The determining factor for most students considering whether or not to attend law school should be whether or not they want to practice law. Below is an outline of the main types of jobs law school graduates assume. Please note that these descriptions are not intended as an exhaustive discussion of the legal profession but instead as a mere overview. One of the major divisions in legal jobs is private sector versus public sector jobs.
Private Firm Jobs
Many law students work at private sector firms upon law school graduation. Firms can be categorized as follows:
Size: Big firms have between 200 and 500 attorneys; medium-sized firms have between 75 and 100 lawyers; small firms have between 2 and 40 attorneys. Many large firms have multiple offices – with both domestic and international branches. A significant number of students from top tier schools work at large firms immediately or shortly after graduating.
Clients: Most of the large firms are considered “corporate firms;” their clients are primarily corporations. Some private firms (which are typically small firms) primarily represent individuals; for instance, plaintiffs firms may bring a law suit against a corporation on behalf of an individual.
Specialization: Within firms, especially large law firms, there are sub-specialties. Law firm work can be grouped into two main categories: transactional and litigation. Transactional attorneys are “business lawyers.” They help corporations with out-of-court transactions (such as helping two corporations merge, helping a corporation purchase real estate, helping draft a contract for a corporation). These attorneys rarely, if ever, enter the courtroom. Litigation attorneys represent clients when disputes arise that lead to court involvement. Large law firms typically have some combination of the following practice groups: antitrust, bankruptcy and business restructuring, corporate, environmental, intellectual property, international, labor and employment, litigation, real estate, tax, trusts and estates.
A common myth is that all lawyers spend a significant amount of time in the courtroom. In actuality, many attorneys (such as transactional attorneys) are never in court. Most of their time is spent in an office, reviewing documents, talking on the phone, reading legal materials, and preparing legal or other documents. Even litigation attorneys at large firms only spend a relatively small proportion of their time in court.
Firms often have openings for students to work as “paralegals.” Because private firms are well-staffed (unlike many public sector organizations as described below), students sometimes feel they do not have exposure to substantive work as paralegals; instead, they spend their work days photocopying and reviewing documents. On the upside, firms pay paralegals decent salaries. Moreover, as paralegals, students get a window into law firm practice and often have the opportunity to interact with attorneys on a daily basis.
Public Sector Jobs
When many students envision the job of a lawyer, they envision a person standing up in court for an individual in need. Only a small segment of the legal profession actually engages in this type of representation. Many of the jobs that are portrayed in books and films are public sector jobs, and actually a very particular type of public sector job.
Four main types of public interest jobs include: nonprofit organizations, legal services offices, government, and private public interest firms. Depending on the nature of the job, public interest lawyers use a variety of methods (or combination of methods) to effect change including: individual client representation, impact litigation, policy reform, regulatory enforcement, lobbying, and community organizing and education.
Nonprofit Legal Organizations. Nonprofit legal organizations usually specialize in advocating for a particular client population or advocating around a particular issue. Some nonprofits are “client-oriented,” meaning the organization focuses on representing individual clients (e.g., the Disability Law Center, Centro Presente, the DC Employment Justice Center). “Client-oriented” nonprofits vary greatly. However, as a summer or year-long intern you can reasonably expect exposure to clients, working directly with individual clients or on individual cases. If having client contact is important to you, clarify with your employer whether or not you will actually have that opportunity.
Other nonprofit organizations are “policy-oriented,” meaning the organization uses broad strategies to effect change such as impact litigation and class actions (e.g., The American Civil Liberties Union, The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Consumer Law Center, the National Voting Rights Institute). As an intern with such an organization, you are less likely to have client contact but you will gain exposure to broader lawyering strategies to effect change. If the nonprofit has cases pending in court, you may get to observe legal hearings.
Legal Services Offices. Legal services organizations (also known as legal aid societies) provide free or reduced-fee civil legal representation to low-income clients. Legal services offices typically have the following units/divisions: family, domestic violence, housing, health, government benefits, consumer, and employment. Most major cities have legal services offices (e.g., Greater Boston Legal Services Center, Atlanta Legal Aid Society); and, many states have branches or separate offices which serve rural areas (e.g., Georgia Legal Services). Attorneys at legal services offices have high caseloads and daily contact with clients; therefore, as a summer or year-long intern, you would likely gain hands-on experience.
Government Attorneys. There are numerous types of attorneys and legal offices which are government funded including: public defender offices and prosecutors offices as well as other federal, state, and local government agencies.
Public defender offices represent indigent individuals in criminal cases. In general, public defender offices have high caseloads, limited staff, and few other resources. Therefore, if you are interested in exposure to trial practice (i.e., preparing for court hearings and watching trials), interning at a public defender office will provide you that opportunity. Some public defender offices have a well-structured intern program and give college students a great amount of responsibility (e.g., college students can work as investigators at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia).
Prosecutors work in a variety of offices including: district attorney offices (usually organized by county whereby attorneys prosecute individuals charged with crimes); state attorneys generals offices (which investigate and prosecute cases of statewide significance from criminal to environmental cases); U.S. Department of Justice (charged with prosecuting federal crimes); U.S. Attorneys Offices (charged with prosecuting federal crimes).
Attorneys also work at a variety of federal (e.g., Securities & Exchange Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services), state (e.g., Massachusetts Department of Education, Massachusetts Executive Office of Health & Human Services); and local (e.g., Cambridge Police Review & Advisory Board, Somerville Housing Authority) departments and agencies.
Private Public Interest Firms.
Private public interest firms are not technically in the “public sector,” but are often categorized with other public interest jobs. Private public interest firms are organizations which tackle the same issues that nonprofits, legal services offices, and public defender offices typically address but they operate in a firm environment. Although they are for-profit organizations, they dedicate a significant portion of their caseloads to work that has some broad social, economic or political impact. Private public interest firms may work in the following areas: civil rights, disability law, education, anti-trust, labor law, environmental law, product liability, and insurance liability.
Top graduates from lower-tier schools generally get the same jobs as students from top-tier schools. However, the one exception is in the area of academia. Law schools primarily seek teaching candidates with stellar academic records from top law schools. So, if you are certain that you want to become a law professor the prestige of the law school you attend can be important.
Business and Other Jobs
Consulting firms and investment banks hire a small number of law students each year. Increasingly, attorneys are accepting positions in other non-legal settings including academic administration, nonprofit management, and philanthropic foundations.
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