Key Roles & Work Environments
Most people who work in the legal practice sector are lawyers. While all lawyers have achieved the Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree before entering the profession, they tend to break down into two distinct groups of practice:
- Transactional – lawyers whose work revolves mostly around deals, negotiations, and contracts. Transactional lawyers rarely end up in court.
- Litigation – Lawyers whose primary work involves arguing before the court in either civil or criminal matters.
Most lawyers are transactional in their work. Despite impressions given through TV, most lawyers are never in a courtroom. If they are, it is typically a sign that something has gone awry!
There are other types of legal professions that can be explored, including paralegals and legal assistants. These professions do not require the J.D. degree. Paralegals serve to assist lawyers in firms with case research and preparation, and legal assistants often work to assist paralegals and lawyers in the firm with these same tasks. Depending upon the firm, legal assistants may be called a variety of titles including Case Clerk, File Clerk, Document Clerk, or some other similar clerking title. Clerking in a law firm should not be confused with clerkships that are taken after law school by newly-minted lawyers. These clerkships are done in courts and the clerk works directly for a judge. They do require the J.D. degree and a rigorous application and interview process to secure. They are considered a great first job right out of law school instead of the traditional law firm route. The Occupational Outlook Handbook provides additional information on lawyers, paralegals, and legal assistant career paths.
The most common work environment in the field of law is a law firm. Law firms range in size from the single solo practitioner up to 500+ person, multi-national firms, with many medium-sized and boutique law firms in between. Each firm also has its own culture and practice area specialties. Most law school graduates seek to go directly into a law firm after graduation.
In addition to law firms, some lawyers work in corporate/business settings as either in-house counsel (serving as a lawyer for the company) or in a non-legal capacity within the company. An example of such a role would be working in the compliance division of a company. The strong legal background that a lawyer brings with them makes them especially adept to work in this area even though compliance work does not require a J.D. Knowledge of the law is a strong benefit for this field.
Other lawyers work in a variety of environments including nonprofits, government, public policy groups, education, healthcare, and other industry sectors. Because laws govern so many areas of society, there is a need for legal counsel in nearly every industry that exists.
Those who pursue work in the legal practice area will need to amass certain key skills to be at the top of their game:
- Strong writing skills
- Research skills
- Critical thinking/analysis skills, including analytical reasoning and logical reasoning skills
- Problem-solving skills
- Oral advocacy and public speaking
In addition to these, the American Bar Association (ABA) recommends that those working in the field acquire some additional skill sets and knowledge bases that could be helpful to them as lawyers.
To learn more about the practice of law and legal careers, here is a list of recommended books:
- The Official Guide to Legal Specialties by Lisa Abrams
- So You Want to Be a Lawyer by Law School Admission Council
- So You Want To Be A Lawyer? by Marianne & Susanne Calabrese
- Should You Really Be a Lawyer? by Deborah Schneider & Gary Belsky
- The Lawyer’s Career Change Handbook by Hindi Greenberg
- Nonlegal Careers for Lawyers by Gary Munneke and William Henslee
- How To Succeed in Law School by Gary Munneke
- Law School Confidential by Robert Miller
- What Every Law Student Really Needs to Know by Tracey George and Suzanna Sherry
Web-based resources for exploring the field and keeping abreast of changes in the profession of law include the following:
Jobs & Internships
One of the best ways to learn about the practice of law is to gain exposure through hands-on experience. While most law firms reserve their internship opportunities for current law students, undergraduates can still find options for gaining experience in firm settings. Doing this requires a bit more patience and persistence on the part of the student, but it can lead to a great opportunity. To locate experience in law firms, the following steps are recommended:
- As a first step, always check Handshake, the Emory student job and internship database, to see if any law firms have posted opportunities for Emory students to which you can apply.
- Look up and contact local law firms in the area where you are interested in working. Smaller firms and solo practitioners may be more willing to take on undergraduate students than larger firms, as these firms can often use the help that a student can provide to perform basic tasks of the law practice. You can use Martindale.com or HG.org to search for law firms and lawyers in a specific area.
- Share, share, share! Tell everyone you know (parents, friends, family, family friends, etc.) that you are looking for a legally related opportunity. Forward them a copy of your resume and ask them to share it with any lawyers they know. Even if those lawyers don’t have an opening in their practice, they may know a colleague who does. You never know who knows whom!
In addition to direct law firm experience, consider other work environments where you could intern in a legal capacity through various legally related programs or other community resources that don’t require formal legal training:
- Legal departments in companies
- Local and county court systems, Public Defender’s Offices, and District Attorney’s Offices
- State and federal government offices
- Legal non-profit organizations, such as Legal Aid or the Southern Poverty Law Center
Another key consideration to make when searching for legally related experience is the type of law in which you may be interested. Knowing this upfront may make it easier for you to target your search for potential options for internships. For example, if you knew that you were interested in environmental law, it would be helpful to you as a future environmental lawyer to learn about the environment as a whole, not just the law affecting it. Therefore, doing internships in organizations that work with the environment, or would give you a good baseline of knowledge about the topic itself, not just the law. This knowledge base can be helpful to you once you reach law school and are taking classes in that practice area as well as in your legal future career.
Campus Organizations & Volunteering
Another great way to build experience is to get involved with campus organizations and doing community service in your area of interest. Joining student groups on campus and volunteer organizations can open additional doors for you to build experience, make new connections, and learn about additional opportunities that you can partake of in the future. Some on-campus clubs in which you could get involved if interested in law as a career include:
- Emory Pre-Law Society
- Oxford Pre-Law Society
- Emory Black Pre-Law Society (main campus only)
- Emory Mock Trial
For contact information for these organizations, contact Emory’s Pre-Law Advisor.
Resumes & Cover Letters
Because of the nature of work that goes on in legal work settings, writing resume and cover letters for positions in these environments should focus heavily on conveying the key skills mentioned above. Showcase prior experiences that speak to your gathering and use of these skills as well as demonstrating tangible results achieved while working in those experiences. Even if the positions were not legally related themselves, highlighting relevant skills can still result in being selected for an interview for a legally-related position.
As with all interviews, a few standard rules apply:
- Be prepared to discuss in detail anything you have written on your resume. It’s all fair game! This means having in-depth answers for questions such as why you chose particular opportunities, what skills you learned in your previous roles, and how those skills can be transferred into the current position for which you are interviewing.
- Be prepared with specific examples do demonstrate the quality of your work! Behavioral interview questions are quite common in interview settings, and these require you to be able to describe a specific instance in which you dealt with the situation at hand. Consider the skills that will be required of the job and reflect back on your own experiences. Look for matches between your experience and the skills needed in the job to be able to answer these questions. Some sample behavioral questions include the following:
- “Tell us about a time when you had to meet a tight deadline and use good time management skills to accomplish a task.”
- “Can you tell me about a time when you work on a project that didn’t go as planned? What was your role in the situation and how did you handle it?”
- “Can you give me an example of a time when you had to work with a difficult colleague?”
- Be prepared with specific questions about the organization to close the interview. In most cases, your interview will end with the interviewer asking you if you have any questions that you want to ask. It is always best to have a few questions prepared in advance, in addition to any that you might think of during the interview. Not asking questions at the close of an interview can make you seem uninterested in the role or the organization.
If you plan to pursue a career as a lawyer, law school will be a necessary first step. It is important to note that law schools do not require or even prefer that you have legal experience before coming to law school. Therefore, choosing to gain this type of experience before going to law school should be done more for the sake of career exploration and decision-making rather than for any type of admissions “brownie points.” For more information on pursuing law school, visit the Pre-Law Advising Office webpage and be sure to meet with Emory’s Pre-Law Advisor and get registered as a pre-law student. You can register by clicking on the link at the bottom of the Pre-Law Advising Office homepage.
As mentioned above, paralegals are another option in the legal career space. Unlike lawyers, law school is not necessary to become a paralegal. Being a paralegal is its own career path, and can be as rewarding and fulfilling as becoming a lawyer. Paralegal work requires a certification to become qualified for jobs in this field. There are a number of programs from which to choose, including Emory’s own Paralegal Certificate Program through Emory’s Continuing Education Division.
In addition to gaining hands-on experience, networking and building contacts and connections with professionals in your field of interest is a great way to advance your knowledge about the field and expedite your career success as your enter the field. There are a number of ways to expand your network in the legal careers sector.
The Emory Alumni Association has a great platform, Emory Connects, to allow for networking both alum-to-alum networking as well as student-to-alumni connections. Be sure to join Emory Connects and take advantage of this great resource!
The field of legal practice is broad, to say the least. There are more than 30 major practice areas, with more coming online as the world changes and evolves. One way to stay up-to-date with changes in a given area is to stay plugged into professional associations for the area. Below is a general listing of professional associations associated with the field of law. While this list is not meant to be comprehensive, it does capture many of the big players:
- American Bar Association (the ABA also has various sections revolving around different practice areas that can be accessed from their main site)
- National Association for Law Placement (NALP) – An association of over 2,500 legal career professionals
- National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) – the leading paralegal association in the U.S.
- American Health Lawyers Association
- American Immigration Lawyers Association
- American Intellectual Property Law Association
- Association of Legal Administrators
- Education Law Association
- Maritime Law Association
- National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
- National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA)
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
- National Lawyers Association
- Sports Law Association
Events on Campus
Emory students have the opportunity to connect with law school admissions officers and legal career professionals right on campus each year. The Career Center and The Pre-Law Advising Office host several programs throughout the school year that facilitate these connections.
- Law Admissions Networking Night – An event bringing over 75 law school representatives to campus for a night of mixing and mingling with students
- Grad School Fair – Held every October, Emory hosts a graduate school fair welcoming programs from all graduate and professional school disciplines, including law schools.
- Law School Fair – Similar to the Grad School Fair, this event is held each January and is only for law schools.
- Legal Careers Networking Night – Bringing together a group of lawyers from a wide variety of practice areas, this event allows students the ability to talk face-to-face with practicing legal professionals and get their questions answered about a day in the life of practicing law.
For more details and exact dates for these events, be sure to check The Career Center’s Program Guide (accessible from The Career Center’s homepage) each semester. Events will also be posted on Handshake.