All about a career in the legal profession

The legal profession offers a number of exciting and rewarding career opportunities, including careers as an attorney, paralegal, legal secretary and other administrative career options.

When you think of a career in the legal profession, being an attorney may be the first or only option to come to mind. While being an attorney is certainly a worthwhile profession, there are a number of other careers available in the legal field as well. Whether you are interested in becoming an attorney, a paralegal or a legal secretary, a career in the legal profession can be highly rewarding. You may choose to work in the private sector or in the public sector. You may choose to work in a solo practice, for a small law firm or for a large law firm. Rather than work at a law firm, you may choose to work for a corporation or an insurance company. Or, you may choose to work for a non-profit organization or a legal aid society which provides legal assistance to a specific sector of the public, such as consumers, the poor or the elderly. The options available to those seeking a career in the legal profession are nearly endless. Here are some of the career options available in the legal field.

A CAREER AS AN ATTORNEY

An attorney or lawyer is an individual who is specially educated and trained in the law and who is certified to practice law in his or her state. Attorneys are qualified to provide members of the public with legal advice and act as an advocate for clients in lawsuits and other legal matters.

While television and movies paint an exciting picture of attorneys engaged in clever banter in the courtroom, in reality most attorneys spend little time at trial. The majority of civil lawsuits settle outside the courtroom. Most court appearances by attorneys are for pretrial matters, such as status conferences and hearings on various pretrial motions. Attorneys spend a great deal of their time attending depositions, researching and drafting legal documents and negotiating with opposing counsel in an attempt to achieve a resolution for their clients.

Just as medical doctors may be general practitioners or may practice in more specialized fields, there are a number of different areas of the law in which attorneys may practice. Many attorneys are civil attorneys, handling disputes between private parties, including individuals, businesses, insurance companies and the like. Civil attorneys may handle such matters as personal injuries, landlord-tenant relations, real property disputes, contract negotiations and a variety of other issues. Attorneys may also practice in even more specialized areas of the law, such as family law, criminal law, bankruptcy law, entertainment law, workers compensation law, employment law, patent law or tax law.

The income opportunities available for attorneys varies significantly depending on a number of factors, including the attorney's specific field of practice and the geographical area in which the attorney practices law. A patent or tax attorney, for example, is going to command a much higher salary than a public defender employed by the county. Once you have an idea of the kind of attorney you want to be, it is a good idea to research the salaries available to that type of attorney in your area. A good place to start is on-line, through a career website that provides salary survey information for various professions by locale.

LAW SCHOOL EDUCATION

To become an attorney, an individual must first complete a four-year Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Sciences degree program (BA or BS) at a college or university. Then, the student must complete a three-year law school program resulting in a Juris Doctorate or JD. In order to get into law school, the student must first take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) and provide the results to prospective schools together with undergraduate transcripts and other information. Finally, the prospective lawyer must take and pass the bar exam in his or her state.

Law school is an intense and grueling experience and requires a great deal of dedication, hard work, study, reading and writing. The bar examination is reputed to be even more intense and grueling. Those interested in a career as an attorney should have strong language and communication skills, as well as analytical, reasoning and critical thinking skills.

While the most prestigious and respected law schools are accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) and generally have fairly rigid requirements, non-ABA accredited law schools are also available and may have more flexible admissions policies. Generally speaking, however, ABA accreditation is desirable. Whether the school from which you graduated is ABA accredited is something which may be considered by potential employers.

There are also alternative options available in some states with respect to the education required to gain admission to law school and with respect to law school itself. Depending on the requirements of the state bar in your particular state and the requirements of the law school to which you are applying, you may be able to substitute some experience for education. For example, you may only have an Associate of Arts (AA) or Associate of Sciences (AS) degree, but may have a number of years experience working in a law office. Some law schools will consider this experience and allow admission based on the combination of education and experience. Those without a BA or BS degree may, however, be required to fulfill additional requirements. For example, California requires law students without a Bachelor's degree to take and pass an examination after the first year of study before continuing.

Investigate also alternative law school options available in your state. Four-year night and weekend programs are available in some areas. Correspondence courses may even be an option. Generally speaking, if you are young and just starting out with no experience or education in the legal field, you should attempt to obtain the best education you possibly can at an ABA-accredited law school. This will provide you with the best opportunity to pass the state bar, to obtain a position with a respected law firm and to advance in your career.

However, do not let your life circumstances prevent you from going after a career for which you are suited. Consider the situation of a more mature person with a family who has worked at a particular law firm as a paralegal for a number of years and would now like to become an attorney. He or she wishes to stay at the same law firm, and enjoys the support of co-workers in reaching his or her goals. However, there are no law schools in this person's geographical area and moving out of the area to attend law school is not feasible. This person might consider correspondence law school or even a self-study apprenticeship as a viable option.

Seven states (California, Maine, New Mexico, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming) offer prospective attorneys the option of studying on their own while serving an apprenticeship at a law firm. Requirements for apprenticeship programs vary from state to state. For example, California requires apprentices to take the "baby bar" exam after one year of study and apprenticeship to ensure that the student is on a par with other first-year law school students. Once the individual has completed the course of study and the apprenticeship, he or she is qualified to sit for the state bar examination.



Do keep in mind, however, that attending law school provides educational experiences which may not be available otherwise, including mock trial experience, the opportunity to work together with other students and the chance to gain confidence in a public setting. Perhaps the most important consideration when investigating your options for a legal education is the bar pass rate for that particular school or option. For example, the national bar pass rate for law school graduates is 50 percent. The bar pass rate for those who forego law school and instead undertake an apprenticeship program is only 20 percent. There are excellent schools available, including night and weekend programs, which offer their student much higher bar pass rates than the national average.

A CAREER AS A PARALEGAL

In general, a paralegal or legal assistant is an individual who receives special education and training in the legal field and who is qualified to do everything attorneys do except give legal advice or appear in court on behalf of a client. Paralegals can, however, appear on behalf of clients at administrative hearings, such as hearings before the labor commissioner. Paralegals are trained and qualified to conduct legal research and to draft legal documents. They may assist attorneys with investigations, with trial preparation and at trial. They may conduct client and witness interviews, subpoena evidence and organize information. Paralegals are often required to work independently and to take initiative to get the job done. While paralegals are trained and qualified to do a wide variety of legal tasks, attorneys often vary significantly as to how they choose to use paralegals in their practice.

If your desire to become a paralegal is based on Julia Roberts' portrayal of Erin Brokovich in the film of the same name, you might want to reconsider. Generally speaking, paralegals do not experience as much client contact as attorneys do and work very much behind the scenes. As a paralegal, I have had a number of opportunities over the years to attend outdoors inspections, to conduct investigations and to interact with clients. I have been flown to inspection locations and hearings on a chartered plane. I have had the opportunity to attend conferences in exciting cities such as San Francisco, Monterey and Los Angeles. During one particularly interesting and exciting case, I assisted with the representation of a world-famous super model and actress at trial. These events were the exception rather than the rule, however. Over the years, I have spent the vast majority of my time with my nose buried in a book or in front of a computer.

A career as a paralegal can be very rewarding and satisfying, both emotionally and financially. However, your level of satisfaction as a paralegal will depend in large part on finding an area of the law for which you have a passion, whether it is criminal law, family law or civil law. It will also depend a great deal on finding an attorney who shares your vision of the paralegal profession and who will respect and use your talents well.

As with attorneys, paralegal salaries can vary widely depending on the region and the area of the law in which you choose to work. It is a good idea to contact the local paralegal association in your area and request a copy of the most recent salary surveys for your area. There are a number of professional magazines which provide such information as well.

The education required to become a paralegal is going to depend on the state in which you live. Paralegals have been largely unregulated by state governments until recently, providing an opportunity for just about anyone to hold him- or herself out as a paralegal with relatively little training or experience. However, recent legislative changes in many states have established minimum training and education requirements. Depending on the laws in your state, you may be required to obtain a Bachelor's degree, an Associate's degree, or to complete a certificate program. Many community colleges now offer paralegal programs, as do four-year universities and college extension programs. Locate a school in your area and ask for information regarding educational requirements in your particular state.

A CAREER AS A LEGAL SECRETARY

Another job opportunity in the legal profession is that of a legal secretary. Unlike paralegals or legal assistants, legal secretaries do not perform research or attorney-like functions. Instead, it is the legal secretary's job to provide administrative support to the attorney, including typing legal documents and correspondence from dictation, scheduling appointments and making travel arrangements.

Again, salaries will vary according to region, so it is a good idea to contact the local legal secretaries association in your area to obtain information regarding recent local salary surveys. Generally, educational requirements for legal secretaries are not regulated by state governments and will be left to the employer's discretion. An employer may desire that a prospective legal secretary have a certain level of word processing proficiency, as well as other computer and office skills. Legal secretary training can often be obtained in a fairly short period of time through local vocational training programs and schools. Such schools may also offer internship programs which will allow a student to obtain in-office experience prior to seeking permanent employment.

OTHER JOB OPPORTUNITIES IN THE LEGAL PROFESSION

There are a number of other careers available in the legal profession. For example, prior to becoming an attorney, a law student will often work at a law firm as a clerk, performing organizational and perhaps even research tasks to gain in-office experience and earn school credit.

Other administrative support team members in a law office include file clerks, responsible for setting up and maintaining client files, and receptionists, who may be responsible for answering telephones, scheduling appointments and assisting with other administrative tasks.

After some years of experience as a legal secretary or paralegal, some individuals transition into a career as an office manager. Law office managers are responsible for the administrative aspects of running a law office, including managing personnel, maintaining client files and ensuring that the office is run in accordance with legal requirements and accepted standards of practice.

Whatever your skills and talents, it is quite likely that there is a career in the legal profession which will suit you. Take into consideration your interests and your strengths to determine which area of the law would best use your talents while providing you with the most personal fulfillment. Consider also your financial and educational goals. Once you have narrowed the field, you will have a good idea of where you might best fit into the legal profession.

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