Most new lawyers, eager to get their legal careers started, accept jobs with law firms soon after finishing their Juris Doctor degrees. And after a few years of developing skills in specific areas of law, whether intentionally or not, they commonly end up on career paths in their areas of expertise. Maybe this traditional career path excites you, but if you generally don't follow the herd, rest assured that there are many other things you can do with your J. D.
The Traditional Path
More than half of all J. D. holders who follow the traditional legal career path start working for law firms straight out of law school. Generally, junior attorneys who aspire to make partner at a law firm will spend a number of years as associates. But not every lawyer makes partner or even wants to. Many of those who leave may find in-house counsel positions within corporations and other organizations. The second most common employer for lawyers is the federal or a state government agency. Some government lawyers spend their careers as criminal prosecutors, while others, like those who work for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, may never see a courtroom for their entire career. And just like law firms, government agencies offer their legal staff plenty of opportunities to advance into higher paying positions.
Approximately 40 percent of lawyers who start their careers in a law firm eventually start their own practice. Lawyers who choose this career path tend to have entrepreneurial spirits and find it difficult to tap into this energy in a very structured law firm environment. Starting your own law firm, like any new business venture, can be risky since there’s no guarantee that clients will be walking through the door. But the rewards of starting a prosperous business and having complete autonomy over your career are compelling reasons to go this route. Attorneys generally need to gain a few years of experience working for a firm before they’re capable of operating their own practice.
If you enjoy the school environment, are skilled at legal research and drafting and are comfortable in front of a classroom, you may find an academic career more satisfying than actually practicing law. You will need to have some impressive accomplishments under your belt before entering academia. Having practical legal experience to leverage as a teacher is key. There is certainly a hierarchy within educational institutions, so you may start out working as an adjunct faculty member, but you can progress to a full tenured professor or even into a high ranking administrative position, such as a dean. You'll have to do more than just teach, though – making it in academics usually requires that you publish articles in respected law journals.
The career path you follow can ultimately be what you make of it. These days, lawyers frequently use the analytic skills they’ve acquired in law school to work in a wide variety of professions, some of which have no relation to the legal field at all. Although just a sample, industries that have welcomed law school graduates include publishing, both legal and nonlegal, charitable nonprofit organizations, banks, insurance companies, accounting firms, museums and even hospitals.
2016 Salary Information for Lawyers
Lawyers earned a median annual salary of $118,160 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, lawyers earned a 25th percentile salary of $77,580, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $176,580, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 792,500 people were employed in the U.S. as lawyers.
Michael Marz has worked in the financial sector since 2002, specializing in wealth and estate planning. After spending six years working for a large investment bank and an accounting firm, Marz is now self-employed as a consultant, focusing on complex estate and gift tax compliance and planning.