There are many things to consider when making the decision to go into law. The state of the job market, type of position you are seeking, area of legal practice, region in which you want to practice, and type of firm you want to work for all have an enormous impact on what opportunities will be available to you, as well as on your earning potential.
Types and Availability of Jobs
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the legal services industry employed more than 1 million workers in 2013. And, through 2024, employment opportunities for lawyers are projected to increase 5.6 percent.
Additional positions in the legal field include paralegal, legal secretary, operations manager, compliance specialist, law clerk, mediator, and court reporter — many of which offer promising careers. In fact, BLS projects that the paralegal/legal assistant job category will grow 7.6 percent over the next seven years, with annual job openings averaging 8,270.
Judith Areen, executive director of the Association of American Law Schools, says that another option is to pursue what are called “JD Advantage” jobs. “About 20 percent of law school graduates go into [these] jobs. They are positions in which you don’t have to be able to take a case to court but that your legal training helps you do,” says Areen, adding that many who go into these positions are doing policy work at the state or federal government level.
Although she says it’s difficult to specify practice areas with the most need or growth potential, Areen lists intellectual property law — due to the increase in technology — and compliance law as two promising areas. “There is a lot of work in compliance, whether it’s with a company or a university,” she says. “So many places are regulated now, and you need people to make sure [they] are in compliance with all regulations. Many of those positions are being filled by lawyers.”
Law Firm Size and Type
Experts say that where a person goes to school can greatly influence where they’ll be able to find jobs. Many now urge prospective law students to consider a school’s geographic location in relation to where they want to practice once they graduate.
Additionally, each state offers different opportunities, and the availability of jobs can vary greatly by region. “I know North Dakota is really hungry for more lawyers than [lawyers] are hungry to be in North Dakota, and there are more in Washington, D.C., than a city should have. But there a lot of openings in other parts of the country,” says Areen.
Another state struggling to attract attorneys is Nebraska, where, in 2015, 20 out of 93 counties had fewer than four lawyers, and 11 had none. Since it is a very rural state, these figures are not altogether surprising. “Similar to medicine,” Areen says, “small towns and rural areas are having trouble attracting enough young professionals.”
While large, corporate law firms may seem desirable to many, most legal jobs are not found in these big businesses, which Areen says have been hiring smaller numbers of associates in recent years. “The thing to remember is that those lawyers have never [represented] more than 15 percent of the profession,” she says. “The majority of lawyers are either in solo practice or very small firms.”
Areas of Legal Practice and Salary
In addition to region and size of firm being indicators of employment opportunities, these factors play a large role in salary as well, with lawyers in larger cities and firms earning more than those in small towns and practices. According to the 2017 Associate Salary Survey conducted by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), the overall median salary for first-year associates in firms with more than 251 attorneys is $135,000; at those with 50 or fewer, median first-year salaries hover around $90,000.
Earnings also vary based on area of practice and industry sector. JD Advantage jobs — both in the public and private sectors — paid a median salary of $59,000 in 2013. In the private sector, 27.5 percent of firms surveyed by NALP pay an average first-year salary of $180,000, with nearly half of the largest firms (46.5 percent of those with 501 to 700 employees) starting their associates at that rate. Conversely, lawyers in the public sector make far less. For instance, the median entry-level salary for public defenders and prosecuting attorneys was $50,400 and $51,100, respectively, in 2014, and after 15 years of experience, those figures were $84,500 and $80,000, according to NALP data.
In terms of areas of law, attorneys who practice in the following specialties often enjoy the highest earnings: real estate ($47,860-$138,458), employment and labor ($48,513-$174,236), intellectual property ($82,936-$196,473), tax ($58,128-$204,396), and trial ($48,972-$246,128). But despite these trends — which tend to vary — Areen says salary “is a matter of both geography and the kind of work you do.”●
Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.