 North Clark St.,
Chicago, IL 60610. Internet:
- National Association for Law Placement, 1025
Connecticut Ave. NW., Suite 1110, Washington, DC 20036. Internet:
Information on the LSAT, the Law School Data Assembly
Service, the law school application process, and financial aid available to law
students may be obtained from:
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
Governments official employment information system. This resource for locating
and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at
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.
Suggested citation: Bureau of Labor
Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook,
Lawyers, on the Internet at
May 12, 2006).