CAREER SERVICES FOR LAW STUDENTS & ALUMNI
Career paths for lawyers - what can I do with my Law degree?
The career paths and job opportunities available to lawyers are endless. Most attorneys change jobs at least four times throughout their careers, so learning as much as you can about the different career paths will help you now and in the future.
A law firm is a business entity formed by one or more lawyers to engage in the practice of law. The primary service provided by a law firm is to advise individual or corporate clients or other business entities about their legal rights and responsibilities and to represent their clients in civil or criminal cases, business transactions and other matters in which legal assistance is sought.
Most attorneys at law firms start as associates. After a number of years, which can vary greatly from firm to firm, they may be invited to join the ranks of partner or shareholder, depending on the firm's structure, with the right to part of the firm's annual profit.
The differences among law firms can be startling. Due to the double-digit growth and globalization of the 1980's and 1990's, American firms can top 1500 lawyers with offices or linkages in such exotic places as Bangkok and Shanghai. Most firms above 100 or so attorneys are engaged in many practice areas, so that one client may work with many lawyers in different departments and various cities that semi-independently fill different needs.
Firms of any size are usually either client driven or substantively oriented. In the former, they handle either all or most of the clients' needs on demand, from business start-ups through mergers, dissolutions, acquisitions and bankruptcies, purchase and sale of real estate, labor agreements and estate planning to perhaps even the same client's prenuptial agreements, wills, residence sales and divorces. Boutique firms specialize and often gain their clients through referrals from general practice and other specialty firms. Common examples of such specialization are litigators in different fields (including lawyers who handle only trials), labor arbitrators and criminal defense lawyers. Many other specialty firms exist in areas that you may not even imagine, such as education board representation, municipal bond work, and oil and gas rights.
Firm structure can also vary greatly. Generally, very large firms (over 100 attorneys) are departmentalized and it can be extremely difficult or even impossible for an associate to move among departments. Most firms, however, give students and young associates the opportunity to rotate through several departments before making a choice. Each department generally has a head or chairperson, and attorneys work in teams or separately under his or her direction. Particularly in the first couple years, the work you are assigned will probably be only a small slice of the total business of any case.
The clients of large firms are usually medium to large corporations and their executive boards and management, government offices and institutions. A smaller general practice firm will have a mix of predominantly smaller businesses and individuals as their client base.
Small firms typically hire clerks for year round employment because they need certain tasks done, which do not require full time professionals or support staff. You are generally paid hourly wages comparable to those of undergraduate positions and an educational program is not arranged for you. You may be the firm's only clerk and will likely need to suggest opportunities to attend client activities. The partners may let you know that, regardless of your performance, they can't afford to offer you a permanent position following graduation.
The Career Planning library contains several publications that profile firms in considerable detail. A law firm's website is also a great source of information on everything from what clients the firm represents to a list of their attorneys and staff.
Each year, a few UA graduates (typical of numbers of graduates of similar law schools) decide to enter sole practice either entirely on their own or by entering into an office sharing agreement with an experienced attorney, who can usually subcontract extra work and teach them the fundamentals of the practice, such as how to file briefs or record real estate sales. Sometimes an office sharing arrangement provides access to group benefits, as well.
A few years after graduation, many more attorneys have taken this route and report doing well. The ability to choose clients and cases and take total responsibility for practice decisions and client counseling attracts many experienced lawyers who are less team oriented and structured and more entrepreneurial. The financial risk is greater and potentially more rewarding. Overall, over 40% of all attorneys in private practice are sole practitioners.
Lawyers are employed in every branch and at virtually every level of government, from a small city law department all the way up to the largest branches of the federal government. The U.S. Department of Justice alone (the investigation and litigation arm of the federal government) is the single largest employer of attorneys in the country. Some government attorneys work in a traditional legal role, serving as the attorney for the city, state, agency, etc. Other attorneys work in legislative affairs, compliance issues, or other law-related specialties.
Government employment also encompasses attorneys working as prosecutors, as clerks or staff attorneys in judges' chambers, as well as attorneys serving in the military as JAG officers.
The Career Planning library has an excellent collection of federal and state directories, as well as county directories for some states. Some publications include explanations of department structure, numbers of attorneys and contact names. Most government agencies and departments also have excellent websites that giver extensive information about their department's work and details about their hiring procedures.
The Federal and state court systems also hire many attorneys, primarily as judges, magistrates, referees, clerks, and prosecutors. The federal courts are separated into trial level (called "District Courts"), appellate level (called "Circuit Courts") and the United States Supreme Court. There are other specialized federal courts as well, including the United States Bankruptcy Courts, and various U.S. courts of tax, claims and international trade. Federal judges are appointed by the President of the United States.
The structure of state courts varies from state to state. In Ohio, the main levels are trial courts ("Common Pleas", other county, municipal and mayor's courts), appellate and Supreme Courts. Other state courts are juvenile and domestic relations, probate and the Court of Claims. All Ohio judges are elected.
Law students are often employed by individual judges as externs during the school year as well as over the summer. While these positions are usually non-paying, you will have direct contact with one or more judges, attend trials, perform research for actual cases and help draft orders and opinions and generally gain great insight into the workings of the court system and judicial decision making.
Magistrates and referees are sometimes mistaken by non-lawyers for judges. They also reign over proceedings and have decision making capabilities, though not nearly as extensive as those of judges. Many also have externs and clerks and provide work experience similar to that of judicial clerks.
Lawyers are often employed by the court system as judicial law clerks. These positions are available to law school graduates who for a set term, usually one to two years, act as a judge's right hand person. Although a judicial law clerks' responsibilities vary greatly depending on the judge and the level of the court, most law clerks do a great deal of research and analysis, which they present to the judges to whom they are assigned. It is considered an honor to be a judicial clerk, especially for a federal judge, so the competition for these positions tends to be quite fierce. Federal judges tend to hire their law clerks well in advance of their terms and students generally begin applying for these positions in May of their second year. Many federal judges use the online application system known as OSCAR. Further info about OSCAR is available from the Career Planning Office. State court judges generally do not hire their law clerks quite so far in advance but it is best to check wit the individual judges to determine their exact application procedures and deadlines.
Prosecutors, including U.S. Attorneys on the federal level, Attorney Generals on the state level and District Attorneys on the county level, are also employed by the court system. These offices are excellent places at which to obtain experience in criminal or civil trial work. Most prosecutors' offices hire students as volunteers or for pay and, except for the U.S. Attorney's Office, they also generally hire new graduates, as well. Prosecutors' offices are noted for offering early responsibility and a very fast paced environment. Competition for these jobs is great so those interested in a career in prosecution are advised to consider such offices in rural areas and then network your way into larger urban areas.
Many lawyers work on Capitol Hill or for the state government as aides to elected representatives. In addition to supervisory duties and speech writing, they participate in committee and subcommittee activities in which their employers are members. The career paths for legislative aides are many. Some ride their representatives' coattails all the way to the top. Others leave for administrative or executive office positions or they create or join lobbying firms for the institutions they supported.
Other legislative positions include positions for the senate or congress as a whole, where you become involved in cutting edge issues through detailed research and high level briefings before legislators and their aides. At both the federal and state levels, it is commonly lawyers who draft legislation.
The legal system of the military is separate from civilian courts. Each branch of the military (Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and even the Coast Guard) has its own lawyers and judges who are members of the JAG. (for "Judge Advocate General") Corps for that particular branch. The Career Planning Office maintains files of information about the JAG Corps for each branch of the military.
The role of public interest law is to promote the representation of the underrepresented, ensure equal access to the legal system for all and to raise society's consciousness regarding social and political issues that affect all of our lives. Public interest lawyers represent a variety of individuals, including the poor, the homeless, minorities, the elderly, veterans, workers, and consumers. In addition to representing a diverse group of people, public interest lawyers perform a wide range of law-related activities and their work embraces a wide diversity of issues, including: immigration, the environment, employment, housing, civil rights, First Amendment rights, consumer rights, education and child abuse.
About 20% of UA graduates find employment each year with in-house corporate legal departments. A majority of graduates who locate employment with in-house corporate legal departments have an extensive background in tax or accounting or an undergraduate degree in engineering or another technical field. Since corporations typically hire experienced lawyers who have been in practice for five years or more with private law firms, competition for permanent opportunities for new graduates is very stringent even for those who do possess the requisite background.
In-house attorneys may work on issues and projects inherent to the corporation's general operations, such as purchase/sale agreements and employee contract negotiations or in areas specific to a corporation's products or services, like patent applications and regulatory compliance. Depending on a company's structure, lawyers engaged in tax, personnel and risk management functions may also be included in the legal department.
Attorneys enter a corporation's legal department as staff attorneys or legal counsel. Top attorneys often have executive responsibilities and commonly hold such titles a secretary, treasurer or vice president.
While law firms and corporations share the same goal-generation of income at the lowest cost - and while the work of the attorneys is often substantively the same, the two groups are engaged at different points of the businesses' operations, making their experiences and roles quite different. When you are an in-house corporate attorney, the company is your sole client and your job is to work to prevent costly litigation, minimize taxes and liability and ensure that your corporation is in compliance with all applicable rules and regulations. Although in-house lawyers have to sell their ideas and recommendations to the corporate leaders, they don't need to engage in client development in quite the same manner as law firms and private practitioners do.
The opportunities is legal publishing are growing as vehicles for sharing information develop. Many lawyers who enter publishing as researchers and editors do so from a love of research and writing. Additionally, they don't have to worry about client development, exhausting hours or keeping track of billable time. Like legislative researchers, they are often involved at the cutting edge of legal analysis. For the corporate minded, management opportunities are attractive and can lead in several directions, including senior editing, researchers, product development, marketing and executive level management.
Lawyers are also frequently hired as sales representatives for a publisher's legal client base, which may include firms, legal departments of corporations, law schools and government libraries, and faculty. Strong interpersonal skills are needed to be successful at this work, as it involves gaining clients' trust in you as well as your company and products. You may be responsible for extensive training and upgrades, especially if you represent an on-line computerized research service. Good training should result in reduced costs for a client, so your ability to understand computer communications and impart the information in a variety of non-technical ways to suit each client is essential. Those of you with sales experience can understand especially the satisfaction of such work.
The advantages of working for legal publishers include lack of necessity for bar admission (making it possible, for instance, to relocate to a different state and change employers almost without interruption) and the availability of flexible or part time hours.
Positions in academia include faculty, administration and university counsel (which is much like an in-house corporate position). You can work for a law school or at any other level of the education system.
Faculty requirements vary by school; law schools generally require significant post J.D. experience before you apply, and for most positions, your law school grades are very important, as is the quality and depth of writing (i.e., law journal experience) you gained during school. A brief review of The AALS Directory of Law Teachers, will give you an indication of the backgrounds required law school faculty members. The Association of American Law Schools also publishes a placement bulletin. Undergraduate faculty and administrative position openings are listed in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Many administrative positions, especially at law schools, are often filled by those with law degrees. Lawyers can be found in law school career services office (such as UA's), admissions offices, law clinics, and other student and alumni services offices. In these positions, one can expect to enjoy direct contact with current students, prospective students and those who have already graduated. The skills needed to succeed in these positions include organizational skills, counseling skills, analytical skills, and other skills these individuals may have honed in legal practice. Some of these positions may also be combined with teaching.
A hybrid position involving both faculty and administration is that of some librarians. Equipped with J.D.s and M.L.S.s, they give lectures and publish journals.
Universities also hire in-house counsels who act much like corporate counsel, giving advice on a full range of legal and other issues confronted by the school administration.
Some law students graduate from law school with the unsettling feeling that the traditional practice of law is not the perfect career they had imagined when they began law school. Luckily, there are many options available today to those who decide to shy away from the mainstream of practice. You may wish to use your experience in a career that requires knowledge of the law and frequent contact with lawyers or their needs, for example. You may decide, after any length of time, to leave practice and use your training and skills in other fields. You may have enrolled in law school so that you could be more effective, acquire greater responsibility and earn more in the field in which you intend to remain.
Hiring officials have become increasingly aware of the value of hiring lawyers to fill various positions within their organizations. Because of the basic skills that lawyers acquire in law school, attorneys have the qualifications to prosper in many different fields. You acquire basic skills in law school not provided by any other part of our educational system. These skills can lead to a competitive advantage in many fields. These skills include the ability to analyze facts and frame issues, legislative and regulatory analysis, and oral and written advocacy, to name just a few. These skills are not only basic to your value in a non-legal position, but are also essential to success in the business world.
Alternative law-related positions are found in every employment sector and in virtually every industry and economic endeavor, including corporations, trade associations, professional associations, every level of government, advocacy organizations, foundations, colleges and universities, accounting firms, hospitals, museums, banks, insurance companies, and even law firms. For specific suggestions and a list of hundreds of alternative legal careers, please refer to Federal Reports Inc.'s "600+ Things You Can Do with a Law Degree (Other Than Practice Law)." In addition, the Career Planning Office has several resources dealing with alternative career options and how to go about finding one of these jobs.