According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “legal professions and studies” is one of the most popular doctoral pathways in the country, with more than 44,000 degrees awarded during the 2009-10 academic year alone. Although bachelor’s and master’s degrees in this field are rare (and somewhat insufficient without the J.D. credential), students must take law-related courses throughout their college career in order to obtain a doctorate and compete in the job market. In addition to practicing attorneys, these individuals go on to pursue careers as paralegals, politicians, law enforcement officials, juvenile detention officers, and other occupations whose general purpose is to interpret the law for the general public.
Due to the breadth of sub-disciplines in the legal profession, specializations are typically required for law students. Law degree-holders typically find work in either a firm or private practice, but they may address legal issues pertaining to the environment, business, health care, or other industries and fields that require legal representation.
Regardless of the specific nature of their work, all legal professionals share a passion for upholding the U.S. Constitution, representing individuals or companies during courtroom proceedings, and redefining our nation’s legal system when improvements or amendments are needed.
A recent article from U.S. News & World Report noted that, while many schools offer pre law majors for undergraduate students, students who studied economics, journalism, philosophy, and other fields were actually more likely to be accepted into law schools (most of which do not adhere to a stringent list of prerequisites). Regardless of their major, aspiring law students should maintain good grades and thoroughly study for the LSAT in order to earn a high score.
Prospective law students can learn more about the finer points of this field by enrolling in open courses taught by faculty members from some of the world’s most prestigious colleges and universities.
Most law schools will offer a wide range of specializations, some of which are unique to that particular college or university. However, there are several concentrations common to most law schools. These include criminal law, which prepares students to prosecute or defend clients during trials and other legal proceedings; business law, which enables law students to work for corporations or firms that require continual legal representation; constitutional law, which focuses on rights afforded to U.S. citizens; patent or intellectual property law, which serves inventors and creative professionals, respectively, by protecting their original work; and environmental law, which emphasizes mediation between government agencies, land users, and companies that profit from the cultivation of natural resources.
In order to practice law in the U.S., students must receive a J.D. credential and pass the rigorous Bar Exam in their respective state. However, lesser degrees will prepare prospective attorneys for the careers that lie ahead. Here is a rundown of the four most common degree types available at accredited colleges and universities.
A two-year associate degree will primarily consist of introductory courses in core subjects like science, history, and English. Very few law courses are offered at this level, and those available will not be sufficient on their own to allow you to pursue a career as a legal professional. However, these lower-level courses will introduce fundamental concepts, and allow students to decide whether or not to pursue higher degrees in the field of law.
As stated above, prelaw undergraduate programs are offered at dozens of colleges and universities across the country ― but this degree pathway is not a requirement for admission into law school. The bottom line: no bachelor’s degree will be sufficient for practicing law, but four-year degree-holders may be able to secure work as a probation officer, court reporter, bailiffs, or other occupations within the legal profession.
With the exception of practicing attorneys, most legal professionals will be able to obtain employment after completing a master’s program. This is true for most paralegals, as well as juvenile detention officers and other law enforcement personnel in positions of leadership.
The Juris Doctor credential is awarded to all students who graduate from law school programs for lawyers and attorneys. The curriculum will consist of numerous mock trials, as well as a clerkship or other form of legal internship, during which students are assigned to practicing attorneys, judges, or other high-ranking law professionals.
Law students who earn the J.D. are encouraged to visit their state’s Bar Association site for tutorials, guidelines, and other materials that will help them prepare for the mandatory Bar Exam.
Ideal Candidates for Law
First and foremost, law can be a very demanding profession; lawyers will spend long hours, nights, and weekends in their office or preparing for cases at their local library, and (depending on their specialty) a certain percentage of their work will be pro bono, or unpaid. Legal professionals must be able to commit a good deal of time and money in order to run a successful practice or positively contribute to their firm.
A firm grasp on the U.S. Constitution, willingness to work with people who have a criminal past, and the ability to clearly present facts and arguments in front of an audience are also valuable assets for anyone in the legal industry.
Legal practice is a highly competitive field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), more than 750,000 attorneys are currently practicing law in the United States, and this job is expected to grow 10% between 2012 and 2022. The median salary for these professionals is $113,530 per year, which translates to an hourly wage of $54.58. Court reporters earned less than half as much as lawyers, but face the same rate of growth over the 10-year period. Jobs for judges and hearing officers, on the other hand, are expected to increase only 1% over the same span.
Paralegals and legal assistants earn lower salaries, but face a brighter job outlook. The median salary for these professionals was $46,990 per year in 2012 ($22.59 per hour), but the industry is expected to grow 17% between 2012 and 2022, which is much faster than the average rate of growth for all professions.
If you are interested in pursuing a career in any legal profession, networking with practicing attorneys and employees of legal firms is a good first step. These individuals will be able to provide valuable advice regarding college courses, law school admission, and post graduate employment. Many colleges and universities also host student associations for aspiring lawyers and legal professionals.