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student thinking about law

Choosing a Career in Law


What lawyers do

Lawyers are advocates for individuals, groups, and organizations who need assistance in interpreting and applying the law or who are in conflict with other individuals or groups.

Stories abound of young lawyers fresh out of law school working in big city corporate law offices, putting in a large number of "billable hours" each year as they work very long days for initial salaries exceeding $120,000. While some of these instances may be true, most law school graduates are not in those situations. Smaller corporate offices in smaller cities may be less demanding -- with salaries somewhat less impressive.

Most lawyers do not work in large law firms but instead are on their own representing clients on a wide variety of cases. Some individual lawyers share one building with secretarial help and a library while maintaining their own clients and hours. In these cases, salaries may be modest, but hard working solo practitioners can still make a good living.

At Calvin, we believe lawyers can play a vital role in seeking to do justice and to show mercy as part of their Christian calling, providing a valuable service as counselors to individuals, organizations and businesses.

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Deciding to be a lawyer

Before putting yourself through the law application process and the financial burden and stress of a law school education, consider thoroughly the rigors of law school and the benefits of a law degree. While not all legal occupations require the following skills, the majority do:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Speaking
  • Listening
  • Prioritizing
  • Time management
  • Analytical skills
  • Creative ability to work with others
  • Conflict management

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you like to think of ways to solve other people's problems?
  • Do you take pleasure in writing papers?
  • Do you enjoy doing research?
  • Do you like thinking on your feet?
  • Are you comfortable speaking in front of people?
  • Do you find history and current events interesting?
  • Do you work well under the pressure of deadlines?
  • Do you juggle multiple tasks well?
  • Do you thrive in conflict situations?

Law school is too expensive to pursue as a trial run or because you do not know what else to do. Investigate the career before you choose to pursue it.

  • Talk with practicing lawyers from a variety of backgrounds
  • Participate in Calvin's pre-law mentoring program
  • Try an internship or externship in a legal setting
  • Seek out family friends or members of your church who practice law, and see if they would be willing to let you "shadow" them to see what they actually do during the week
  • Talk to people who know you and your skills and see if those skills match well with the task of being a lawyer

A law school education is invaluable for developing the ability to identify problems, analyze issues and offer solutions, and will help you build skills necessary to succeed in law. As you decide whether to choose a career in law, honestly evaluate your skills and interests -- no amount of education will help you enjoy things you hate.

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A J.D. or LL.M. Degree?

The J.D., or Juris Doctor degree, is the first postgraduate and generally the first professional degree received in the field of law. In almost all cases, students may only enter a J.D. program after having compleged a 4 year degree from a university. The J.D. is a 3 year program, and successful completion is required in order to obtain a license to practice law.

The LL.M., or Latin Legum Magister degree, is an advanced degree, usually with an academic or research focus. The LL.M. is an international recognized postgraduate law degree primarily taken to gain expertise in a specialized field of law and in some cases, in multinational issues and law. LL.M. candidates already hold a J.D. degree in almost all cases, although there are a limited number of universities that will consider a student in the LL.M. program if they have a degree in a related area or already have expertise in a specific area of the law. The LL.M. is usually a one year, full-time program. (More information about LL.M. degrees)

The highest degree of law is the J.S.D. (sometimes also called the S.J.D.), or the Doctor of Judicial Science. Obtaining a J.S.D. requires an addition year of study, after the LL.M., and individuals holding this degree tend to be primarily legal scholars and law professors.

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What about Paralegal Certification?

Paralegals provide important assistance in legal firms. government agencies, and many other settings as they assist attorneys with casework, complete research, draft documents, communicate with clients, and manage files, among many other duties. Paralegals do not present cases in court, cannot give legal advice, and do not hold a juris doctor degree.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of paralegals is anticipated to expand dramatically between 2006 and 2016.

For additional information about the Paralegal Profession, training and certification, and job duties, check: to top marker

Fast Facts

About 75% of lawyers work in "private practice" -- with 62% in offices of 5 or fewer attorneys

Associates in a firm are paid a salary, do work assigned to them by firm partners, have less job security, and are not a part of the management of the firm

Partners in a firm share the profits, have more job security, are responsible for generating clients, and manage the firm

Associates on a partnership track typically work for a firm between 5-9 years before being considered for partnership

Statistics for lawyers outside private practice:
Government agency positions: 7.5%
Business positions: 8.5%
Public interest groups (including legal aid or public defenders): 1%
Judiciary: 2.5%

Legal education: 1%
Retired or inactive: 4.4%

National adjusted mean salary for all law school graduates nine months after graduation was $77,000 (in 2014); for entry-level public interest law positions the median is much lower at $45,000

The NALP publishes additional data about starting salaries for law school graduates

There has been a trend in higher employment of attorneys in the private sector; in 2014, 18% of new law school graduates were employed in business

Not all law school graduates practice law; in 2014, only 66.3% of the jobs obtained by new graduates required passing the bar

In 2013, the average debt for law school graduates was nearly $109,000 -- almost $1294/month on a ten-year repayment plan


Additional Resources

Should You Really be a Lawyer? The Guide to Smart Career Choices Before, During & After Law School by Deborah Schneider and Gary Belsky. Decision Books (2004)

Redeeming Law: Christian Calling and the Legal Profession by Michael P. Schutt. IVP Academic (2007)

What's A Lawyer? by Mark A. Cohen. Today's General Counsel (2016)