From Brown v. Board of Education to Miranda v. Arizona and beyond, the work attorneys do, and the decisions that result from the cases they argue, have a profound impact on our country's legal, political and social landscape. Lawyers may be involved in helping a client write his or her will, negotiating a contract, advocating for constitutional reforms or advising and strategizing on a political campaign.
Students who pursue a law degree will study legal systems and theories, historic cases, legal methods, procedures and writing as well as particular areas of the law such as civil, criminal, contract, torts, etc. Law school requires intensive research; extensive reading of cases, statutes, and regulatory materials; and writing law briefs and memos.
Although students pursuing a degree in law—a Juris Doctor, or J.D.—do not need to have any specific undergraduate degree to attend law school, certain skills are essential. Those include strong communication, writing, reading and research skills as well as the ability to think critically, logically and analytically.
As an undergraduate, it's helpful to choose a major that can prepare you for law school, such as English literature, history, philosophy or political science. These majors don't necessarily increase your overall chances of getting into a competitive program, but they will prepare you for the type of work you will be doing in law school.
You'll also need to prepare for and take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT®) as part of the admissions requirements for law school. It's offered several times a year and, as of September 2019, is administered digitally on a tablet. The exam focuses on three skills required in law school: reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning. There is also a separate writing portion. Many students take LSAT prep courses and practice exams to help them study for the test.
Something to Consider
For most students, law school will be unlike any other academic experience they've had before. The coursework is challenging and the teaching methods—the case method and Socratic method—can be both unfamiliar and quite uncomfortable for students who are not prepared. If long hours at the library aren't of interest, law school may not be for you.
Although most law school programs take three years to complete and are full time, some schools have part-time programs. Depending on the type of law you are interested in practicing, you can also often combine your law degree with another advanced degree, such as an M.A., MBA or Ph.D. Having two degrees gives you more flexibility professionally and makes you a more marketable job applicant.
Steps to Becoming a Lawyer After Graduation
Before you can work as a lawyer, you'll need to pass your state's bar exam and be admitted to practice by the highest court for your state. The bar exam is generally offered twice a year in late February and again in late July. Double-check which exams you are required to pass for the state you want to practice in.
Once you are licensed to practice law, you can work at a law firm or in any number of different industries such as government, politics, business, non-profit and advocacy, arts, education, etc.—the list really does go on and on. Possible job titles include: prosecutor, defense attorney, environmental attorney, intellectual property attorney, corporate counsel, judge, clerk, and litigator. Some attorneys also teach in law schools after practicing for a number of years.
Where You Could End Up Living
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of May 2019, the top five states with the highest employment levels for lawyers are:
- California (83,750)
- New York (77,060)
- Florida (47,900)
- Texas (44,700)
- Illinois (31,270)
How Much do Lawyers Make?
The median annual wage (the middle, not the average) for lawyers was $122,960 in May 2019, according to the BLS. However, depending on the particular industry, that wage varied significantly. At the top tier, were lawyers employed by the federal government, earning a median wage of $144,300. At the low end were lawyers who worked for state government (excluding education and hospitals). Their median annual salary was $89,090. Lawyers who own their own private practices tend to earn less than those who work for law firms and other businesses.
Are Lawyers in Demand?
The number of jobs for lawyers is expected to increase by 4 percent between 2019-2029, which is in line with the average for all occupations at 4 percent. While law firms will remain the most common employer, the BLS expects to see more corporations across various industries (finance, insurance, consulting, healthcare, etc.) hiring attorneys as in-house counsel in order to cut costs. And, despite the job growth, competition for positions will remain strong. That means a willingness to relocate and strong practical experience will be key to landing a good job after law school.