Requirements for a Career in Law

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Leading legal professions include judicial law clerks, hearing officers, administrative law judges, and lawyers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a mean annual salary of $112,320 for legal occupations as of May 2020.

Law careers include sectors like corrections, criminal justice, and law enforcement. Entry-level jobs include correctional, probational, and police officers, plus paralegals.

Substance abuse counselors, police detectives, and correctional case managers may require a master’s degree or more on-the-job training than other positions.

This guide introduces top law sectors and potential career paths, including job responsibilities and education requirements.

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Corrections Careers

Employees working in corrections supervise detainees in correctional facilities as they await trial. Corrections officers, probation officers, and case managers are common job titles in this field.

Corrections professionals have the desire and ability to help people while maintaining the safety of prisoners and staff.

Responsibilities

Corrections professionals primarily work with convicted persons and community institutions to carry out an individual’s sentencing.

Corrections officers and wardens work in correctional facilities, bailiffs work in courtrooms, and probation officers and counselors travel between the court, correctional facilities, and client homes.

Education

Corrections professionals who work in the county or state correctional facilities typically need to complete a high school diploma and an academy training program.

Federal prisons may require workers to hold a bachelor’s degree in addition to completing a training program or having relevant job experience.

Counselors and case managers hold a bachelor’s degree at minimum. They may pursue a master’s degree for advanced positions such as program manager or licensed therapist.

Online Corrections Bachelor's Degrees

Other Credentials

Counseling careers typically require licensure. State requirements for substance abuse, behavioral, and other counselors vary, but most of these professionals need a master’s degree and licensure for private practice. The National Board for Certified Counselors administers licensing examinations for every state.

Criminal Justice Careers

Professionals in criminal justice hold individuals accountable for breaking the law and help ensure fair trials for them. Industry professionals usually work in the court system as judges, lawyers, or prosecutors.

Other positions include attorneys general, district attorneys, victim advocates, and court officers. Law enforcement and correctional officers also fall within the purview of criminal justice.

Responsibilities

Criminal justice professionals uphold the law through the court system. For instance, prosecutors charge and examine individuals charged with crimes in court, while public defenders represent defendants in court. Some industry professionals work in public institutions such as courthouses and police stations.

Others, like private investigators and criminologists, work in the private sector. Many criminal justice professions demand long hours and the ability to handle stressful and dangerous situations.

Criminal Justice Education Requirements

Criminal justice education requirements vary significantly by position, but many require an associate degree at minimum. Criminal justice careers vary in education requirements, spanning 1-2 years of training, a bachelor’s or master’s degree, up to a Juris Doctor (JD) degree.

However, some occupations, such as court reporters and paralegals, may work with an associate degree or technical training. Lawyers typically complete four years of undergraduate education and three additional years of law school.

Learn more about areas of study in criminal justice

Other Credentials

Criminal justice professionals in attorney roles, like public defendants and prosecutors, must hold state licenses. Before becoming licensed, prospective attorneys must pass their state’s bar examination. Judges must also hold a license to practice law. The Paralegal Association offers paralegal certification, networking, and continuing education for paralegals to improve their skill sets.

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Law Enforcement Careers

Law enforcement jobs include police officers, state troopers, and crime scene investigators. Industry professionals uphold laws, maintain public safety, and apprehend individuals that interfere with the law. Law enforcement professionals work with criminal justice and corrections professionals to help ensure that supervision and justice occur after apprehension.

Responsibilities

Most members of law enforcement work in state or federal agencies. However, many law enforcement jobs require work in security or patrol. These professionals read rights to apprehended individuals, take them into custody, and interrogate them. Professionals in other law enforcement roles investigate crimes, serve warrants, and oversee law enforcement agencies.

Education

Police officers typically hold a high school diploma and have completed required police academy training and testing. Police academy programs usually take 10-20 weeks to complete. Promotion to agency supervisor roles may require a bachelor’s degree, several years of work experience, and a written examination.

Some careers, like a private investigator, require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. On-the-job training and a master’s degree can help professionals pursue advanced roles.

Learn more about areas of study in law enforcement

Other Credentials

Law enforcement careers typically require licenses that comply with state and federal law. Industry professionals should also expect to undergo a federal background check and a psychological exam. Although law enforcement positions do not always require certifications, these credentials can lead to advanced opportunities, such as agency supervisor or lead detective.

Lawyers

Lawyers represent clients in legal matters. Law professionals possess in-depth knowledge of the law, especially within the jurisdiction they practice, such as a county or state. They also understand how to navigate the court system for hearings, trials, and appeals. Some lawyers specialize in a particular area of law, like family law or immigration law.

Responsibilities

A lawyer’s responsibilities vary daily between consulting with clients or judges, appearing in court, and filing appeals on behalf of clients. Lawyers also spend significant time researching the law, court cases, and case information to assist their clients. Some lawyers defend accused persons who might be guilty, presenting moral challenges.

Lawyer Education Requirements

Lawyer education requirements differ among law schools and states. Prospective lawyers must complete seven years of education and pass a bar exam.

Generally, learners must first complete a bachelor’s degree. Graduates must then pass the Law School Admission Test before entering three-year law school programs from an American Bar Association (ABA)-accredited institution.

Learn more about law school

Other Credentials

Like many law careers, lawyers must hold licensure to practice, which they receive after passing their state’s bar exam. Many states administer the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE), which tests the knowledge and skills of potential candidates.

The UBE allows professionals to transfer their scores to obtain licensure for law jobs in different states. Although not required, lawyers may seek certification from ABA-accredited organizations to develop trust and recognition.

Paralegals

Also known as legal assistants, paralegals support lawyers and law firms. These professionals conduct research, communication, organization, and administrative tasks, assisting attorneys in preparing for court hearings and trials. They also work with law enforcement to gather information during the criminal case discovery phases.

Responsibilities

Paralegals research, gather, organize, and file hearing and trial information for criminal cases. They may work in private or public law firms, typically within an office. Paralegals primarily interact with lawyers, but they may also communicate with law enforcement, other paralegals in the same office, and courthouse clerks.

Education

Many entry-level paralegal positions require an associate degree or paralegal certification requiring 1-2 years to complete. Although some law offices provide further on-the-job training to candidates, prospective paralegals may choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree to prove their skills. The ABA endorses paralegal programs that meet its academic and quality standards.

Learn more about paralegal studies

Other Credentials

Unlike lawyers, paralegals do not practice law or offer legal advice. Therefore, states do not require paralegal licensure or certification. However, obtaining a paralegal certification can make applicants more appealing to law offices seeking experienced paralegals for their teams. The National Association of Legal Assistants offers industry-recognized certifications for paralegals.

Traits in Law

Future law professionals should possess key attributes as they prepare to enter the field. Specific skills and interests can open opportunities for better pay and advanced positions in law careers.

The following traits and skills can influence success in the legal field.

Hard and Soft Skills

Analytical
Researching, data mining, theorizing, and reporting fall within the scope of analytical skills. Law professionals take a calculated approach to their work. They analyze situations and respond to them as necessary based on knowledge and past experiences. Aspiring professionals can enhance analytical skills through consistent brain stimulation activities such as reading, completing puzzles, and learning.
Administrative
Administrative skills include organization, multitasking, and time management. Law professionals have multiple daily responsibilities that require focused attention and planning. Some schools, workplaces, and professional organizations offer training to hone these skills. Learners may also take business administration elective courses as part of their academic program.
Problem-Solving
Law professionals must work through various challenges daily. They must find solutions to new problems that may arise with clients, on patrol, or in courtrooms and correctional facilities. Work on this skill by brainstorming solutions and asking for feedback from others to learn new strategies.
Effective Communication
Skilled communicators convey messages clearly through speech and writing. Law jobs require consistent, clear communication between professionals and their colleagues, community leaders, and clients. Learners can build communication skills through group work and opportunities for public speaking and networking. Practicing active and intentional listening can also boost your ability to engage effectively with other speakers.

Interests and Talents

Volunteering
While not necessary to join the industry, an interest in volunteering shows a desire to help others. Law professions generally focus on assisting people in legal matters on either side of the law. For instance, some lawyers take pro bono work to support individuals who cannot afford their services.
Reading
Law professionals must communicate effectively and possess a knack for researching and understanding information. Their jobs also entail a lot of reading to sift through pertinent case information. Reading strengthens the brain by building vocabulary and increasing brain connectivity, which can improve career performance.
Debating
A talent for debate can enhance a law professional’s ability to look at all sides of an issue and represent clients in the courtroom. Debating skills may also assist professionals in advocating for others and forming mutually beneficial business relationships.
Leading
Natural-born leaders often excel in law, as many advanced careers in the field require leadership skills. Examples include police detectives, administrative law judges, and correctional counseling supervisors.

Professional Organizations

  • American Bar Association

    Since 1878, the ABA has advocated for law professionals and set standards for legal education. Its lawyer assistance programs provide mental health support to law professionals. ABA members access exclusive legal resources, networking opportunities, and professional development tools.

  • National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

    NACDL joins criminal defense lawyers across the country to enhance and advocate for improvements in criminal justice. Members can participate in discussion groups, obtain legal reviews from the NACDL Strike Force, and receive discounts on events and educational resources.

  • International Association of Chiefs of Police

    A nonprofit founded in 1893, the IACP educates and advances police leadership. The organization provides training, events, discounts, and educational group meetings to more than 31,000 members globally.

  • Association of Legal Administrators

    Funded by the Foundation of the Association of Legal Administrators, the ALA assists law professionals in managerial roles. ALA offers an online community and local chapters for professionals to connect, along with educational events and a career center for members.

  • National Criminal Justice Association

    NCJA assists criminal justice agencies in improving the productivity and effectiveness of their policies and staff. Members gain opportunities to consult with lawmakers, attend conferences and training programs, and access exclusive NCJA-led [research.

Learn more about law salaries

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you become a lawyer?

    Prospective lawyers must complete a bachelor’s degree before testing into law school. Graduates must then pass their state’s bar exam to become licensed lawyers. Most entry-level lawyers work with law teams before accepting their own clients.

  • What are criminal justice education requirements?

    Criminal justice careers typically require a minimum of an associate degree. However, police officers usually need a high school diploma and academy training. Lawyers need seven years of education in an undergraduate program and law school, plus pass their state’s bar exam.

  • What can you do with a degree in criminal justice?

    A criminal justice degree leads to careers such as police officer, victim advocate, and probation officer. Many law professionals, including lawyers and criminologists, graduate with a criminal justice degree before moving onto specialized training, certification, or licensure.

  • What are some law enforcement careers?

    Law enforcement careers include police officer, correctional officer, and private detective. Border patrol agents, state troopers, and county sheriffs also fit within the industry, along with support positions like intelligence analysts and crime lab technicians.

  • Which lawyers make the most money?

    According to the BLS, most law careers offer high earning potential, with a $126,930 median annual pay as of May 2020. However, specialized law jobs such as trial, tax, medical, and corporate lawyers typically earn the highest salaries.

Featured Image: Maskot Bildbyrå / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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