The Catholic University of America

Careers for Lawyers: Life After Law School

Law practice is so diverse that it is difficult to describe what the "typical" lawyer does. Each lawyer works with different clients and different legal problems. However, all lawyers must share some basic legal skills:

  • analyzing legal issues;
  • advocating the views of groups and individuals;
  • providing intelligent counsel on the law's requirements;
  • negotiating effectively; and
  • writing and speaking clearly.

Many lawyers develop expertise in a particular field of law. Others, especially the sole practitioner, must be able to handle a variety of problems. However, there are lawyers in large firms who maintain general practices, as well as lawyers in small firms who concentrate on one particular legal issue. Some of the major specializations are corporate, securities, criminal, tax, and family law. Today, however, new fields of law are developing. Examples include such specialties as immigration, international, environmental, entertainment, civil rights litigation and patent law.

About 74 percent of American lawyers are in private practice, most in small, one-person offices and some in large firms. Roughly 13 percent of the profession works for government agencies (including about 10,000 judges), 12 percent works for private industries and associations as salaried lawyers or as managers, and one percent is in legal education. In addition, there are a number of law school graduates who do not have a traditional legal practice, but who have selected to combine law with other disciplines.



Qualifications for teaching law vary, but most schools prefer candidates who have had experience as a practitioner or federal law clerk, or have pursued post-graduate law studies. Law faculty generally carry a class load of 2-3 courses per semester and are expected to engage in research and writing in areas related to their professional expertise. In addition, they may have to spend time working with students outside of class in such areas as directing students' research and advising moot court teams.

Some undergraduate institutions hire law school graduates to teach law-related courses such as legal history, political science and business law, or interdisciplinary courses that combine law with such fields as communications, computers, philosophy, medicine and ethics.


Academic administration offers law school graduates a wide range of employment possibilities. Typical positions include assistant and associate deans, placement and admissions directors, academic advisors, financial aid officers and coordinators of legal education programs.


In recent years the number of in-house counsel at colleges and universities has grown dramatically. University counsels work with contracts, labor relations and tax matters, as well as with issues peculiar to educational institutions.



Due to both increasingly complex regulation and litigation and the rising expense of hiring outside legal counsel, many organizations have developed their own legal departments. These departments vary in size from one to over 250 attorneys and manage a wide range of responsibilities, including labor relations, contract administration, tax, mergers and acquisitions, real estate development, and interpretation of state and federal regulations. Many companies, especially those in pharmaceuticals, banking, computers, food, and electronics are engaged in a large amount of international work.


Public accounting firms have diversified to provide a broad range of business planning and consulting services to a variety of clients. Legal expertise is needed in such areas as mergers and acquisitions, corporate reorganization, estate planning and foreign taxation.


The greatest number of legal opportunities within the banking industry are within commercial banking. This may include work in probate matters, personal pensions, corporate trusts and profit-sharing. Investment banking offers opportunities to the lawyer whose interests lie in securities and financial analysis.


Many trade associations, scientific and technical societies, foundations and professional organizations hire lawyers to do legislative and regulatory work. Individuals with legal backgrounds are also employed to perform administrative, managerial, and communications functions.



The Federal Government employs 18,000+ attorneys. Forty percent work in the Washington, DC area, while the remainder work in various regional, district or field offices throughout the country. The Federal Government offers career opportunities in a broad range of legal fields, including trade regulation, taxation and finance, criminal and constitutional law, labor law, patent law, international law and communications regulation.

Federal attorneys are involved in a broad scope of legal responsibilities: administrative, regulatory and advisory processes; brief and opinion writing; research and review of special problems; legislative drafting; and trial practice at the administrative, trial court and appellate levels.

Many government jobs do not require a law degree, but are often filled by persons with a legal background: civil rights activist; patent examiner; contract administrator; criminal investigator; EEO specialist; employee relations specialist; tax law specialist; etc.


Capitol Hill lawyers may work as a member of a House or Senate committee (general counsel, associate, or assistant counsel) or on the personal staff of a member of Congress (legislative assistant, legislative counsel, or legislative director). Lawyers might also work for the Democratic or Republican National Committee or Congressional Research Service. Typical "Hill" duties include the following: advising members on legislative proposals; writing position papers/speeches; developing policy positions and legislative initiatives; dealing with constituents and the press, and handling a variety of administrative matters.


The offices of the Judge Advocates General of the military service (Army, Air Force, Navy) recruit 200 to 300 attorneys each year to enter the military as commissioned officers.


There are an increasing number of opportunities in state and local government agencies, particularly in the areas of energy, environment, criminal justice, health and education. In addition, each of the more than 3000 counties in the United States has a district attorney (also called public prosecutor, county attorney, state solicitor, prosecuting attorney, etc.) Their principal responsibility is prosecution of criminal cases. However, in less populated areas district attorneys may also serve as corporation counsel for the county government.

Judicial Administration

Approximately four percent of all lawyers are involved in the field of judicial administration. There are thousands of judges in both the federal and state courts. Most judges are appointed to the bench after distinguished careers as practicing lawyers or educators. About 10-12 percent of all law graduates accept judicial clerkships each year. These clerkships are for either one or two years and are highly competitive depending on the level of the court, the location and the judge.

A clerkship for the U.S. Court of Appeals or state appellate court requires much research and writing. When a case comes to the appellate court, most of the routine questions have already been ironed out in the district court, and the difficult questions are left for the appellate court to consider. A wide range of legal questions are encountered: habeas corpus, criminal law and procedure, labor, administrative procedure, tax, admiralty, civil rights, antitrust, securities, bankruptcy, patents, social security and welfare. In addition, a federal court encounters the normal range of common law matters, including contracts, torts and property matters.

The duties of a clerk for a trial judge are somewhat different from those of an appellate clerk. Beyond the traditional research and writing of draft opinions, they are exposed to varied pretrial and trial procedures and evidentiary problems. Most judges utilize a law clerk as a valuable adjunct in the decision-making process. Clerks will spend some time in the courtroom actually hearing the evidence and will assist in the preparation of memoranda, opinions or judgments. Judicial proceedings include civil and criminal matters, as well as specialized law such as admiralty, patent, and bankruptcy litigation.

Private Practice

More than 70% of all attorneys are in private practice: 47% in solo practice; 35% in small firms (2-20 attorneys); 7% in medium firms (21-50 attorneys); and 11% in large firms (51+ attorneys).

Larger firms often provide a full range of legal services and typically represent corporations, trade associations and/or wealthy individuals. Recent law school graduates are hired as associates and spend much of their time in providing background research for more senior members. They are usually not given primary responsibility in a case for a year or more.

Smaller firms, on the other hand, concentrate more on individual (wills and trusts, tax, personal injury, domestic relations, etc.) and small business concerns. Recent law school graduates are often given more responsibility and higher visibility than their counterparts in the larger firms.

Public interest law is a broad term describing a multitude of programs and activities which aim at bettering society. Public interest organizations are usually very specialized and include such groups as legal services programs, public defender offices, private law firms and public interest law centers.


Legal services programs seek to provide representation to persons or groups who could not otherwise afford it. One such program is the federally-funded Legal Services Corporation, which represents clients in civil matters. The largest number of cases usually involve family law, housing, public assistance, consumer lending and employment law. Criminal cases are represented by attorneys from local and state-funded Public Defender Offices. There is also the Legal Aid Society (a private, not-for-profit organization funded by contributions from law firms, foundations, corporations and the general public) which provides both criminal and civil legal services.


Private law firms practice a substantial amount of public interest law dealing with consumer rights, immigration, abused children, civil rights, employment discrimination, housing, environment, labor-side labor law, the elderly, health care, criminal law, sexual harassment, as well as many other areas. Rather than having a client-centered practice, these organizations usually directly impact litigation. Outside of private firms there are also public interest law centers which focus on federal court law reform litigation.

Non-Traditional Careers

There are many career options for individuals with a law degree who do not want a traditional legal practice. Because the law touches every aspect of life, legal training is a plus in a variety of fields:

Affirmative Action Journalism
Agent Work for Performers,
Artists and Sports Figures
Labor Relations
Law Enforcement
Banking, Insurance & Finance Law Librarianships
Business (Restaurants, Museums, etc.) Lobbying
Consulting Mediation & Arbitration
Corporate and Management Positions Public Relations
Government Contracts Real Estate
Government Relations Writing & Publishing

Jobs will always be available for well-qualified law school graduates. Because the number of practicing lawyers continues to increase, it may become more difficult for recent graduates to find jobs in some fields or certain parts of the country. Opportunities will vary from locality to locality and among legal disciplines. However, rising case loads in the nation's courts, continuing federal and state regulations, and increased complexity in business suggest that the need for lawyers will continue to grow.

"Careers in Law" handout adapted from information in the following publications:

Kanarek, Carol M., Ed., Changing Jobs: A Handbook for Lawyers, New York, NY: American Bar Association, 1989.
Munneke, Gary, Opportunities in Law Careers, Chicago, IL: National Textbook Company, 1986.
Osherow, Marjorie L., Ed., The Official Guide to U.S. Law Schools, Newtown, PA: Law School Admission Services, 1989.
Thorner, Abbie W., "Career Planning and Types of Employment," The NAPLA Pre-law Advisor's Guide, Eds. Edward M. Stern and Emily Soltanoff, Boston, MA: NAPLA, Inc., 1987.

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Revised: November 20, 1998.