How Becoming a Lawyer Works

By: Laura Murray & Sam Burritt

Life After Law School

There are many different paths to follow once you have your law degree.
There are many different paths to follow once you have your law degree.

Once you pass the bar, it's time to get to work. You could start by taking an internship or clerkship immediately afterwards. These are great methods of advancing and preparing for your career in law, and some are actually paid positions. Internships place you within a working law firm so that you get an insider's view of what practicing will entail. Clerkships, usually with a judge, afford the clerk a perspective of the law from the highest perch in the courtroom, and are invaluable on a resume.

Graduates can also opt for a post-JD degree, either in practical application or in academic, doctorate level programs. The practical degrees include:


  • LL.M.- Master of Laws
  • J.M.- Juris Master
  • M.C.L.- Master of Comparative Law
  • M.J.- Master of Jurisprudence

The research and academic doctorates include:

  • J.S.D.- Doctor of Jurisprudence
  • S.J.D.- Doctor of Judicial Science
  • D.C.L.- Doctor of Comparative Law

Each of these advanced degrees requires additional schooling (one or two years apiece) and peer-reviewed published work on a specialized subject within the law.

Or, you can go to work.

Practicing Attorneys represent individuals, companies, associations, legal aid societies or government entities. Any and all of these clients can be plaintiffs or defendants in a legal action, and how and when these clients are represented determines a practice area.

A newly minted lawyer's daily routine will be largely determined by his or her practice area. Trial lawyers, or litigation attorneys, appear in court more often. But a young associate still probably won't appear before a judge or jury until several years into practice.

There is a division within the practice area of litigation: criminal or civil. A criminal litigator can work either for the government by representing the state (as a District Attorney), or representing the accused as either a public defender (also employed by the government) or as a private attorney. Civil trial lawyers can represent either a defendant or a plaintiff. Plaintiff attorneys represent those persons who wish to bring forth a claim (sue someone), and can sometimes work on contingency fees (receiving payment only if a favorable verdict is delivered).

Civil lawyers also assist clients in setting up wills and trusts, contracts, real estate transactions and in bankruptcy matters. The great bulk of lawyers out there fall into a civil practice area.

Positions, or One Million Things to Do With a Law Degree

The typical large law firm is a partnership (specifically, a limited liability partnership), and so there are two positions for attorneys: partner and associate. Associates work under the partners (who have a financial stake in the firm), helping with their caseload and occasionally taking cases of their own. Some associates will work for years before making partner. Some never make it. Working in a big firm is only one option for the new lawyer. Some other options are:

  • You can go to work for yourself. Finding and landing clients while competing with large firms is the most difficult aspect of this route.
  • You can work for the government.
  • You can work for a corporate entity as an in-house counsel. You advise on legal matters and practice to a certain extent. You have a guaranteed client, but it's always the same one.
  • You can go back to law school to teach.
  • You can, if you have the expertise and the tenure, be elected to a judgeship. Judges at many levels of the judiciary system are elected positions, however, and have all the drawbacks you might expect from an elected position. Still, being a judge is widely considered the top of the profession.

The process to becoming a lawyer is a long and hard one, but one that is essentially rewarding.

For more information about becoming a lawyer and related topics, check out the links below.

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