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Everything you need to know to get a job in the law, Part 1: Private law firms

Perhaps due to the popularity of books, movies, and television shows about lawyers, many kids grow up dreaming of working in the law.

There are lots of good reasons to seek out this career.

Those who want to make a lot of money can certainly achieve that goal. Others who are concerned about individual and collective justice can use their careers to force change. Still others just want steady work, and there is rarely a time when lawyers aren’t in high demand.

Within the legal industry, there are several distinct places where a person can find work.

Private law firms, the court system, and corporate legal departments are three of the most prominent employers of legal professionals and those are the ones we will focus on in this three-part series: Everything you need to know to get a job in the law.

In each part, we’ll present a few of the most popular jobs within each sector. For each job, we’ll provide information and resources regarding the skills and schooling you’ll need to get the job and tell you how much you can expect to make once you get there.

Today, we start with private law firms, which employ roughly 75% of all lawyers working in the United States. Here’s a peek at the types of jobs available in private law firms.

Lawyers

Say what you want about lawyers, they are highly-educated individuals who perform several necessary functions within our society.

Lawyers can work in a variety of places such as private firms, non-profit agencies, governmental agencies, and private companies. Even when we just look at those who work in private firms, however, they hold a vast array of titles.

My first law firm, for example, had departments for civil trial attorneys, real estate lawyers, corporate lawyers, public law attorneys, and employment attorneys. Other firms may have departments for insurance law, entertainment law, intellectual property, criminal defense, or water law.

It would be impractical, if not impossible, to list all of the legal sub-specialties here, but trust me when I tell you there are a lot of them.

Regardless of their practice area, private law firm attorneys are hired to represent the legal interests of their clients. While that may necessitate courtroom practice, many attorneys (such as real estate or corporate attorneys) rarely, if ever, go before a judge or jury.

What skills do you need to be a lawyer?

Above all else, lawyers need strong written and oral communication skills. Even if you’re one of those lawyers who never goes to court, communication is still essential to client relationships, brief writing, negotiation, and the like.

Additionally, lawyers need to have a strong sense of curiosity. Not only will your curiosity help you to solve problems, it will also direct your research and motivate you to stay on top of changes in the law.

Finally, interpersonal skills are critical to the profession. You need to be able to get along with clients, colleagues, judges, and even adversaries.

How much schooling do you need to be a lawyer?

It’s not easy to become a lawyer.

While there are still a few states where you can practice law without attending law school, those apprenticeship programs are antiquated, rarely used, and looked down upon by serious employers — private law firms in particular.

In the vast majority of cases, you’ll need to earn an undergraduate degree, followed by three years of law school that, if finished successfully, will result in a Juris Doctor (JD) degree.

Once that’s completed, you still have to pass the bar exam in the state where you plan to practice.

If that sounds easy, consider that the overall bar passage rate in the United States currently hovers somewhere between 50% and 75%.

In other words, just getting a JD does not guarantee that you’ll get to practice law. That’s about 7 years of school before you even get the chance to take the bar exam, so be prepared.

How much do lawyers make?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020 lawyers earned a median pay of $126,930 per year or $61.03 hourly.

Of course, salaries can vary widely within different practice areas. If you have an idea of the type of lawyer you’d like to become, it’s probably best to research salary statistics within your desired sub-specialty.

Paralegals

Paralegals are critical to the legal industry. While most don’t hold JDs, they still perform important, substantive work within the context of a private law firm.

Like lawyers, a paralegal’s duties vary depending on their practice area.

For example, a corporate paralegal may prepare drafts of deal documents, update corporate records, or perform research/due diligence pertaining to a deal.

Litigation paralegals, on the other hand, may draft pleadings, research court rules, and prepare discovery requests and responses.

As you might imagine, paralegal duties can vary widely based on the type of attorneys they’re working with, too. Paralegals can also freelance and work with multiple attorneys at a time.

What skills do you need to be a paralegal?

Paralegals actually need all of the skills outlined above for attorneys.

In addition, however, paralegals need a variety of other skills, such as attention to detail, technological savvy, and the ability to multitask.

The truth is, paralegals end up doing a lot of the finely-tuned work that earns a private law firm a great reputation. As such, paralegals often find themselves in constant learning mode so they can lead their teams through things like changes in the law or updates in technology.

How much schooling do you need to be a paralegal?

Most paralegals have two-year associate’s degrees or four-year bachelor’s degrees in paralegal studies.

If desired, however, there are master’s degree programs for paralegals, which typically take one to two years to finish.

Most private firms don’t care as much about the level of education as they do the paralegal’s skills and experience. Aim for work experience over extra education if you want to pursue a paralegal career.

How much do paralegals make?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that paralegals earn a median salary of $52,290 with a median hourly wage of $25.44.

The Bureau also reports that the need for paralegals is expected to increase by 12% over the next several years. Hopefully, that demand will be met with an increase in salaries.

Legal secretaries

Legal secretaries are also critical to a well-functioning private law firm.

Unlike paralegals, legal secretaries don’t tend to engage in much of the substantive practice of law. Instead, they do important administrative tasks like maintaining the attorneys’ schedules, making sure deadlines are calendared appropriately, formatting documents, and making sure files are maintained.

Note, however, that in order to do the job properly, a legal secretary will need some experience and/or training in legal terms and procedures. This differentiates legal secretaries from those working in other industries.

As with the other jobs in this article, a legal secretary’s duties will vary depending on the practice area of the attorneys they work with.

What skills do you need to be a legal secretary?

While a legal secretary’s tasks are different from those of a paralegal, the skills needed to do the job are similar.

A legal secretary needs to be highly detail-oriented, a good communicator, tech-savvy, and great at multitasking.

A legal secretary in a private firm is likely to be assigned to work with several attorneys at once. Consequently, a team-oriented mindset is also a great skill for this position.

How much schooling do you need to be a legal secretary?

Generally speaking, legal secretaries tend to have associate’s degrees or hold legal secretary certificates obtained through a trade school.

Many legal secretaries perform the job while simultaneously studying for a degree in paralegal studies.

How much do legal secretaries make?

Legal secretaries currently make a median salary of $56,000 per year.

Unlike paralegals, however, the legal secretary job market is on the decline. Thus, at this stage in the game, it might be worth it to seek a full paralegal degree.

Other law firm jobs

Of course, these are just three of the jobs available at a private law firm. Other jobs include IT personnel, HR representatives, marketing professionals, and office managers.

Join us next week when we talk about the legal careers available in the US court system.

Author

  • Jennifer Anderson practiced business litigation in California from 1999 to 2016. When she’s not writing from her floating cabin on the Columbia River, she can be found hiking or kayaking around the Pacific Northwest.