Law Degree: The Duties, Responsibilities and Benefits Attached to It

What Can You Do with a Law Degree

Most people assume that if you get a law degree, you only have one choice for a career: lawyer. But the reality is, there are many diverse types of lawyers and other legal careers available to you after you get your law degree, and even some that you can embark upon while still in law school. We've pulled together some information to help you learn about the career options available to you, both traditional ones and some that are off the beaten path.



What Is a Law Degree?

justice scale in courtroom

Formally, a law degree is a Doctor of Jurisprudence, known to students and legal professionals as simply a J.D. This is not an educational or career path for the faint of heart or mind. Getting into law school is difficult enough, but to actually receive a degree, you will be diligently studying for three years on average.

The cost of law school is typically very high, and many students find they must live prudently on loans during this time to devote full attention to their studies. While five states allow "reading the law," a means of taking the bar while bypassing law school, the vast majority will require that you attend an accredited law school to take the applicable Bar exam and ultimately practice law. That said, a law degree offers career options other than public or private practice as an attorney.

Career Outlook and Options for Practicing Attorneys

writing on document in a courtroom

The legal field has a wide variety of options for those who graduate with law degrees. While most law students will take basic courses such as Constitutional Law, Civil Procedure, Criminal Procedure, Contracts, and Torts, among many others, law school can be an excellent time to pursue courses to help you narrow down possible practice areas to those that interest you. Some students may never know they have a bent and talent for administrative law until they take that class, for example.

Being aware of your options and taking the time to research what areas of law are projected to grow in the years following your graduation can be critical steps in helping you determine your ultimate career path. Most students go to law school with the intention of practicing law. The following are some of the most common ways to practice once you have your law degree and Bar card in hand.

Private Practice

The vast majority of attorneys work in the private sector, and most stay within a civil context. You may wish to strike out on your own as a sole practitioner, but depending on your preferred practice area, joining an established firm may be the best option early in your career. Doing so has the added benefit of allowing you to learn from the more experienced attorneys on your team.

The types of private practice are many and broad, but not all of them involve litigation. You can certainly spend your days arguing motions in court, but if you are looking for other options, investigate transactional and boutique law firms. Transactional law involves assisting clients with business. Many real estate firms, for instance, are primarily transactional in their pursuits.

Government and Public Interest Positions

Civic-minded students may be drawn to positions offered by government and non-profit employers. Some of the most well-known examples of such work are from the criminal world. The justice system will always need sharp prosecutors, assistant district attorneys, and public defenders. Legal aid societies and non-profits also hire attorneys to represent poor or indigent clientele in civil matters including landlord-tenant disputes, civil forfeiture, family law matters, and other areas where there is no government-granted right to appointed representation.

If your interest in the law stems from a cause you care about, you should know that many organizations that champion civil rights causes or seek changes in the law based on public policy need competent lawyers. An example of such an employer in the nonprofit world is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In-House Counsel Roles

Many corporations and privately held companies keep attorneys on staff to handle in-house legal matters. While this is extremely common in the corporate world, these positions are diverse in their focus and duties. Types of businesses that require in-house counsel range from insurance companies to hospitals, oil companies and beyond.

What Else Can I Do with a Law Degree?

man signing a paper

Most people attend law school with the intention of taking at least one state Bar and becoming a practicing attorney. That said, no two legal careers look identical, and your options are not limited to practicing law indefinitely. Many legal professionals begin in one practice area and find themselves in another. Some leave the legal field altogether and transition into other lines of work where the analytical and other skills critical to being an effective lawyer are valuable in different applications. Below is a brief discussion of two of the most common options for legal occupations other than "attorney."

Other Jobs in the Legal Field

While the outlook for the legal profession may seem bleak based on the sheer number of people becoming attorneys today, rest assured that practicing as an attorney is not your only option. Let's take a look at some other choices for talented individuals with law degrees.

With a law degree in hand, you have many options available to you. Here are some common career choices, both shorter-term and long-range options, that you may consider.

Becoming a Judge

This is a career track that some ambitious students have in mind before they even begin their law degree. You will likely need to practice law as an attorney for a good period first, but judicial positions are both elected and appointed. If you prefer to hear cases rather than represent clients, this could be the career for you. If you're interested in becoming a judge, you can always test the waters by serving as a clerk for an existing judge. Doing so will give you a look at the role's requirements in your area of interest, along with an idea of whether the "political" aspects of the job appeal to you.

Legal Writer/Editor Roles

All those months drafting motions in law school may come in handy if you opt to work with the mountains of paperwork necessary to the business of law. Many firms hire full-time staff fully devoted to these positions, and some law students even perform this work while still in school. Legal writers and editors are necessary for nearly every practice area, but they may also work outside of traditional law firm settings. After all, somebody has to write and fact check the textbooks for law students.

Law Professors

If you are the type of student who often helps other classmates with their work, you may find that you prefer teaching the law rather than practicing it. Fortunately, with so many students eager to earn their law degrees, there will always be a demand for those who can teach subjects within the law extremely well. Be aware that this career option will typically require education in addition to your law degree.

Life after Law School: Advanced Legal Degrees

judge with a gavel wearing robes

For some students, law school is not the end of their studies. Continuing education will be part of any practicing attorney's job because it is essential to maintain an active license. Also recognize that there are advanced degrees beyond the J.D. worth pursuing. If you have ambitions to work in a highly specialized field or become a legal educator yourself, these degrees may be worth considering as you plan your career:

  • A Doctor of Juridical Science degree, also known as an SJD, may be appropriate if you intend to focus on legal research, legal science, or academia
  • A Master of Laws degree, or LLM, is a post-J.D. degree that has the benefit of international recognition

If you wish to practice law in multiple countries or are seeking a position where you must be licensed to practice abroad as well as in the United States, an LLM can help greatly in that mission. The country or countries beyond the United States where you wish to practice will directly influence what type of coursework you need.

Conclusion

While the most obvious thing you can do with a law degree is to enter practice as an attorney, you have a wide variety of other options. Consider which fields appealed to you most in school when selecting a practice area. Also, keep in mind that many individuals with law degrees select alternate career paths.

There is no doubt that earning a law degree will teach you valuable skills. Many students choose jobs in areas including journalism, politics and public policy, social work, academia, and other fields where a command of the English language and strong reasoning abilities are critical. The path you end up taking is a deeply personal decision, and some trial-and-error is totally normal for law grads trying to find the right role.

Take the time to consider your options thoroughly, use your time in law school wisely, and you will find your place, whether it is ultimately within our outside of the legal field. Working toward a law degree is an admirable goal, so don't be frightened by bleak career forecasts. You now know that your options are limited only by your creativity and willingness to explore your many opportunities.

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