Legal careers not requiring a law degree

There are a great number of law-related career paths that do not require 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 practice areas involving families, juveniles, children and the elderly.  Finally, there are any number of non-legal professions that are routinely involved with law, from accountants and tax preparers to regulatory compliance officials.

Paralegals/legal assistants/legal secretaries

There is little agreement about the exact definitions of each of these job categories, and much overlap.  They are often used interchangeably.  In general, one could say that these jobs involve supporting lawyers in doing their work, and may include a range of tasks almost as broad as that for attorneys: client and witness interviews, case investigation, legal research, document preparation, etc.  In some offices, the work might be relatively routine, while in others, it can be very substantive.  Some paralegals, in particular in legal aid offices, actually represent clients in administrative hearings (under the general supervision of an attorney).  The outer limits of paralegal practice are those established by the “unauthorized practice of law” statutes in each state, and generally prohibit appearing in court on behalf of a client, giving legal advice, and holding oneself out as an independent attorney or advocate. Paralegals must do their work under the supervision of a licensed attorney.

Just as the work of a paralegal (or legal assistant or legal secretary) may vary widely, so do the job requirements.  Some require prior experience, some require (or prefer) paralegal certification, and some are entry-level jobs suitable for recent grads.  There really is no general rule.  For those who might be contemplating a paralegal certification program, you’ll want to carefully research the costs of the program against the possible benefits – is the job market you’re looking into (in terms of region, size of firm and practice area) one that is highly dependent on paralegal certification or not?  There is considerable variation on this point, and you’ll want to make sure you’re getting a credential that’s worth the cost and time.

Criminal justice

Police officers, FBI agents, CIA analysts, forensic scientists, victim/witness advocates, probation officers, corrections officers – there are any number of jobs within in the criminal justice field that don’t require a law degree.  Some prefer an academic criminal justice background, while most do not. 

Social work

A number of legal fields – including family law, juvenile law, child protective services, elder law – depend on trained social workers to evaluate and/or support the disputants.  If you are more interested in the people involved and their often complex emotional and social circumstances than in the legal resolution of their claims, this might be the path for you.

Other law-related careers

A great many professions, careers and jobs touch upon or are affected by the law, to a greater or lesser extent.  The list of such jobs is long and wide-ranging: contracts administrator, accountant, real estate broker, risk manager, compliance officer, and so on. Sometimes these jobs require some kind of specialized education (e.g., accounting), but others are learned on the job.

In the future, we are likely to see expanded opportunities for non-lawyers working in law, as many in legal education and the profession see these expansions as necessary to meet the growing unmet need for affordable legal services.  For example, in 2013, the NYC Bar Association proposed establishing new certification and oversight processes for certain non-lawyer roles.