What legal careers are available?

There are so many different types of law – different fields (or “practice areas”), different types of law office (“practice settings”) – that it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on what your options might be.

Presumably, you’re thinking about law school because some aspect of the law interests you. But there are so many different types of law – different fields (or “practice areas”), different types of law office (“practice settings”) – that it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on what your options might be.  There are even law-related careers that do not require a law degree. 

But let’s start with the careers lawyers pursue. To practice law in the US, lawyers must first attend law school, obtain a J.D., and then pass the bar examination in at least one state (normally the state in which the individual intends to practice). Bar admission requirements vary by state (PDF), but all include these basic features.

There are a lot of ways to describe the different ways of practicing law, but the following are the most common and useful categories.

Legal fields and practice areas

A field or “practice area” of law refers to legal practice relevant to a particular type of law, or, more commonly, a particular industry or business.  Most law relates to business, with a handful of exceptions.  The largest exception is criminal law – the body of law relating to...read more »

Transactional practice vs. litigation

Some lawyers help bring people together, others help break them apart – that’s the best way to describe the difference between these two largest classes of lawyers. Transactional practice involves researching, preparing and reviewing the documents that bring individuals and companies together: from contracts for large corporate mergers and acquisitions...read more »

Private practice vs. public service/public interest

Another distinction among lawyers is between those who work in private firms and/or for companies, and those who work for government or in non-profit work.  The first type is generally referred to as “private practice” while the second is called “public interest” (or, occasionally, “public service”).  Attorneys...read more »

Firm size: From solo to BigLaw

A lot of attention in the mainstream media (and popular culture) gets focused on lawyers working in large firms (often referred to as “BigLaw”).  read more »

Regional vs. national firms

Law firms can be either regional or local in their reach, or national or even global.  Much depends on the size of the firm, the area(s) of law in which they practice, and the nature of their clients’ industries and needs. Lawyers who work interstate or internationally must...read more »


A substantial portion of individuals in elected office have law degrees – for example, roughly one-third of members of Congress went to law school.  As well, many high-ranking elected and appointed officials within the executive branch (at both the state and federal level) are lawyers, and, of course, nearly 100% of...read more »


Almost all professors in law schools have a law degree.  Traditionally, this was the only academic credential necessary for teaching in law schools, but in the last decade or so, a growing percentage of law professors have PhDs in addition to or instead of JDs—about 25% of professors at...read more »

Legal careers not requiring a law degree

Individuals without law degrees who work in law-related careers generally either work as paralegals, legal assistants and legal secretaries, and/or in any of a number of positions in the criminal justice fields. There are also a number of law-related career paths for social work and mental health professionals in...read more »