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Overview

Throughout history, societies have established systems of law to govern people. Without laws, there would be chaos, and the rights of individuals would not be protected. The legal industry has come a long way since the time of ancient Greece and Rome, where young boys learned by apprenticeship the many skills involved in pleading a law case. Today, lawyers need a great deal of training and extensive knowledge of legal matters in order to practice law.

The legal profession is a large and profitable industry that is an integral part of our daily lives. Lawyers provide legal advice and representation to those who have been harmed by defective products, fraud, or unfair employment practices; those who want to buy or sell a house, start a business, or create a will; and those who have been accused of a crime—to name just a few services provided by lawyers. Attorneys also play key roles in the business world; in local, state, and federal court systems; in government agencies; and in nonprofit organizations. They provide legal advice and representation regarding hundreds of issues such as labor/employment, intellectual property, mergers and acquisitions, civil rights, national security, the environment, and bankruptcy. 

Lawyers work in cities and towns throughout the United States and across the world, but you will find the highest numbers of lawyers in big cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Chicago. Law firms range in size from a sole practitioner to 4,000-lawyer international practices.

Lawyers have a wide range of responsibilities, including providing legal advice, drafting legal documents such as contracts and wills, filing lawsuits and pleadings with courts, and arguing cases before judges and juries. Some attorneys work as generalists, while others work in specialized areas of law, including the following:

  • administrative/regulatory
  • admiralty and maritime
  • alternative dispute resolution/arbitration
  • appellate litigation
  • bankruptcy and restructuring
  • civil law
  • class action
  • compliance
  • constitutional
  • construction
  • contracts
  • criminal
  • data security, privacy, and Internet
  • document review
  • education and non-profit
  • entertainment
  • environmental
  • family
  • general corporate
  • health care
  • immigration
  • insurance
  • intellectual property
  • international
  • labor and employment
  • litigation
  • malpractice
  • mergers and acquisitions
  • plaintiffs’ litigation
  • products liability
  • real estate
  • securities and capital markets
  • tax
  • torts
  • toxic torts
  • transactional work
  • trusts and estates
  • white-collar crime

Although law careers remain popular, lawyers have always suffered from an image problem. Many people think lawyers are pushy, arrogant, and unethical. But it’s important to move past this stereotype; there are a few bad apples in any profession. Most attorneys enter the field because they want to make the world a better place and use the law to protect the rights of people who cannot protect themselves. For many, the field of law is a calling, and most lawyers adhere to a very strict set of ethics when working with clients.

Despite the negative perceptions some people have of lawyers, many individuals want to become lawyers or pursue other careers in the legal industry. In fact, the career of lawyer is often ranked as one of the most desirable professions available. U.S. News & World Report ranked the career of lawyer as the 71st-best job in 2016. CareerCast.com ranked the career of lawyer as the 116th-best job (out of 200 total careers ranked) in 2016 in terms of work environment, income, employment outlook, level of stress, and other criteria. The career of paralegal was ranked 36th by CareerCast.com, and the career of judge ranked 65th. Salaries are also excellent for lawyers. In 2015, lawyers earned an average salary of $115,820, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, earnings that are much higher than the national average ($48,320) for all careers.

Opportunities in the legal industry exist at every career level, although lawyers and judges are the prime movers in this field. They must have a law degree, although an increasing number of employers require their attorneys to have a master of laws (LL.M.) degree in a specialized area (such as business law, dispute resolution, or litigation/trial advocacy) or a master’s degree in business management, finance, taxation, or another field. Paralegals can enter the field with associate’s degrees. Those with bachelor’s degrees can work as computer professionals, accountants, human resources professionals, and marketing workers, and in other careers. High school graduates can work as legal secretaries and office support professionals. The bottom line: The legal industry offers many career options in a variety of employment settings, and industry revenue is expected to continue to grow in the future—although not at the high levels that occurred before the Great Recession.

Uppers
  • You can make a difference in the world. A legal career allows you to directly impact the lives of people. For example, you could successfully defend someone who has been wrongly accused of a crime, work as a public defender to help people who can’t afford a lawyer, pursue litigation to help recover damages for clients injured by defective medicines or unsafe working conditions, or help the federal government take legal action against companies that violate environmental or antitrust laws.
  • Interesting work. If you like challenging and interesting work, then a law career may be for you. Most lawyers say that no two days are the same, and the wide variety of practice specialties and work environments make this profession far from boring.
  • Career diversity. A wide variety of career paths are available—from work at law firms, to government agencies, to corporate law and academia, to private practice. There are also many specialties such as intellectual property, tax, health, and immigration law. Law is also a great launching pad for careers in business, politics, consulting, and other sectors. 
  • Geographic freedom. A law degree allows you to work anywhere in the United States and even the world. (Of course, if you want to work in another state, you must be admitted to the bar of that state.)
  • Independence. Twenty-one percent of lawyers are solo practitioners, and many find this path to be highly rewarding.
  • Good pay. Lawyers earned an average salary of $115,820 as of May 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This salary is much higher than the national average ($48,320) for all careers. Although they have declined in recent years, starting salaries for law school graduates are still much higher than those paid to graduates in many other majors. In 2015, law school graduates earned median starting salaries of $64,800, according to the National Association for Law Placement, up from $60,000 in 2011. 
  • Improving outlook for women and minorities. The legal industry is a great option for women and minorities (although law firms still need to work to encourage more minorities to become lawyers and to increase the number of women and minorities in partner positions). Many firms have diversity programs and initiatives that both seek to increase the number of minorities in the legal industry and also strive to help both women and minorities advance to partner positions.
  • Some specialties are recession proof. Practice areas such as bankruptcy and business law will always be in demand because people, unfortunately, will always have financial problems, and businesses will always need attorneys to provide legal advice and to assist them with business transactions. 
Downers
  • Stress and unpredictable hours. Careers in many law specialties can be demanding and stressful. Lawyers involved in litigation must spar with opposing lawyers and uncooperative witnesses. New associates often complain of being required to work long hours performing repetitive tasks. Continually putting out fires can be stressful. Last-minute motions, preparation for out-of-nowhere hearings, and hard-to-contact opposing counsel or clients can translate into a lot of late nights and anxiety. And there are always deadlines to meet—such as specific time frames within which to submit answers to interrogatories, discovery cutoffs, and impending trial dates.
  • Sad stories. Lawyers who specialize in criminal, elder, bankruptcy, health, and family law often must deal with heartbreaking stories of violence, financial ruin, divorce, and the struggles of people with dementia or other health challenges. It takes a thick skin to deal with these issues.  
  • Not as glamorous as on TV. In real life, the profession is not as sexy as it is on The Good Wife or other TV shows that depict the legal industry. You’ll spend a lot of time in your office conducting research, writing legal documents, and corresponding with your clients and opposing lawyers. Not every case is exciting or high profile, but you must treat every case as important in order to properly serve your clients. 
  • Lawyer stigma. Lawyers aren’t the most popular people with the public, and you will have to deal with your share of jokes and criticism from friends, family, and acquaintances.
  • Constant need for continuing education. Laws are always changing, and lawyers need to constantly update their skills and stay abreast of developments in their specialty. This can add up to a lot of extra time spent after hours staying current.