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Careers in the Legal Profession: Overview of Career Options

There are many possible occupations for those considering a career in the legal profession. Lawyers, paralegals and judges are the three most popular options and require different levels of education, training and licensing.

Individuals interested in working in the legal field can consider a career as a paralegal, legal assistant, lawyer or judge. The education requirements vary from an associate's degree for paralegals and legal assistants to a law degree for lawyers and judges. Lawyers and judges must also pass the state bar exam.

Essential Information

For graduates with a relevant degree, the legal field offers many career paths. Opportunities will vary depending on education, as students with a graduate degree have access to more senior positions, but students with only an undergraduate degree have plenty of options as well. Aspiring professionals also have a degree of freedom when it comes to choosing a degree, as programs in business, law, accounting, and finance can all prepare students for a career in the legal profession.

Career Paralegals and Legal Assistants Lawyers Judges and Hearing Officers
Required Education Associate's degree in paralegal studies, or a bachelor's degree in another subject combined with a paralegal certificate Law degree Law degree
Median Salary (2015)* $48,810 $115,820 $90,600 (for administrative law judges, adjudicators, and hearing officers)
Job Outlook (2014-2024)* 8% 6% -1%

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Career Options

A common entry-level position in the legal profession is that of a paralegal. These individuals often provide assistance and support to lawyers, and are often directly supervised by a lawyer. After receiving further education, paralegals can become lawyers as well, shouldering much more responsibility and authority. One of the most senior positions in the field is that of a judge. Judges often serve as lawyers initially before being granted their post.

Paralegals

Paralegals, or legal assistants, investigate, research and organize the facts in lawyers' cases. Under lawyers' supervision, paralegals prepare a variety of legal documents, manage clients and engage in many of the same activities as lawyers do; however, they cannot give legal advice or represent clients in court.

Education

An associate's degree is the most common paralegal educational requirement, though not all paralegals have such a degree. Many available programs are approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) and provide students with up to two years of coursework in such subjects as business, law, real estate and accounting. Paralegal students are oftentimes taught by experienced attorneys and intern with legal firms.

Training

Occasionally, employers may provide on-the-job training for paralegals with a college degree or, more rarely, those with a high school diploma. However, the best job opportunities are available to those with formal training.

Many universities, colleges and law schools provide non-credit training programs that culminate in a paralegal certificate. Most of these programs require a college degree for admission and provide prospective paralegals with at least five months of training in subjects such as civil litigation, mortgages, trusts and wills, criminal law and family law. Some provide valuable internships with law firms, banks, insurance companies and government agencies.

Voluntary Certification

Organizations such as the National Association of Legal Assistants provide certification to paralegals seeking further credentials and advanced employment. A paralegal must pass the Certified Paralegal (CP) exam - which tests candidates in areas such as communication, legal research and law - with a score of 70% or higher. CPs may then pursue the Advanced Certified Paralegal credential by completing a self-directed course of study.

Salary and Employment Outlook

In 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) listed a median annual salary of $48,810 for paralegals and legal assistants, with the top 10% of earners making more than $79,010 per year. The BLS predicts an 8% employment growth in the profession from 2014 to 2024 as more duties previously performed only by lawyers are delegated to legal assistants.

Lawyers

Also known as attorneys, lawyers represent, advise and advocate for either the plaintiff or the defendant in a trial. They research and interpret both federal and local law to best argue their clients' cases. Lawyers should be willing to retain large amounts of information, work well under pressure and possess excellent communication and research skills.

Education

The first educational step for aspiring lawyers is to obtain a bachelor's degree. While there is no specific major required, a student may select a degree according to the type of law he or she wishes to practice; for example, an aspiring corporate lawyer may consider a degree in business.

The second step is to gain entry into law school. Students must pass the Law School Admission Test and meet specific undergraduate and work experience requirements particular to their chosen school, preferably one approved by the ABA. Once admitted, prospective lawyers receive three years of education that combines practical experience during mock trials and clinics with coursework in torts, legal writing, procedure, ethics, criminal law and constitutional law. Graduates receive the Juris Doctor (J.D.).

Licensure

Every lawyer must demonstrate competency to a state board of bar examiners in order to practice. Most licensing exams take two days to complete. On the first day, a 200-question exam known as the Multistate Bar Examination tests prospective lawyers in areas including criminal law, torts and constitutional law. On the second day, state-specific tests are administered, oftentimes including two national exams provided by the National Conference of Bar Examiners; these are known as the Multistate Essay Examination and the Multistate Performance Test. Additionally, most jurisdictions require that lawyers also pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination.

Salary and Employment Outlook

Lawyers earned a median annual income of $115,820 in 2015, according to the BLS. The highest-paying industries for attorneys at that time were physicians' offices and coal and petroleum product manufacturing. The BLS additionally reports that job opportunities for lawyers are expected to rise 6% between 2014 and 2024, which is the average rate for all occupations throughout the country.

Continuing Legal Education

Most lawyers must meet mandatory, state-specific continuing education requirements in order to stay informed of the latest developments in law, legal policy and regulations. Many law schools and state bar associations provide the required courses in general law and ethics necessary to continue to practice.

Judges

A judge interprets, applies and occasionally helps to form laws while presiding over court cases. He or she enforces fair and legal conduct during a trial's proceedings, verdict and sentencing. A judge must be a lawyer first, with very few exceptions, and is either elected or appointed to the bench depending on the level of service.

Education

The educational requirements for judges are similar to those for lawyers, since most judges must first be lawyers in order to serve on the bench. A prospective judge obtains a J.D. after the completion of law school. He or she must also pass the bar exams.

Training

Every state requires that newly appointed judges receive state-specific orientation training approved by the ABA. This training is provided by such organizations as the Federal Judicial Center. The orientation may last up to three weeks, and it covers topics such as pretrial services, sentencing, warrants, detention hearings and administrative concerns for judges and staff members.

Salary and Employment Outlook

BLS data from 2015 reflects that the median yearly salary for administrative law judges, adjudicators, and hearing officers at that time was $90,600, while judges, magistrate judges and magistrates earned a median wage of $126,930 annually. According to the BLS, employment for judges is likely to decrease by 1% from 2014-2024, due to governmental budgetary constraints and the relatively slow process of judicial appointments and authorizations.

Continuing Education

As with lawyers, judges are usually required to meet state-specific continuing education requirements in order to continue to serve on the bench. Universities, colleges, law schools and online programs provide judicial education courses.

The National Judicial College offers a Professional Certificate in Judicial Development to those who wish to specialize in a certain skill set. Options include administrative law and special court trial skills.

Jobs are expected to decline slightly for judges from 2014-2024. The job growth for lawyers, paralegals and legal assistants for the same time period will be as fast as average when compared to all occupations. Individuals interested in pursuing a career in the legal field can become a paralegal or legal assistant with an associate's degree, while those interested in a career as a lawyer or judge need a law license and will also need to pass the state bar exam.

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