First year law students are often surprised to discover that after spending considerable time and energy making a career choice to go to law school, they are now called upon to make additional career choices about what to do with their law degree. Law is practiced in many different ways and many different settings. Some legally trained individuals never practice law at all, but use their legal training in a variety of other fields.
A career counselor at your law school will be able to help you make decisions about your legal career. Although career services for law students may vary from school to school, most law schools employ full-time professionals who possess either a counseling degree or a law degree (or both) to work with law students in developing career plans. Law professors may be able to help, not only with advising, but also with information about contacts and recommendations.
Work during Law School
Many law students work in legal or law- related jobs while they are in law school. Still others will work in non-legal jobs that lead them to legal jobs in the area of business where they were working, or into a totally alternative career. Many law students work in law firms, corporate law departments, or government law offices. These positions may be full-time or part-time, and they may be summer jobs, work during the school year, or permanent positions.
Many larger firms, government agencies, and corporate legal departments offer summer internship or clerkship programs as part of a formal recruiting process. These positions tend to be highly competitive, and hiring for them may be heavily influenced by academic performance in law school and the prestige of the law school attended. Many of the organizations that sponsor these summer programs use them as a tool to help make permanent hiring decisions.
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Even in law firms and other employers that do not regularly recruit on campus for summer clerks or permanent associates, it is common for students who work in these organizations during law school to accept positions there when they graduate. Even if they do not ultimately stay with the organization where they have worked, the experience they gain is very likely to impress other employers with whom they apply. This kind of hands-on training is an excellent counterbalance to the more esoteric experience of law school.
Types of Employment
The largest segment of the population of law school graduates each year goes to work in private law firms. These firms provide legal services to clients for profit. The owners of the firm may be individual lawyers or partners in multi-lawyer partnerships of several hundred partners, or anything in between. In addition to the partners/owners, law firms also employ salaried junior lawyers or associates. Some of these associates may eventually become partners in the firm; some may remain as permanent associates or staff attorneys; and some may leave the firm to find other employment or start their own practices.
The largest law firm in the United States (with slightly over one thousand lawyers and perhaps twice as many support staff) is small compared to business entities in many other fields. There is no big five of law firms like there is in accounting. There is no legal equivalent of Microsoft or General Motors. The reality is that most lawyers will engage in the private practice of law at some point during their careers, but most of these will be in solo practices or small firms. No more than 15 percent of the population of private practitioners works in the largest five hundred law firms in the country.
If six out of ten lawyers work in private practice, the remaining four are employed in a variety of different endeavors. The largest of these other groups are corporations (including both in-house counsel and other corporate positions) and government service in federal, state, and local agencies. Government service also includes work as prosecutors and public defenders in the criminal justice system. Judicial administration is usually listed as a separate category, because of the unique nature of the work performed. While many government lawyers practice law like lawyers in firms (the big difference being that the government is their employer), judges, court administrators, and law clerks engage in a very different kind of activity--running the justice system. Other lawyers work for political action or public interest organizations, serve in legislatures as representatives, or aides, and participate in political parties, campaigns, and other related activities.
Many lawyers go into other lines of work outside the practice of law altogether, having never gone into law, or having left the practice at some time during their careers. Some of these people may simply want a law degree to supplement other qualifications they have. Others may become enticed by personal dreams or business deals along the way. Some, unfortunately, discover after going to law school and practicing law that they are not happy with the career choices they have made, and leave the practice of law for greener pastures. The ranks of these legal expatriates are filled with entrepreneurs, athletes, writers, correspondents, inventors, entertainers, restaurateurs, and even a prominent wine critic. A list of well-known personalities who are also lawyers would surprise most people. For more information, see and William D. Henslee, Non-legal Careers for Lawyers, American Bar Association (2002).
Each year, the National Association for Law Placement, an organization comprised of representatives of the nation's law schools and legal employers, conducts an employment report and salary survey. (See Jobs and JDs: Employment and Salaries of New Law School Graduates, National Association for Law Placement, 2001.) The most recent class on which data are available suggests that law graduates go into positions in the percentages not too different from the makeup of the legal profession as a whole. The breakdowns for private practice, corporate, government, and judicial categories are similar to the breakdown for lawyers as a whole, although NALP reported that 57.8 percent of the law school graduates in 2001 entered private practice, down from a high of 64.3 percent ten years earlier. A very small percentage of law students actually open their own law offices, a practice euphemistically referred to as "hanging out a shingle." More law graduates go to work in law offices of less than 100 lawyers than accept positions in large offices. The judicial cohort is made up of judicial clerks rather than judges and courts administrators for obvious reasons. The largest area of government practice for recent graduates is work in a prosecutor's office. Another area, often listed as a separate category, is the military, which recruits lawyers for the judge advocate generals corps for the service branches, as well as individuals who have completed law school before fulfilling other military obligations. Very few law school graduates go into teaching-particularly law school teaching-directly out of law school, but an appreciable number pursue advanced degrees both in law and other fields.
The NALP survey accounts for approximately 90 percent of the graduating class, leaving the employment status of 10 percent unknown. Of those whose employment status was known, 90 percent were employed and the remainder unemployed or enrolled in advanced degree programs at the time of the NALP survey, approximately nine months after graduation. These numbers have remained fairly consistent over a period of more than twenty-five years, during which NALP has surveyed law school graduates. Not surprisingly, the employment picture is slightly better in years when the general economy is strong and slightly worse in years with recession. The NALP survey does support the observation that the legal job market is fairly stable and predictable. Competition for the most prestigious and desirable jobs can be fierce, although most people who want jobs as lawyers will eventually get them.
Lawyers work almost everywhere. More lawyers are concentrated in the largest population centers, because of the high volume of commercial activity that occurs in those areas. Lawyers are also concentrated in the seats of government, from Washington, DC, to state capitals, to county seats, throughout the United States. Even in rural areas, lawyers can be found with offices close to the clients they serve. An increasing number of lawyers in the U.S. work outside the boundaries of the United States. With the increasing internationalization of business, lawyers have become a new kind of export.
The NALP statistics for the employment of law school graduates parallel the demographic patterns for lawyers as a whole. The greatest number of legal jobs is found in the largest cities, but law graduates are disbursed to a wide variety of places throughout the country. There is some correlation between law school attended and location of first employment, suggesting that people either choose their law school because of the geographic area or become attached to the area while they are in law school.
The bar exam represents a hurdle to entry into the practice of law, because for most legal positions, it is necessary to pass the bar exam in the state where the lawyer will be working prior to beginning to serve clients. The majority of law graduates takes only one bar exam, and thus limited to the jurisdiction where they become licensed. If graduates have employment in a jurisdiction where they do not pass the bar exam, they will lose those jobs. If they take the exam before they have a job, they will be limited in their job search to positions where they become licensed. Applicants to law school should be aware of these jurisdictional requirements, and investigate the possibilities as appropriate.
Lawyers' salaries are reported by various bar associations and consultant surveys, as well as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and NALP. All of these surveys seem to show that there is a wide range of income among lawyers. Some lawyers, particularly in the rural areas, may not have enough business to sustain a full-time practice. Lawyers in certain metropolitan areas with high lawyer population may find competition for clients to be intense. Some of these lawyers may discover that even after years of practice they do not make a good living practicing law. On the other end of the spectrum are lawyers whose income is in the seven figure range.
Different surveys show discrepancies in reported results that may reflect more on their sampling techniques than actual differences, but most seem to point to an average income for all lawyers. This includes not only law firm partners, but also semi-retired senior lawyers and brand new associates as well. It includes not only private practice, but also lower paying government service positions. Within private practice it is generally the case that lawyers in larger firms make more money than lawyers in smaller firms. It is also the case that some areas of practice, notably corporate and tax work, show better returns than other areas, such as criminal law and domestic relations.
In most cities, the largest firms will pay a standard rate for new associates, and smaller firms will offer salaries somewhat less than the salary leaders. Small firms often pay at or below the median for all graduates.