Career Overview: Law

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Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012
Overview

Although television dramas might have you believe that you only need good looks and a fashionable wardrobe to succeed as a lawyer, in reality, completing three years of law school and passing a tough bar exam barely prepare you for the practice of law.

Law is the way society regulates its behavior. It creates rules of conduct that are widely understood and gives us parameters for resolving disputes and defining acceptable codes of conduct. Our federal, state, and local laws regulate everything from how we do business with each other to how we act in public to where we can park our cars. Because law is considered a technical profession not easily comprehended by the untrained, individuals and companies hire professionals-lawyers-to help them comprehend it and conduct the procedures it defines.

The law is an integral part of nearly every area of our lives-from the environment, trade and commerce, and civil rights to national security, the Internet, and entertainment and sports.

People who enter this demanding and all-encompassing profession do so for many reasons, not the least of which is the desire to work in an intellectually rigorous field that can have a significant impact on the world around them. Of course, in most legal careers, the pay is great, too, but most lawyers will tell you the money isn't enough to sustain one's commitment to a job that can be incredibly challenging, with long hours and high stress. If you want to be a lawyer, you'd better love the law.

Lawyers can work for law firms, which can range in size from less than a dozen people to thousands; in government agencies; in legal departments of public or private corporations; or they can hang out their own shingles. Lawyers can work on behalf of their own employer, if they are in-house counsel, or on behalf of clients. Everyone from the largest company to the average John Q. Citizen is likely to have a need for an attorney at some point. Large corporate transactions are almost always reviewed by legal counsel. Starting a new business often requires advice from a skilled lawyer. Individuals may need advice on everything from managing estate issues from the death of a loved one to obtaining advice about a divorce or fighting a local zoning ordinance.

What You'll Do
In broad terms, lawyers apply their interpretation of the law (the codified rules of their society) to advise their employer or client on completing transactions in compliance with the law or resolving disputes based on current understanding of the law.

In more specific terms, lawyers can have a broad range of responsibilities depending on the specific area of law they practice. But if you think being a lawyer mainly involves making speeches and grilling witnesses in a courtroom, think again. Even trial lawyers-those who specialize in courtroom litigation-spend surprisingly little time before a judge or jury. For every hour in the courtroom, many more are spent doing research, conducting interviews, or writing documents in preparation for litigation. Many lawyers, in fact, never set foot in court.

At its most basic level, a lawyer's role is that of an advocate and adviser. Attorneys use specialized knowledge to research and interpret the intent of the law and apply it to whatever circumstances their clients face. It's an imperfect practice, as interpretations of the law may vary significantly based on the circumstances of the situation.

The legal profession can be divided into two major categories: litigation and transactions. Litigation, which concerns both civil and criminal law, is the process of arguing a dispute between two parties. Transactions relate to business and personal matters that usually do not require courtroom argumentation. For example, a lawyer may counsel a client in the transactions of preparing a will, contract, or lease; to help secure venture capital for a new company; or to prepare a patent for a new technology. However, if the will is contested or if the venture capitalists sue the business owner for fraud, that would then require an attorney with litigation skill.

Litigation and transactions have specializations of their own, such as tax, antitrust, bankruptcy, labor, real estate, insurance, international trade, environmental regulation, and mergers and acquisitions-to name just a few. Lawyers can also specialize in specific industries such as health care, high tech, life sciences, entertainment, or even nonprofits.

Depending on the type of law they practice, lawyers will spend their time on paperwork; researching, preparing for, or participating in trials; and advising clients. They spend hours in law libraries and with online databases researching legal precedents. They prepare contracts, briefs, and other documents, assembling boilerplate paragraphs or writing from scratch.

They plan and conduct depositions, or interviews with witnesses. In complicated cases, these can generate thousands of pages of testimony-all of which have to be read, analyzed, and refined into usable information. They present their evidence-the information they've gathered about a case and about the laws relevant to a case-in a court of law, arguing before a judge and/or jury. Alternatively, they may present their research findings to clients, advising them on business or other issues.

Who Does Well
Working as a lawyer requires excellent and persuasive oral and written communication skills. (English majors: Here's a chance to prove Grandpa wrong and use your degree for something useful and lucrative!) You'll be required to interpret complicated, and sometimes ambiguous, laws in such a way that backs up your clients or company, while doing your best to maintain the integrity of the legal system. Lawyers must be detail-oriented, natural negotiators who enjoy research. And they must also have a high tolerance for tedium-there can be a lot of paperwork and poring over dry case law involved.

Requirements

Becoming a lawyer is an arduous process. After completing a bachelor's degree, you take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), complete involved applications, gather the appropriate recommendations, and go through interviews to gain admission to law school.

Once you've been accepted into law school, you'll spend three years striving to outdo your classmates by way of test scores, law review membership, Socratic method success stories, and summer associate positions before you earn your JD degree. Upon graduation, you must be admitted to your state's bar association, which requires you to pass a written bar exam and often a written ethics exam.

All that work, and you're still not guaranteed a job. However, if you earn your JD, you gain membership to a highly educated group of professionals that includes doctors, university professors, and the like. The skills you learn in law school and in the workplace can take you a long way in your career. Even if you never practice law, you'll earn the right to the title of Esquire, be known as a natural negotiator, and have credentials that invariably position you as a capable and talented candidate in the landscape of job opportunities. In fact, a legal background is great experience for many skilled industries or professions. Those who do want to work in traditional law jobs can choose to work in a number of settings, but positions at large law firms remain the most coveted, especially for recent law graduates.

Private Practice
Law firms host on-campus interviews at law schools and offer summer associate programs for interested 1Ls and 2Ls (first- and second-year law students, for the uninitiated). During the summer, law students can get a feel for associate life and make valuable contacts within the firms. These summer programs are integral to firms' hiring practices-they usually hire around 85 percent of their summer associates as full-time attorneys upon graduation. Major firms maintain websites with recruiting contacts and smaller firms can be contacted directly with inquiries.

Assistant District Attorney, Assistant U.S. Attorney, and Public Defender
Most government agencies do not actively recruit, and hiring programs vary from office to office. If you're interested in working for the government, you need to initiate contact. It's a good idea to research a specific agency thoroughly (most of them maintain websites) and gather information first by arranging briefings or informal meetings with people who work there.

Public Interest
Equal Justice Works hosts an annual job fair in Washington, D.C. It's a great place to network as hundreds of employers participate. Summer internships are key to breaking into this area of law. Most of them are unpaid, but there are a lot of fellowships available to finance the undertaking.

Law Professor
If you want to teach law, you'll attend the American Association of Law Schools' (AALS) annual faculty recruitment conference in November in Washington, D.C. Commonly known as the "meat market," the conference is a great chance for aspiring professors and law-school administrators to mix and mingle.

Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the long-term outlook for lawyers is that employment will grow about as fast as the average for jobs overall between 2004 and 2014 (meaning: about 14 percent). The pace of overall job growth for lawyers will depend on the performance of the economy; better economic performance typically results in more activity among businesses of the type that requires legal assistance (e.g. mergers & acquisitions, corporate securities being brought to market, and so on).

Certain areas of the law are expected to grow faster than others. Among these is elder law. As Baby Boomers are increasingly entering their 60s, the demand for attorneys versed in the issues of senior citizens will increase. In addition, as the Internet changes the way that people communicate and transmit information, there will be more demand for intellectual property law specialists, as well as those versed in international law, as business becomes more globalized. Environmental law will continue to be in high demand as issues surrounding so-called "green" initiatives and environmental remediation of sites that have been neglected or damaged by toxic substances.

Competition among recent law grads will continue to be stiff thanks to the large number of graduates every year. Further reducing opportunities is the trend among many businesses to rely on accounting firms and paralegals that perform the same functions lawyers do, but more cheaply. Lawyers who want to set up their own practice should find it easiest in small towns and expanding suburban areas, where there is less competition from established firms and more chances to get to know potential clients. Lawyers with specialized expertise will also find it easier to set up shop.

Those who are interested in becoming judges will be sad to hear that the BLS projects judicial career growth to be slower than the average rate of growth for all jobs between 2004 and 2014. The main reason: tight government budgets.

Paralegals, who cost less than attorneys to employ, will enjoy more of a boom employment market than their colleagues with JDs; job growth in this area is expected to exceed the rate of growth in jobs overall between 2004 and 2014.

Career Tracks

Lawyers who go into private practice follow a relatively fixed path up the corporate ladder. Many lawyers, however, choose to leave private practice to work in business or other law-related careers. Skills gained through the practice of law are highly transferable to other industries and functions, such as business development, consulting, and investment banking.

Firm Associate
Firms offer associate positions to recent law school graduates and laterals, or lawyers who change firms. Associates work long hours-70 to 80 per week is not uncommon at the large firms-and do the bulk of the grunt work, from producing documents and doing due diligence, such as reviewing and substantiating claims, to writing briefs and overseeing deals.

Associates either work as transactional, or corporate, lawyers or litigators. Transactional lawyers deal with business issues-corporate financing, contracts, acquisitions, or bankruptcy to name a few-with the goal of completing deals and avoiding future legal problems. Litigators, on the other hand, deal with legal problems after they occur-breaches of contract, securities law problems, class action suits, antitrust actions, employment-related problems, white collar crime, and the like.

In-House Counsel
In-house counsel refers to one or more attorneys hired to work within a company's legal department. Attorneys in such positions advise management on legal issues ranging from accounting compliance to merger-and-acquisition negotiations. They generally work more reasonable hours than attorneys in big firms, and positions are typically filled by transactional attorneys with three or more years' experience.

Solo Practitioner
Attorneys deterred by the hierarchical structure of law firms sometimes start their own practices. This is an option more commonly chosen by seasoned veterans with solid client bases, although ambitious recent law school graduates have been known to try their hand at it. Starting your own firm is an exercise in entrepreneurship-in addition to practicing law you are running a business. Flexible hours and the freedom to choose interesting projects are the perks, while the lack of administrative personnel and resources are a couple of the disadvantages.

Public Defender
Public defenders are appointed by the court to conduct criminal defenses for people who can't afford representation. Federal defenders are located in most major cities, with the plum jobs in Washington, D.C., as well as San Francisco and New York. States and counties provide publicly funded defense lawyers for those charged in nonfederal cases. Although the salaries for these positions are lower than most private sector lawyers', they are often not the poverty-level offerings that many people think they are. But dealing with a lot of hopeless cases and jaded judges can sour a young lawyer's idealism about the system very quickly. The work is stressful, but new cases every day make for an interesting career. There is stiff competition for these jobs and they can be tough to come by.

Assistant District Attorney
Assistant DAs aid district attorneys in prosecuting criminal cases in a city or county's municipal or superior courts. The office of the district attorney presents evidence to grand juries in order to obtain criminal indictments. The fast-paced days in court and high-profile trials are highlights of this job, but the work can be draining. As with most government jobs, these jobs tend to not pay as well as the private sector.

Legal Aid Lawyer
Legal aid lawyers defend indigent clients in civil cases. Funded by the federal Legal Services Corporation and some states, salaries are often low, but the work is meaningful. While this position offers a lot of responsibility from the outset, many legal aid attorneys burn out on the job quickly after representing too many unsavory defendants or seeing how cold or inefficient the justice system can be.

Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA)
AUSAs are appointed to work with state law-enforcement officials to put together federal cases against individuals or institutions. Such jobs are relatively specialized; different AUSAs will work on, for example, DEA cases, securities law cases, and racketeering cases.

Public Interest Attorney
Among the most prestigious jobs for lawyers are positions with impact litigation advocacy organizations. These include the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Center for Youth Law, NOW, NARAL, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Environmental Defense Fund. The work usually involves a great deal of brief writing and advocacy. In some cases, there is a great deal of client contact, too. Because these positions are both intellectually stimulating and socially meaningful, competition for landing one of these coveted posts is high, despite the relatively low pay. One exception is environmental law organizations, which tend to be better funded.

Law Professor
Law professors are attorneys who teach their trade to law students. Working on a tenure-track or adjunct basis, professors spend most of their time teaching in the classroom and researching legal issues. They may run clinical programs, giving students hands-on experience representing underprivileged clients, or teach classes such as constitutional law, tax law, and intellectual property law. Competition is fierce for these positions, and spots usually go to experienced practitioners.

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