Lawyers held about 759,800 jobs in 2012. A majority of lawyers work in private or corporate legal offices. Some are employed in local, state and federal governments. About 22 percent of lawyers were self-employed in 2012.
The industries that employed the most lawyers in 2012 were as follows:
|Local government, excluding education and hospitals||7|
|Federal government, excluding postal service||5|
|State government, excluding education and hospitals||5|
|Finance and insurance||3|
Lawyers work mostly in offices. However, some travel to attend meetings with clients at various locations, such as homes, hospitals, or prisons. Others travel to appear before courts. Lawyers who represent clients in court may face heavy pressure during trials.
The majority of lawyers work full time, and many work long hours. Lawyers who are in private practice or those who work in large firms often work long hours, conducting research and preparing and reviewing documents.
All lawyers must have a law degree and must also typically pass a state’s written bar examination.
Becoming a lawyer usually takes 7 years of full-time study after high school—4 years of undergraduate study, followed by 3 years of law school. Most states and jurisdictions require lawyers to complete a juris doctor (J.D.) degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). ABA accreditation signifies that the law school—particularly its curricula and faculty—meets certain standards.
A bachelor’s degree is required for entry into most law schools, and courses in English, public speaking, government, history, economics, and mathematics are useful.
Almost all law schools, particularly those approved by the ABA, require applicants to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). This test measures applicants’ aptitude for the study of law. As of August 2013, ABA had approved 203 law schools; others were approved by state authorities only. A J.D. degree program includes courses, such as constitutional law, contracts, property law, civil procedure, and legal writing. Law students may choose specialized courses in areas such as tax, labor, and corporate law.
Becoming licensed as a lawyer is called being ""admitted to the bar"" and licensing exams are called ""bar exams.""
To practice law in any state, a person must be admitted to its bar under rules established by the jurisdiction’s highest court. The requirements vary by individual states and jurisdictions. For more details on individual state and jurisdiction requirements, visit the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
Most states require that applicants graduate from an ABA-accredited law school, pass one or more written bar exams, and be found by an admitting board to have the character to represent and advise others. Lawyers who want to practice in more than one state often must take separate bar exams in each state.
After graduation, lawyers must keep informed about legal developments that affect their practices. Almost all states require lawyers to participate in continuing legal education either every year or every 3 years.
Many law schools and state and local bar associations provide continuing legal education courses that help lawyers stay current with recent developments. Courses vary by state and generally are related to the practice of law, such as legal ethics, taxes and tax fraud, and healthcare. Some states allow lawyers to take their continuing education credits through online courses.
Newly hired attorneys usually start as associates and work with more experienced lawyers and judges. After several years, some lawyers may be admitted to partnership and become partial owners of the firm they work for. Some lawyers go into practice for themselves or move to the legal department of a large corporation.
A small number of experienced lawyers are nominated or elected to judgeships. Other lawyers may become full-time law school faculty and administrators. For more information about judges and law school faculty, see the profile on judges and hearing officers, and the profile on postsecondary teachers.
Law students often gain practical experience by participating in school-sponsored legal clinics, in a school’s moot court competitions, in practice trials under the supervision of experienced lawyers and judges, and through research and writing on legal issues for a school’s law journals.
Part-time or summer jobs in law firms, government agencies, and corporate legal departments also provide valuable experience. These experiences can help law students decide what kind of legal work they want to focus on in their careers. These experiences may also lead directly to a job after graduation.
Lawyers typically have an interest in the Thinking and Persuading interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Thinking interest area indicates a focus on researching, investigating, and increasing the understanding of natural laws. The Persuading interest area indicates a focus on influencing, motivating, and selling to other people.
If you are not sure whether you have a Thinking or Persuading interest which might fit with a career as a lawyer, you can take a career test to measure your interests.
Lawyers should also possess the following specific qualities:
Analytical skills. Lawyers help their clients resolve problems and issues. As a result, they must be able to analyze large amounts of information, determine relevant facts, and propose viable solutions.
Interpersonal skills. Lawyers must win the respect and confidence of their clients by building a trusting relationship, so that clients feel comfortable and share personal information related to their case.
Problem-solving skills. Lawyers must separate their emotions and prejudice from their clients’ problems and objectively evaluate the matter. Therefore, good problem-solving skills are important for lawyers, to prepare the best defense and recommendation.
Research skills. Preparing legal advice or representation for a client commonly requires substantial research. All lawyers need to be able to find what applicable laws and regulations apply to a specific matter.
Speaking skills. Lawyers are hired by their clients to speak on their behalf. Lawyers must be able to clearly present and explain evidence to a judge and jury.
Writing skills. Lawyers need to be precise and specific when preparing documents, such as wills, trusts, and powers of attorney.
The median annual wage for lawyers was $113,530 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $54,310, and the top 10 percent earned more than $187,200.
In May 2012, the median annual wages for lawyers in the top five industries in which these lawyers worked were as follows:
|Finance and insurance||$134,940|
|Federal government, excluding postal service||134,690|
|Local government, excluding education and hospitals||87,140|
|State government, excluding education and hospitals||79,220|
Salaries of experienced lawyers vary widely according to the type, size, and location of their employer. Lawyers who own their own practices usually earn less than those who are partners in law firms.
The majority of lawyers work full time and many work long hours. Lawyers who are in private practice or those who work in large firms often work long hours conducting research and preparing and reviewing documents.
Employment of lawyers is projected to grow 10 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Demand for legal work will continue as individuals, businesses, and all levels of government require legal services in many areas.
Despite this need for legal services, more price competition over the next decade may lead law firms to rethink their project staffing, to reduce costs to clients. As clients cut back on legal expenses, demand less expensive rates, and scrutinize invoices, work that was previously assigned to lawyers, such as document review, may now be given to paralegals and legal assistants. Some routine legal work may also be outsourced to other lower-cost legal providers located overseas.
While law firms will continue to be the largest employers of lawyers, many large corporations are increasing their in-house legal departments to cut costs. For many companies, the high cost of hiring outside counsel lawyers and their support staff makes it more economical to shift work to their in-house legal department. This will lead to an increase in the demand of lawyers in a variety of settings, such as financial and insurance firms, consulting firms, and healthcare providers.
Lawyers will continue to be needed in the federal government to prosecute or defend civil cases on behalf of the United States, prosecute criminal cases brought by the federal government, and collect money owed to the federal government. However, budgetary constraints at all levels of government, especially federal, will moderate employment growth.
Demand is typically affected by cyclical swings in the economy. During recessions, demand declines for some discretionary legal services, such as planning estates, drafting wills, and handling real estate transactions. Also, corporations are less likely to litigate cases, when declining sales and profits restrict their budgets. Some corporations and law firms may cut staff to contain costs until business improves.
Competition should continue to be strong, because more students are graduating from law school each year than there are jobs available. Some recent law school graduates who have been unable to find permanent positions are turning to the growing number of temporary staffing firms that place attorneys in short-term jobs. This service allows companies to hire lawyers “as-needed” and permits beginning lawyers to develop practical skills.
Because of the strong competition, a law graduate’s willingness to relocate and his or her work experience are becoming more important. However, to be licensed in another state, a lawyer may have to take an additional state bar examination.
For more information about law schools and a career in law, visit
For more information about the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and the law school application process, visit
For a list of state and jurisdiction admission bar offices, visit
The requirements for admission to the bar in a particular state or other jurisdiction may be obtained at the state capital, from the clerk of the Supreme Court, or from the administrator of the State Board of Bar Examiners.