Law School has traditionally served as the pathway to careers in law, government and politics. While many U.S. presidents had a law degree (J.D.) or practiced law, there are less lofty but also important avenues to pursue with a law degree. Obviously, most people enter law school with the intention of becoming a lawyer and practicing law, either as a generalist or in one of the many specialized fields of law.
But a law school education provides the skills and training for nontraditional legal careers, such as being a mediator resolving employee disputes, having a managerial role in a company or nonprofit (recruiting, training or diversity and inclusion roles), or even leading a college or university (Muhlenberg College’s current president, John I. Williams, received his J.D. from Harvard). A J.D. can be the springboard for careers as diverse as a legal beat reporter, a legal writing and editing consultant, a human resource professional, a government administrator or a civil servant.
Going to law school is a significant investment of time and money. Obviously, you need to think carefully before deciding to apply to law school and embark on a career as a lawyer or a legally trained professional. If you’re thinking about law school, take a few extra steps before you make this huge investment to learn as much as you can about what lawyers do and all the other career paths you can pursue with a law degree.
A legal education is also excellent preparation for many other careers, because the course of study provides a framework for organizing knowledge and teaches an analytical approach to problems. Among the skills learned in law school that are basic to a variety of nonlegal positions are ease in dealing with legal terminology and concepts, ability to analyze facts and facility in persuading others. Professions such as banking, insurance, real estate, public relations, human resources, government, education and international trade are significant areas of employment for law school graduates. The fields of health care, media and publishing have also attracted law school graduates to their ranks.
Law school does not train you for any particular kind of law, but rather acts as a springboard into various professional opportunities. Some popular jobs that benefit from a J.D. include mediator or arbitrator, consultant, business manager, law librarian, professor, administrator, writer or editor, lobbyist, public affairs representative, recruiter, risk manager, political campaign staffer, elected official, foreign service officer or career coach.
Law schools offer a variety of degrees or certificates to match your goals and career aspirations.
J.D. Degree: A Juris Doctorate (J.D.) degree is—in most cases—required for anyone interested in becoming a lawyer in the United States or Canada. American Bar Association (ABA)-accredited law schools generally require three years of full-time study to earn the J.D. degree, and schools with part-time programs usually require four years of part-time study to complete the degree. Graduates must then take and pass the state bar exam to be licensed to practice law in a particular state. You can also obtain a degree from law school and work in an area that involves legal matters but does not require taking the bar exam. These are often referred to as J.D.-advantage or J.D.-preferred careers. They focus on areas that often benefit from legal knowledge, such as compliance, human resources, regulatory, corporate contracts, dispute resolution and business consulting, to name a few. Many small business owners also find it useful to have a degree in law.
LL.M. Degree: In today’s global environment, lawyers from around the world are finding that the Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree from a U.S. or Canadian law school is useful as certification for career advancement and international credibility. The LL.M. curriculum varies depending on the program. Many programs provide a broad curriculum in American law, the U.S. or Canadian legal system, international law and comparative law. Others provide more specialized courses in subfields such as taxation, intellectual property, human rights law or international environmental law. Typically, the LL.M. is a one-year course of full-time study or two years of part-time study. A first degree in law is required, and most schools require applicants to submit an English proficiency exam score if English is not the applicant’s native language. Not all schools offer LL.M. programs, so check with individual law schools for information and policies that affect students from countries outside the United States.
Other Law Programs: Many law schools offer various master's programs and certificates for non-attorneys who wish to obtain specialized knowledge of law and policy. These post-baccalaureate degree programs are ideal for recent college graduates or working professionals who deal with legal-related matters and can benefit from further in-depth knowledge of a particular area of the law, such as mediation, health care compliance or child and family law. Law schools often offer part-time and online options for these degrees and certificates. Master's degrees for nonlawyers include: Juris Master, Master of Jurisprudence, Master of Science or Master of Studies, Master of Professional Studies or Master of Legal Studies.
A legal education can open up new and interesting career opportunities in specialized areas of the law. Law schools, however, do not expect you to decide on the particular kind of law you want to practice before you matriculate. Still, it is a good idea to learn about the various types of law practice as you consider a legal profession and before you decide to submit law school applications.
The skills needed to succeed as a lawyer or legal professional are very similar to those cultivated by a liberal arts education. These include critical thinking and analytical abilities, the ability to read texts critically and with an attention to detail, logical reasoning, the ability to persuade others in civil debate and to speak and write ideas with clarity and grace.
Beyond these general intellectual skills, lawyers must be able to understand others and collaborate with them, must develop empathy and respect through listening to others and must have quantitative skills, financial literacy and proficiency with established and emerging technologies.
These are skills that you can acquire through hard work and challenging courses. But lawyers also require character and an understanding of the ethical dimensions of their work—the importance of integrity, professionalism and diligence.
Deciding to go to law school is an investment in your future. It is a serious financial investment as well. However, with thoughtful research and careful planning, financing a legal education is possible.
The cost of a law school education could exceed $150,000. Tuition alone can range from a few thousand dollars to more than $50,000 a year. Today, a majority of law school students rely on various types of financial aid to help pay for law school.
When calculating the total cost of attending law school, you also have to consider the cost of housing, food, books, transportation and personal expenses. Law schools will establish a Cost of Attendance (COA). It includes both the fixed costs of tuition and fees, books and supplies as well as living, transportation and personal expenses. Consumer debt, such as credit card debt, is not included in your COA and should be paid before you attend law school.
The COA is set by the law school and will vary from school to school; it represents the maximum financial aid you may receive from any source for the academic year.
The following is ABA statement on Financing Law School:
Legal education is an investment in your future. As with any investment, it is important to consider the pros and cons of entering into a significant expenditure of effort, time and money. Particularly in uncertain financial times, a realistic assessment of why you are seeking a legal education and how you will pay for it is critical. Today, a large majority of law school students rely on education loans as a primary source of financial aid for law school. These loans must be paid back with future income; the more you borrow, the longer the debt will have an impact on your life after graduation. Scholarships, grants and fellowships also exist, but are limited; loan repayment options are available for graduates seeking public interest or public service careers. For more information, visit Student Loan Repayment and Forgiveness.
Changes in financial aid rules and regulations are ongoing, and law school policies vary. It is your responsibility to stay current and to educate yourself about financial aid. Two good resources for learning how to pay for law school are the Law School Admission Council’s Financing Law School page and Access Group.