Law Careers Job Options, Degrees, and Salary Info for Various Legal Professions

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MoneyGeek Staff

The first thing most people envision when thinking about law careers is a lawyer, but there are several other opportunities available in the field of law. These roles vary in responsibilities, required education, and annual earnings. In this guide, you’ll find useful information on various law careers – from entry-level to more advanced positions – along with details on education requirements, salaries, and resources on where to find a law job. If you’re considering a career in law – or are currently in the field and looking for ways to advance – keep reading to get the information and resources you need to start planning the next step.

Professional Paths in Law

Ask almost any lawyer what his or her job is like and he or she will probably tell you it can be financially lucrative and interesting, but also incredibly stressful and demanding. Fortunately, being a lawyer is not the only career option in the legal world. There are others to consider, several of which are profiled below:

Arbitrators

Arbitrators help parties resolve legal issues before, or as an alternative to, trial or other type of more formal legal proceeding. Arbitration may be voluntary or mandated, but mandated arbitration can only come from a statute or from a contract that is voluntarily entered into. Arbitrators meet with the parties together, consider evidence, and make binding or non-binding decisions regarding the issues at hand.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 9% (Arbitrators, mediators and conciliators combined.)

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Usually, a bachelor’s degree in a subject of expertise such as real estate, business, accounting, or public policy. Some states and employers require arbitrators to have a law degree and experience as a practicing lawyer.

Court Reporters

Court reporters capture and create word-for-word written transcripts of legal proceedings such as trials, court hearings, and depositions. These transcripts become official record of the legal proceeding and are relied upon and referred to during the course of the legal process, including trial and appeals. Some also provide captioning for television and real-time translation for deaf or hard of hearing people at public events, in business meetings, or in classrooms. A court reporter may be an employee of the court itself or work as a freelancer within his or her local community.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 2%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Formal training at community colleges or technical schools, leading to either an associate’s degree or certificate in court reporting. Most states and employers also require passing a licensing exam and typing-speed test.

Mediators and Conciliators

Like arbitrators, mediators and conciliators are focused on helping parties resolve their issues before more formal legal procedures. However, mediators and conciliators do not reach decisions on the issues at hand, but rather attempt to guide the parties to reach a mutually acceptable solution. Mediators work with both parties at the same time while conciliators meet with the parties separately.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 9% (Arbitrators, mediators and conciliators combined.)

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Usually, a bachelor’s degree. While states rarely mandate formal education for private mediators, most require individuals to complete 20 to 40 hours of training courses for public mediation work. Some states require additional hours of training in a specialty area.

Paralegals and Legal Assistants

Paralegals and legal assistants help lawyers prepare cases for hearings and trials. They perform legal research, draft legal documents, file motions, and interview clients. They may perform specialized tasks depending on the field of practice and/or size of their firm. Paralegals and legal assistants do not practice law and their work must be overseen and reviewed by supervising attorneys.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 8%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    An associate degree or certificate in paralegal studies, but some employers may require a bachelor’s degree.

Lawyers

Lawyers represent individuals, businesses, non-profit associations and organizations, and government agencies on legal issues and disputes. Lawyers advocate for and advise their clients regarding legal disputes in both the criminal and civil fields.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 6%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Must earn a juris doctor (JD) degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) and pass a state’s written bar exam.

Law Teacher, Postsecondary

Postsecondary law teachers instruct college students on the law and government. Courses can cover topics such as American law, antitrust law and economics, civil rights litigation, and communications and Internet law, to name a few examples.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 13%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    In most cases a PhD in law is required, although some community colleges may hire educators with a master’s degree.

Judges and Hearing Officers

Judges and hearing officers are elected or appointed as impartial, government officials who preside over trials, hearings, and many other types of legal proceedings. They rule on questions of law, function as “referees” between parties in a case, and make binding decisions on legal issues and disputes.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): -1%

    (BLS notes most job openings arise due to a judge or hearing officer retiring or because their elected term is over. Competition for these prestigious roles is high and a new judge must be authorized and approved by legislature.)

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Usually a law degree and experience as a practicing lawyer. Some hearing officers may only have bachelor’s degrees.

Forensic Science Technicians
  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 27%

  • Minimum Education Requirements:

    Bachelor’s degree in forensic science or a related natural science subject such as chemistry or biology. Students may specialize in subfields like pathology or toxicology.

Legal Secretaries
  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 3% (Secretaries and Administrative Assistants in BLS)

  • Minimum Education Requirements:

    A high school diploma, although most legal secretaries receive some level of specialized training at a community college or vocational school.

Police Officers and Detectives
  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 4%

  • Minimum Education Requirements:

    A high school diploma or equivalent, although many employers require some amount of college-level work. Typically completes police academy training and on-the-job training.

Private Detectives and Investigators
  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 5%

  • Minimum Education Requirements:

    At least a high school diploma. Some employers may require a 2-year or 4-year postsecondary degree in criminal justice, police science or closely related field. Most states require a license.

Probations Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists
  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 4%

  • Minimum Education Requirements:

    A bachelor’s degree. Some employers may require applicants to hold a field-related master’s degree. Most employers require oral, written and psychological exams.

Data Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014

Salary Trends for Law Professionals

When deciding on the type of law career to pursue, salary can be an important factor to consider. Here’s a look at the pay you can expect to earn in a few different law careers:

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015

Deciding Whether a Law Career is the Right Choice

Maybe the toughest question in choosing any career is how do you know if a particular career is the right choice for you now and over the course of your working life? Knowing the future is impossible, but taking inventory of your personal talents, skills, and interests can help you make an educated decision. The tables below take a look at common skills many law and legal professionals have:

Required and Preferred Skills

Basic knowledge of the law

A solid basic understanding of legal principles and process is essential, regardless of one’s specific law occupation. Knowledge required includes court rules, filing deadlines, relevant terminology, and principles particular to one’s specific areas of practice.

Logic and seasoning

Ability to understand complex legal language and apply that knowledge to real world issues and events are fundamental to success.

Time management

Courts and law firms are very busy places. Add to that the potential for disaster due to a late court filing, and you begin to see how crucial time management is.

Verbal communication, negotiating skills, and emotional intelligence

Communication and empathy are two key ingredients when dealing with clients. The ability to understand an opposing party’s position and concerns is essential to successfully resolving legal issues. Strong verbal, negotiating, and emotional intelligence skills are also critical.

Writing and drafting skills

The practice of law requires a lot of paperwork and that means a lot of writing. Legal professionals must be able to draft pleadings and contracts, wills and trusts, and similar legal documents. Because you’ll be in constant contact with clients, an ability to compose clear and effective written correspondence is also necessary.

Case management software

Case management software offers lawyers and their staff a wide menu of integrated case management tools for time tracking and billing, calendaring and docketing, and document assembly. There are dozens of proprietary software systems to choose from including Abacus, Houdini Esq., Firm Central, and LexisNexis.

Court reporter tools

The modern court reporter can choose from several reputable computer-aided transcriptions, or CAT, systems. CAT systems provide reporters with support and accuracy in transcriptions as well as real-time reporting during depositions and court sessions.

Courtroom technologies

Technology has hit the courtroom in a big way, with various new courtroom programs and tools allowing for high-definition on-screen presentation of evidence, 3D modeling, and records management. Attorneys and other legal professionals must be aware of the latest technologies being installed and used in local, state, and federal courtrooms.

Legal research software

At one time attorneys, law clerks, and paralegals would spend hours or even days in the confines of a local library scouring dusty volumes of annotated codes and case law to prepare legal briefs for their cases. Today, most legal research is done online, using legal-specific software programs and services. Among the most widely used are LexisNexis, Westlaw, and Shepard’s Citations.

Degree Programs for Law Careers

Because there are various paths to a successful career in law, there are also several degree programs you can pursue to achieve your career goal.

Associate Degree

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there no law programs available at the associate degree level. There are, however, degrees available in related disciplines, such as paralegal studies, criminal justice, and legal studies. These options can help prepare you for support or administrative roles or can be used as a stepping stone for further education. For example, an associate degree in legal studies focuses on necessary skills such as critical reasoning and analysis, research, writing, and communication. Students also get an introduction to the fundamental concepts of law and the legal system. Courses are likely to include:

  • Introduction to Law
  • Contract Law
  • Legal Ethics
  • Legal Research and Writing
  • Civil Litigation
  • Human Relations
Bachelor’s Degree

Like the associate degree, there are no bachelor’s degree programs in law. Some colleges offer pre-law studies degree programs, but most don’t. When searching for pre-law studies at the bachelor’s level using the National Center of Education Statistics’ College Navigator, just 61 results came up. Almost every college, however, offers pre-law education. As an example, UC Berkeley explains that students who know they want to go to law school typically pursue a bachelor’s degree in political science, economics, business administration, history, English, or rhetoric, but that most law schools consider an undergraduate degree in any discipline because lawyers are needed in a range of areas. Other bachelor’s degree options include criminal justice and legal studies.

Master’s degree

If you plan to become a lawyer, the next step following your bachelor’s program will be law school to earn a JD degree. There are, however, a number of graduate-level degrees for those interested in a non-attorney career. Master’s programs are available in majors such as legal studies and jurisprudence. These degree programs are often a good choice for mid-career individuals seeking to bring legal knowledge and skills to current employers in any number of industries, including healthcare, information technology, biotechnology, financial services, and telecommunications.

Some colleges also offer the Master of Studies in Law (MSL). This one-year advanced degree is best suited for non-lawyers who want a more advanced understanding of legal thought and law. For example, a mid-career journalist may want an advanced education in legal thinking so that he or she can be a better, more effective reporter. Most MSL programs also offer concentration areas so that students can apply their knowledge to their chosen field or industry, such as health and science, business and technology, or family law, to name a few.

Example courses in an MSL degree program include:

  • Introduction to Law and Legal Reasoning
  • Torts
  • Legal Research and Writing
  • Electives that are relevant to the student’s concentration area
Juris Doctor

In all but the rarest of cases, a juris doctor, or JD, degree from an ABA-accredited law school is an absolute requirement for anyone who intends to become a lawyer in the United States. JD degree programs typically require three years of full-time or four to five years of part-time study. Aspiring lawyers will additionally be required to pass the bar exam in the jurisdiction(s) in which they intend to practice. Typical courses in a JD program are:

  • Civil Procedure
  • Contracts
  • Torts
  • Property
  • Criminal Law
  • Constitutional Law
  • Ethical Issues in Criminal Practice
  • Business Law and Regulation
PhD in Law

The PhD in Law is the ideal option for JD graduates who want to become legal scholars or postsecondary teachers. This three-year, research-based program gives students the opportunity to contribute to the field of law as an academic discipline. Some PhD programs require a residency and all culminate in a dissertation. Year two typically consists of core coursework and seminars that prepare students for their dissertations. In year two, students begin working with advisory committees to start their dissertation. Once the proposal has been approved, the rest of the program is dedicated to researching, writing, and completing the dissertation, as well as fulfilling teaching experiences.

Specializations

There seem to be as many specialized areas of practice in law as there are lawyers. If you are a lawyer or intend to become one, you will likely specialize to some degree in one or more specific practice areas. If you are a non-lawyer, you will probably become experienced in the specialization(s) that your employer focuses on.

Here’s a brief list of some of the most common specialized areas of practice in law:

Criminal law

Criminal law is the process of prosecuting a person who has committed a crime. Criminal law is practiced by attorneys in private practice and with public entities like district attorney offices.

Civil law

Civil law is non-criminal law that focuses on individuals and organizations who are trying to resolve a legal dispute. Civil law can be distinguished from all of the other non-criminal specializations, referring more specifically to legal issues of tortuous conduct and behavior.

Corporate and contract law

Corporate law deals with any and all legal issues effecting private businesses and non-profit organizations. Closely associated with corporate law is contract law, which can be defined as the body of law concerning written and oral agreements associated with the exchange of money, property, goods, and/or services.

Family law

Family law concerns legal issues related to family disputes and obligations, including divorce and spousal support, child custody and support, guardianship, elder law, and adoption.

Estate law

Estate law involves the distribution of a deceased individual’s estate. It involves both issues of estate planning before death and any estate-related legal issues or conflicts that might arise following death.

Other law specializations include:

  • Bankruptcy
  • Civil Rights
  • Education
  • Employment and Labor
  • Environmental and Natural Resources
  • Health
  • Immigration
  • Intellectual Property
  • International
  • Military
  • Real Estate
  • Sports and Entertainment
  • Tax

Exams, Certifications, and other Credentials

Whether your particular legal career choice requires any examinations, certifications, or other professional credentials to practice depends on the specific job and the jurisdiction in which you plan to work. Here’s a look at a few of the qualifications you will likely encounter for some of the most common law occupations:

Arbitrators, Mediators, and Conciliators

There are currently no national governmental certification or licensing requirements for arbitrators, mediators, or conciliators. A small number of states, however, require licensing to practice within their borders.

Certification is offered by a number of professional associations, primary among them:

Court Reporters

The National Court Reporters Association (NCRA) offers a number of court reporting-related professional certifications including the Registered Professional Reporter (RPR), the Certified Realtime Reporter (CRR), and the Certified Legal Video Specialist (CLVS).

Lawyers

The United States requires passing of one or more state bar examinations. Exam requirements vary, sometimes significantly, by state and a student should have a clear understanding of his or her jurisdiction’s exam and other practice requirements. State bars additionally mandate some level of continuing education for its members to maintain active licenses.

Regarding professional certifications and credentials, there are as many types available to attorneys as there are specialized areas of practice, awarded by a vast array of non-profit professional organizations and associations, many accredited by the American Bar Association and state bar associations. Every law-related professional certification or credential comes with its own unique education and/or practice experience requirements.

Legal Secretaries

Voluntary professional certification is offered by the National Association of Legal Secretaries (NALS).

Paralegals and Legal Assistants

In most cases, the titles can be used interchangeably and the duties and responsibilities of paralegals and legal assistants are the same.

The primary credentialing organization for paralegals/legal assistants in the U.S. is the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), which offers two credentials: the Certified Paralegal (CP) and the Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP). These certifications are strictly voluntary, but some individual employers may require – or prefer – certification for employment. The Professional Paralegal (PP) designation is also available, offered by the National Association of Legal Secretaries (NALS).

Work Settings

Legal professionals are employed in all sectors of the economy: public, private, non-profit, and government. Here’s a brief look of where you might find work for several typical legal occupations:

Arbitrators, Mediators, and Conciliators

Arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators often work as self-employed freelancers or with private firms, but may be employed directly by federal, state, or local courts or other public agencies. A small number of individuals may find employment with large businesses that have a need for in-house services.

Court Reporters

Court reporters are normally employed directly by federal, state, or local court systems or work as freelancers or independent contractors outside the courtroom at depositions, arbitration hearings, corporate meetings, or anywhere else a written transcript of proceedings is needed.

Lawyers, Paralegals, Legal Assistants, and Legal Secretaries

Lawyers may work in private practice as solo practitioners or with law firms of every size and specialization or as an in-house corporate attorney. Lawyers are also employed by federal, state, and district attorney’s offices, as well as by virtually every governmental agency. Employment of paralegals, legal assistants, legal secretaries, and related support staff commonly follows that of lawyers.

Job Hunting

While you are working on your postsecondary education, you should also be thinking about that first career-launching job. A great place to start your search is online. Below is a list of job boards and other resources for prospective law professionals:

Internships in the Field of Law

In the highly competitive world of law, a quality law clerk or internship position is an absolute must for law school students. There are thousands available, mostly during the summer, at private firms, government agencies, and non-profits. The same is true for many other non-lawyer careers in the field. And while an internship is rarely necessary for court reporters, some training programs may require students to sit in with working reporters as a condition of graduation.

Below is a small sample of the types of internships available to law-related career seekers:

American Bar Association (ABA) Law Student Internships, Fellowships, and Clerkships

The ABA lists all types of internship and fellowship openings for law students throughout the U.S. Visitors can also access videos with tips for judicial clerkship applicants.

Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service – Paralegal Internship

Example of an unpaid paralegal internship, much like those that can be found with volunteer organizations across the nation.

National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC) – Internships at NCRC

The NCRC provides mediation services primarily in and around the San Diego, California metropolitan area. Its internship program, however, accepts participants from throughout the U.S. and around world.

Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) Law Student Internship Program

PILI is a non-profit organization committed to public interest law and pro bono service in the State of Illinois. PILI’s Law Student Internship Program connects law students from across the U.S. with legal service agencies in throughout the state.

U.S. Department of Justice – Summer Law Intern Program (SLIP)

Website for the Department’s compensated summer internship recruitment program. Law students are required to have completed at least one semester of legal study by the application deadline to be eligible.

Law-Related Professional Associations

Professional associations and organizations provide an abundance of helpful resources to students, job seekers and working professionals alike. They’re also excellent for networking. Here’s a list of just a few law-related professional associations and organizations that you can connect with:

Academy of Professional Family Mediators (APFM)

Association of professionals providing mediation services to families involving issues of divorce, separation, child custody, child support, custody, spousal support, wills and trusts, elder care and more.

American Bar Association (ABA)

With more than 400,000 members, the ABA is one of the largest voluntary membership professional associations in the world. Membership is open to lawyers, law students and others interested in the legal profession.

Legal Secretaries International, Inc.

Legal Secretaries International, Inc. is a non-profit association of legal secretaries formed to support its members educational and networking needs. Affiliate organizations are in Washington D.C. and in a number of southern states.

National Academy of Arbitrators (NAA)

The NAA is a non-profit honorary and professional organization of arbitrators in the United States and Canada whose purposes are both educational and fraternal. Its website provides a wide array of information on professional conduct.

National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL)

The NAWL offers leadership and resources for the advancement of women in the legal profession. Website features include a job search engine and access to blogs, webinars, online forums and more.

National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)

The NFPA is a coalition of paralegal professional organizations located throughout the U.S. Membership benefits include discounts to the association’s annual convention and joint conference as well as a subscription to the National Paralegal Reporter magazine.

National Trial Lawyers (NTL)

The NTL is a professional association of premier trial lawyers with practices throughout the U.S., providing networking opportunities, advocacy training, and educational programs for trial lawyers.

United States Court Reporter Association (USCRA)

The USCRA is the national representative of the federal court reporting profession. Membership benefits include access to the association’s online library and newsletter. Members also may sit for the Federal Certified Realtime Reporter (FCRR) examination four times per year.

Updated: July 28, 2017