Law Careers in the US

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By Selene Angier
Last updated on June 4, 2024

If you’re an international student headed to the US and are interested in careers in law, this guide is for you.

Two law students discussing over notes, with a gavel in the foreground.

Now is an opportune time for international students to pursue a law career in the USA. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the field of law is expected to grow by 9% by 2030, adding approximately 46,000 job openings each year. But in 2020, only 34,000 students graduated from law school in the US, creating a potential shortfall of 12,000 vacant lawyer positions a year. 

In addition to employability and security, a career in law is varied, versatile, lucrative, and rewarding. But what are the best types of law to practice? With so many different specialties to choose from, there are endless options for international students to pursue a law career in the USA. From corporate law to criminal law, entertainment to the environment, you can work in nearly any industry as an attorney. 

Let’s touch on some basics first, as attending law school and lawyering in the US can be a bit different from careers in law in other countries. 

What Does a Lawyer Do?

This profession typically involves representing individuals, businesses, or government agencies, and advising on applicable laws. 

When acting as a representative or advocacy position, a lawyer — also known as a barrister or advocate in other countries — might appear in court, such as a criminal trial brought by the government, or in a private lawsuit filed by another citizen. 

When lawyers act in an advisory or expert capacity, they may work exclusively from an office and never step into a court to litigate a case. Instead, duties might include writing contracts, reviewing marketing claims or public-facing pharmaceutical claims, or helping draft public policy. 

Being an attorney requires an extensive understanding of the law, along with strong public speaking, writing, analysis, research, negotiation, and argumentation skills. We highly recommend strengthening your verbal and written skills before enrolling in law school. You should be an effective communicator skilled in problem solving, details, debate, and persuasion. 

Read more about learning English before practicing law >

To practice law in the US, you will need to earn a law degree from a university accredited by the American Bar Association and pass the bar exam, the standard licensure procedure in the US. (There are a few exceptions.) Before graduating, an internship with a corporation, nonprofit, or government agency, or a clerkship with a judge, is also common and highly recommended. By working summers and during academic breaks at a law firm or clerking with a judge, you will gain real-life experience and build your network. 

Types of Law Degrees

The most common types of law degrees in the US are a Juris Doctor (JD), a Master of Laws (LLM), and a Doctor of Juridical Science (JSD). There are many other law-related degrees — Master of Jurisprudence (MJ), Master of Legal Studies (MLS), the Juris Master (JM), and Master of Studies (MS) — that do not allow you to advise clients or represent in court, the term commonly referred to as “practicing law.”

Unlike many other countries, practicing law in the US requires an advanced JD or similar degree (so, three years of schooling on top of a four-year bachelor’s degree in the USA). Students who know they want to pursue a law career in the future will often study pre-law in undergrad. Public policy, political science, social justice, public affairs, history, economics, and philosophy are also common program tracks for pre-law students.

You will also likely have to take the LSAT, or Law School Admission Test, the standardized exam for law school admissions. Some law schools have made the LSAT optional or “supplemental,” including top law schools like Harvard University and Georgetown, instead allowing students to take the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) common entry exam.

Now let’s dig into the three types of law degrees that allow you to practice law in the US — Juris Doctor, a Master of Laws, and a Doctor of Juridical Science.

Juris Doctor

A Juris Doctor is the primary degree that allows you to practice law in the US. A JD degree is typically a three-year program, and combined with the bar examination, allows you obtain the proper licensure to practice law. 

Regardless of where you attend your first year of law school, you can expect to take foundational courses in core law concepts, including torts, contracts, civil procedure, property, criminal law, and constitutional law. In years two and three, law students choose an area of study and begin to explore specialized courses such as antitrust law, the environment, mediation, or business acquisitions. 

Master of Laws

A Master of Laws, or LLM as it is commonly abbreviated in the US, is an advanced law degree designed for established attorneys who are pursuing academic positions or high-level government jobs. LLMs allow you to gain expertise in specialty area of law, such as tax law, labor law, immigration law, or intellectual property law. 

LLMs are coveted in fields with complex, highly regulated laws such as the environment, health care, and banking, and courses tend to have an intense focus on legal theory.

LLMs are also a common degree option for international lawyers, especially those who may have earned a degree in another country and want to practice law in the USA. An LLM is typically a one-year course of study. 

An LLM degree can be a smart investment and provide additional return on investment (or ROI) when it comes to salary. According to the job search site ZipRecruiter, an LLM earns an average annual salary of $112,630 in the US, versus the average annual salary for a JD is $90,568. 

Doctor of Juridical Science

A Doctor of Juridical Science, or SJD, is a PhD-level law degree, and first requires a bachelor’s degree and typically an LLM. An SJD is the highest level of advanced law degree in the US and is designed for aspiring legal academics. Like most PhD programs, SJDs are self-driven — meaning you design and execute your study plan — and focus on independent study, research, and publishing.

Prestigious law schools tend to require an SJD for tenure-track professors and the ROI can be significant — the average salary for a law professor in the US is $176,253, according to  

Types of Law

While there are hundreds of types of law careers you can pursue, you should connect with your passions and interests in deciding which field is right for you. When you enter law school, you may know exactly what type of lawyer you want to be, or you may be undecided. During your first year of law school, you will take a range of courses that expose you to the fundamentals of law, and then in years two and three, coursework becomes more focused and exploratory, allowing you to decide which type of law to practice. 

Now let’s delve into five different types of law careers to give you a sense of what each of these common practice area entails. 

Criminal Law

Criminal law involves the prosecution or defense of individuals who are charged with crimes, such as murder, tax evasion, theft, drug trafficking, or embezzlement. In criminal cases brought by the government, there will be two opposing sides — a prosecutor and a defense lawyer. A prosecuting attorney is looking to uphold the law and serve justice on behalf of the state or country; a criminal defense lawyer works to provide their client — the charged individual— with due process and a fair hearing. 

Corporate Law

Corporate law — also known as business law and enterprise law — covers regulations pertaining to business. Companies hire corporate lawyers for a host of different reasons, including mergers and acquisitions, liability, industry regulation compliance, and contract lawsuits. If you have also considered getting an MBA or are passionate about business, corporate law may be a good fit for you. 

Environmental Law

The primary concern of environmental law is to protect the environment and its citizens from harm — be it land, air, or water. If you are passionate about climate change, pollution, corporate negligence, or endangered species, a career in environmental law might be your calling. In the USA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the leading federal group responsible for drafting environmental laws and prosecuting environmental crimes. Job opportunities exist at the state and local level, too, as well as in the private sector and nonprofits.  

Civil Rights Law

Civil rights law pertains to protected classes and equal treatment of citizens under the law. A civil rights attorney is an advocate of social justice and works on cases involving discrimination based on gender, race, color, age, religion, disability, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, and political association. In the US, many individual rights are protected by the US Constitution and the Civil Rights Act, including protection from discrimination or disparate treatment in public sectors like education, employment, housing, and lending.

Family Law

Getting married or divorced, adopting a child, and child welfare fall under family law. If you are considering a career in family law, you can expect your work to include how to divide property in a divorce, pursuing unpaid spousal support, pre-nuptial agreements, estate planning, hiring a surrogate, or mediating custody and visitation rights.

Pros and Cons of Becoming a Lawyer

When considering the best type of law to practice, we highly recommend basing your choice on personal passions — you will be happier and find greater success if you are keenly passionate about the work you are doing day to day. The pros and cons associated with different careers in law can be a big factor, too. 

Pro: Lucrative

Lawyers are among the highest paid workers in the US, holding rank with doctors, CEOs, airline pilots, and engineers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020), the median annual salary for lawyers is $126,930, and depending on where you live, the average wage jumps significantly. 

Metro Areas with Highest Average Salary for Lawyers

San Jose, CA

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San Francisco, CA

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Washington, DC

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Los Angeles, CA

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New York, NY

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Boston, MA

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Santa Rosa, CA

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Bridgeport, CT

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Napa, CA

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Miami, FL

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Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020)

The industry you work in also makes a difference. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020), the top-paying industries with the highest average annual salaries for lawyers are:

Specialized Design Services

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Computer and Peripheral Equipment Manufacturing

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Motion Picture and Video Industries

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Cable and Other Subscription Programming

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Navigational, Measuring, Electromedical, and Control Instruments Manufacturing

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Cons: Long Hours

The flip side of having that lucrative salary? You will work long hours to earn it. Being an attorney is rarely a 9-to-5 job. As an attorney, you can expect to work up to 60 or even 80 hours a week. According to Clio’s Legal Trends Report 2018, 75% of lawyers said they work outside of normal business hours. Juggling multiple cases and clients is demanding, and law firms often have billable hour requirements. 

Pros: Helping Others

Regardless of what area of law you decide to pursue, you are ultimately helping people — helping an accused client defend themselves, assisting a start-up in being acquired by a tech giant for millions of dollars, or seeing that a parent obtains custody of their daughter. Problem-solving, advocacy, and protecting individual rights and freedoms are an integral part a lawyer’s purpose.

Cons: High Stress

This is a stressful occupation. The long hours we talked about above, coordinating hundreds of details in a case, client management, competing deadlines, potential ramifications of losing a case, and personality conflicts all contribute to this high-pressure position. As with any high-stress job, it’s important to prioritize self-care. 

Other Law-Related Careers

People who earn law degrees may never practice law. Instead, they may pursue different types of law careers such as becoming a university professor, politician, public policy advisor, lobbyist, or government official. 

Nonpracticing law-related careers require an understanding of complex regulations, negotiation abilities, and strong communication skills. A few examples are investment banker, real estate agent, management consultant, nonprofit director, and human resources manager. Nearly every field and industry needs legal experts, so you have no shortage of opportunities for a law career in the USA. 

How Shorelight Can Help

Pursuing a career in law is rewarding — and rigorous. With nearly 200 accredited law programs to choose from in the US, the proper guidance is important. At Shorelight, we work exclusively with international students looking to study in the US. 

Our partner universities offer undergraduate pre-law programs and other law-related bachelor degrees, including top-rated American University, the University of Utah, and the University of Kansas. We can also help you apply for a JD or LLM degree at the University of Dayton or assist you with English as a Second Langage (ESL) courses

Shorelight also offers programs like Career Premium and Career Services, which can help with your resume, job interview prep, and landing your dream job. Our education advisors are experts in US higher education and work with you one-on-one during every step of the application and visa process. 

Contact a Shorelight enrollment counselor today to learn more >