Six Actions to Consider Before Pursuing a Law Degree
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UPDATED: May 6, 2020
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Lawyers play a crucial role in maintaining justice and order within our government, military, corporate, and even in our family communities and homes as well. Most students enter law school with the dream of changing the world for the better. But as with any career path, professionals often change their minds about how they want to do that and they may switch gears almost as soon as they’ve begun.
For example, Italian singer Andrea Bocelli practiced law for a year before following his passion for performing professionally.
Gretchen Rubin, best known for her New York Times Bestseller The Happiness Project, clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor after law school and subsequently decided the legal field wasn’t her thing.
And former San Francisco 49er Steve Young graduated from law school but (surprise!) continued playing professional football instead of practicing law.
It’s Best to Test Before You Invest
While all careers have their drawbacks, lawyers face some unique challenges, including round-the-clock demands, legal process outsourcing, changing legal paradigms, law school debt, high-stakes consequences for clients, and sometimes–even if just in jest–being stereotyped as untrustworthy.
Luckily, if you’re considering a career as an attorney, there are several ways to get your feet wet within the legal industry before diving all the way in with the LSAT, applications, three years of law school, and tens of thousands of dollars of student debt for a JD degree.
#1 – Job Shadowing
Nearly every corporation, small business, and non-profit has an employee, team, or board member that handles legal concerns. Identify an organization you love or one that you have a connection to and ask to shadow someone on the legal team. Undergraduates and even high school students can job shadow. Think about your interests as you look for job shadowing opportunities.
Here are a number of legal specialties to consider:
- Appellate Law
- Civil Litigation
- Civil Rights Law
- Compliance Law
- Corporate Law
- Criminal Defense Law
- Elder Law
- Election and Political Law
- Environmental Law
- Family Law
- Immigration Law
- International Law
- Labor and Employment Law
- Military Law
- Patent Law
- Real Estate Law
- Securities Law
#2 – Intern as an Undergraduate
An internship is a great way to fully immerse yourself in an environment you’d like to test for a designated period of time. Plus if you love it and your legal office loves you, the internship may end up being a stepping stone for a long-term job.
Generally, law firms hire first or second-year law students for internships, but that’s not always the case. Even with zero legal experience, you can leverage your academic success in relevant coursework, organizational skills, technology skills, and customer service experience to be hired for an internship at a law firm. Your duties may include basic client assistance and office work like filing and copying paperwork.
#3 – Take a Course
Pursuing a fundamental or advanced legal course can be helpful for anyone considering a legal job. A course will give you the confidence you need to write application essays, converse with admissions personnel and employers, and train for your first job.
Your local city office or community college may offer basic legal knowledge classes and there are hundreds online. For example, e-learning company ed2go offers a number of courses in legal studies, including the following:
- Employment Law Fundamentals
- Explore a Career as a Paralegal
- Introduction to Criminal Law
- Introduction to Law Suite
- Legal Nurse Consulting
- Paralegal Suite
- Real Estate Law
- Workers’ Compensation
- Workplace Law Essentials Value Suite
Ed2go’s advanced legal studies courses and certificates include the following:
- Certificate in Family Mediation
- Certificate in Healthcare and Eldercare
- Certificate in Mediation and Arbitration
- Certificate in Mediation and Restorative Justice
- Certificate in Workplace Mediation
- Certified Paralegal (Voucher Included)
- Court Interpreter (Spanish/English)
- Federal Court Interpreter
- Legal Secretary
Even after you’ve begun your career as an attorney, continuing education courses can supplement your on-the-job training with important topics like avoiding legal malpractice and ethical considerations for engaging with clients.
#4 – Pursue a Legal Secretary Job
Legal secretaries, sometimes referred to as administrative assistants or front desk specialists, gain valuable legal experience working alongside lawyers. Lawyers depend on secretaries to do much of the administrative work required in a legal office like answering phones, preparing legal documents, and using scheduling software to track appointments.
You generally don’t need a post-secondary degree to get a job as a legal secretary, but skills with office software, communication, and attention to detail will help you land a job and do it well.
Notably, legal secretary jobs are in high demand and the demand is projected to grow much faster than that of other jobs by 2028.
#5 – Certify as a Paralegal
Paralegals can do nearly everything lawyers can short of giving legal advice and negotiating fees for services.
They can bill clients for work (typically 25% to 50% of an attorney’s hourly rate), conduct research on cases, draft legal documents, and even compile evidence to be used in court. Paralegals can also specialize in certain areas such as family law or criminal law.
To sit for the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) Certified Paralegal exam, you must meet at least one of the following set of requirements:
- Graduate from an approved paralegal program (ABA-approved, associate degree, a program that includes at least 60 semester hours, or a post-baccalaureate certificate program)
- Graduate with a bachelor’s degree in any field plus take at least 15 semester hours of legal courses and have at least one year of paralegal experience
- Graduate from high school and have at least seven years of experience as a legal assistant under a member of the bar
The Certified Paralegal course from the aforementioned e-learning company is 225-course hours over 12 months and includes access to NALA’s exam review courses. However, paralegal courses across different certifying bodies vary in cost, duration, and flexibility.
#6 – Explore Other Legal Careers
If attorney jobs interest you, it’s possible that other legal careers could also be a good fit.
Here are just a few to consider:
- Compliance Specialist – coordinates and monitors governmental and regulatory documents for corporations and consulting firms
- Court Interpreter – interprets from English to another language (and vice versa) in real-time in a court hearing
- Court Reporter – also known as a stenographer, records word-for-word transcriptions at legal proceedings and performs real-time reporting for webcasts
- Judicial Clerk – assists judges by conducting research and submitting legal writing
- Litigation Support Professional – utilizes legal knowledge and technical skills to design and implement databases for data produced in litigation
- Mediator – helps settle legal disputes outside of the courtroom
- Trial Consultant – assists attorneys with technology needs for optimal communication to the jury during a trial
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Legal Experience Will Benefit You Regardless
As much as you prepare for a career, there’s always a chance that your interests change over time. A career change really isn’t the end of the world. You shouldn’t let the fear of not liking a job stop you from pursuing it if you really feel like it is your calling.
Leave Law Behind founder Casey Berman explains that if and when lawyers do switch gears, all of that legal training need not go to waste as there are a lot of meaningful, well-paying jobs you can do with a legal-based skill set regardless of how many years you’ve worked in a legal setting.
Then again, maybe you’ll never look back and become the next Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Rebecca Graham writes to empower readers to make sound financial decisions based on thorough research. She currently manages Best Company’s career certification content.