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Lawyer Career Guide

What is a lawyer?

A lawyer, or attorney, is someone who gives legal advice and represents people in legal matters. They help individuals, businesses, and groups understand the law and solve legal problems. Lawyers are important in making sure laws are followed, rights are protected, and that everyone is treated fairly.

Duties and responsibilities

Lawyers help with many legal issues. They explain laws and give advice. They research and create legal documents like contracts and wills. In court, they represent their clients, present evidence, and argue cases. They also help clients understand their rights and what steps to take in their business or personal lives.

Work environment

Lawyers work in various places: offices, libraries, courtrooms, and sometimes they travel to meet clients. They can work in private firms, corporations, non-profits, or government agencies. Their job can be demanding and stressful, especially when working on complex or urgent cases.

Typical work hours

Lawyers usually work full-time, often more than 40 hours a week. Their schedules can be unpredictable, with work sometimes happening in the evenings, weekends, or holidays, especially when preparing for court cases or meetings. Those who run their own practices or are partners in firms might work long hours too, but they have more control over their schedules.

How to become a lawyer

Becoming a lawyer takes a lot of education and hard work, but if you’re interested in law, it can be a rewarding path. Here are the steps you’ll need to take:

Step 1: Get a bachelor’s degree

Your first step is to complete a bachelor’s degree. While you can major in anything, subjects like political science, history, or finance can be especially useful for a legal career.

Step 2: Ace the LSAT

The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is crucial for getting into law school. It tests your reading and thinking skills. Doing well on the LSAT makes a big difference in where you can study law.

Step 3: Go to law school for a JD degree

In law school, you’ll spend about three years studying different areas of law. You’ll learn about everything from legal writing to constitutional law. Later, you can focus on a specific law area that interests you.

Step 4: Do an internship

Internships, often completed during law school, provide real-world legal experience. These can be in law firms, government offices, or company legal departments.

Step 5: Pass the bar exam

After getting your JD, you’ll need to pass the bar exam in your state. This tough test is what qualifies you to practice law. Most people need extra study time after graduating to prepare for it.

Once you pass the bar exam, you’re ready to work as a lawyer. You might start in a firm, a corporate legal department, or a public interest organization. Some start working where they interned, while others will need to look for jobs.

How much do lawyers make?

Lawyer salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Additionally, specializations within law, such as corporate, criminal, or intellectual property law, can significantly impact their earnings.

Highest paying industries

  • Petroleum and Coal Products Manufacturing: $215,760
  • Securities and Commodity Contracts Intermediation: $204,120
  • Computer and Peripheral Equipment Manufacturing: $200,920
  • Motor Vehicle Manufacturing: $199,510
  • Cable and Other Subscription Programming: $198,440

Highest paying states

  • California: $173,970
  • New York: $167,020
  • Massachusetts: $165,610
  • Connecticut: $153,640
  • Illinois: $152,980

Browse lawyer salary data by market

Types of lawyers

Lawyers can specialize in different areas, depending on their interests and skills. Here’s a quick look at some common types:

  • Corporate lawyer: These lawyers work with businesses, from small startups to big corporations. They help with things like merging companies, protecting intellectual property, and ensuring companies follow laws. 
  • Criminal defense lawyer: If someone is accused of a crime, a criminal defense lawyer defends them. This job involves a lot of research and strategy, as well as representing clients in court. 
  • Civil rights lawyer: Civil rights lawyers focus on protecting people’s rights and freedoms. They might deal with cases about unfair treatment, free speech issues, or problems with legal processes. 
  • Family lawyer: Family lawyers deal with issues like divorce, child custody, and adoption. They need to be good with people because these cases can be emotional. 
  • Immigration lawyer: These lawyers help people with immigration-related issues. They work on things like visa applications, citizenship tests, and dealing with deportation. 
  • Personal injury lawyer: Personal injury lawyers represent people who’ve been hurt because of someone else’s actions, including accidents, medical mistakes, or even harm to someone’s reputation. They usually get paid a part of whatever money their client wins in the case.

Top skills for lawyers

To be successful as a lawyer, certain skills and qualities are essential. Here’s a breakdown of the key skills needed:

  • Understanding of law and legal practices: Lawyers must be familiar with all the rules, court decisions, and regulations. They use this knowledge to help their clients in the best way possible.
  • Strong communication skills: In court, they need to speak clearly and persuasively. They also have to write legal documents that are to the point and convincing.
  • Analytical ability: Being able to understand and break down complex legal information is a must. Lawyers often deal with complicated cases, so they need to think critically and make smart decisions based on the facts.
  • Ethical conduct: Lawyers must be honest and ethical; trustworthiness and integrity are critical. They should always act in their clients’ best interests while following legal rules and ethics. 

Lawyer career path options

A lawyer’s career can go in many different directions, offering lots of growth opportunities. Here’s a look at some common career paths:

Starting out as an associate

Most lawyers begin as associates in a law firm. This is where they learn the basics and get experience. They work under more experienced lawyers and start building their careers.

Becoming a partner

A big goal for many lawyers is to become a partner in a law firm. As a partner, you have more responsibilities, higher pay, and a well-known position in the legal world. In big law firms, there are usually two kinds of partners: non-equity (don’t share in profits) and equity (share in profits).

Working in the judiciary

Lawyers with enough experience can aim for jobs like judges or magistrates in courts. These are prestigious roles with a lot of responsibility, where you get to make important legal decisions.

Branching out

Lawyers don’t just have to stay in law firms or courts. They can also go into teaching law, advising businesses, getting involved in politics, or working in public service. These paths make the most of their knowledge and analytical skills, allowing them to use their expertise in different ways.

The legal world is always changing, and lawyers need to keep up with these shifts. Here’s what’s happening in the field and what the future looks like:

  • Tech in law: Lawyers are using more digital tools to make their work faster and more efficient, with things like online contracts and data analysis tools. Those who are good with technology will likely do well in the future.
  • Global law awareness: As businesses go global, understanding international laws is becoming more important. Lawyers who know about laws in other countries have more opportunities, like working for international companies or handling global issues.
  • Specialization areas: Intellectual property, environmental law, and cybersecurity law are hot topics because of changes in society and business. Those who specialize in these areas might find a lot of demand for their expertise.

Employment projections

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawyer jobs are expected to grow by 8% through 2032. That’s faster than the average for all jobs. More people and businesses mean more need for legal services. However, because there are a lot of law graduates, the job market will be competitive. Standing out will be essential for new lawyers.

Lawyer career tips

Sharpen your legal skills

Being a great lawyer isn’t just about knowing the law. It’s also about continually improving your skills. Keep learning about your area of law, stay up-to-date with big court cases, and understand new laws and legal processes.

Build a professional network

Joining legal groups is a great way to meet other lawyers, go to workshops, and find resources to grow your career. Networking can also help you find mentors and supporters. Here are some groups to consider:

  • American Bar Association (ABA)
  • National Bar Association
  • American Association for Justice
  • National Lawyers Association

Practice public speaking

Being able to speak well in public is super important. You can improve by joining speaking clubs or taking training in speech and debate.

Pursue continuous learning

Successful lawyers never stop learning. Keep up with new laws and legal techniques. Some ways to do this include:

  • Going to legal workshops and seminars
  • Taking courses in new legal areas
  • Reading law journals and industry publications

Consider specialization

Focusing on one part of law, like corporate, criminal, or environmental law, can make you stand out. Specializing can lead to more opportunities and help you advance in your career. Getting certified in your specialty is also a great move.

Where the lawyer jobs are

Top employers

  • Kirkland & Ellis LLP
  • Latham & Watkins LLP
  • Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP
  • Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP
  • Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP

Top states

  • New York
  • California
  • Illinois
  • Texas
  • Florida

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LawCrossing
  • SimplyLawJobs
  • LinkedIn


What type of person might enjoy being a lawyer?

Individuals who enjoy analysis, problem-solving, and have a passion for justice might enjoy being a lawyer. This career often appeals to persuasive, detail-oriented people who enjoy researching various topics. They also need to be resilient and confident to argue cases in court.

What steps does it take to become a lawyer?

Becoming a lawyer requires an extended study period and passing exams. Normally, it involves completing a bachelor’s degree and three years of law school to obtain a JD degree. After law school, prospective attorneys must pass the bar exam in the state where they want to practice.

What does a typical day look like for a lawyer?

A typical day may include researching case law, drafting legal documents, meeting with clients, and appearing in court. Attorneys in a litigation practice might spend a significant time preparing for and attending trials. In contrast, corporate lawyers might spend much of their day in meetings or drafting contracts.

What skills are essential for a lawyer to possess?

They need excellent communication and interpersonal skills to articulate legal strategies to clients and argue cases before a judge. Superior research abilities are often necessary to learn about previous cases and laws related to their current case. They must also have good organizational skills to manage large quantities of information.

What are some challenges that a lawyer might face?

The job can be stressful due to high expectations and tight deadlines. They often have heavy workloads and long hours, especially when trials are approaching or during a major business transaction. The necessity of continually updating their knowledge with the latest laws and regulations can also be challenging.

Is it a requirement for a lawyer to specialize in a certain area of law?

While it’s not a requirement to specialize, many choose to focus on a specific area of law such as family, criminal, corporate, or environmental law. Specialization allows them to gain expertise and makes them more attractive to certain clients or cases.

Can a lawyer practice in multiple states?

They can practice in multiple states but must pass the bar exam in each state where they want to practice. Some states have reciprocity agreements, allowing an attorney licensed in one state to practice in another without sitting for an additional bar exam.

What’s the difference between a lawyer and an attorney?

While these terms are often used interchangeably in the United States, there is a slight difference. A lawyer is anyone who has completed law school and possesses a legal degree. Conversely, an attorney is a lawyer who has passed the bar exam and is qualified to represent clients in court.

What’s the role of a lawyer in a society?

They play an important role in society by representing individuals, businesses, and governments in legal matters. They act as both advocates and advisers, helping clients understand their legal rights and responsibilities and guiding them through the complexities of the legal system. They also contribute to the rule of law, ensuring fairness in legal proceedings and upholding justice.