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What Can You Do with a JD Degree?

Before embarking on law school it is important to have a sense of how you plan to use the JD degree. Law school will take anywhere from two years (with an accelerated program) to over four years (with a part-time program) and will cost tens of thousands of dollars a year. In addition, you will have to pass the bar exam before you can be admitted to practice law. Therefore, it is helpful to have a sense of the professional opportunities that will be available to you with a law degree before making the commitment to enroll in a JD program.

When people think of a law school graduate, they typically envision a career spent in court rooms or negotiating complex transactions. But in addition to working as a practicing lawyer, a Juris Doctor allows for many other career paths. This section will explore the variety of careers one can have with a law degree.

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The legal profession allows for a wide range of opportunities. After completing a Juris Doctor program, many a newly-minted attorney begins her legal career as an associate at a law firm. Whether you wish to pursue a career in international law, sports law or criminal law, learning the nuances of the profession from a more senior lawyer at a firm can be invaluable. While law school equips each student with the ability to write and think critically, the practical application of the law is often learned through hands-on experience.

In addition to working at a law firm as a litigator or transactional lawyer, many law school graduates go on to work as in-house counsel or as a member of an organization's business and legal affairs team. Those with a law degree are not limited to working as attorneys. There are innumerable areas in which having a JD degree or a joint degree (i.e., a JD degree and a separate master's degree such as an MBA or MPH) can make a meaningful difference; examples include government, entertainment and the nonprofit sector. For these reasons, it is important to keep your options open as a law student.

This section will explore many of the careers you can pursue with a Juris Doctor degree.

Lawyer at a Law Firm:

Law school teaches you how to think critically and write effectively; however, it does not prepare a student for the day-to-day life of a practicing lawyer. A great way to continue your education upon entering the legal profession is to get exposure to the work product of a more senior lawyer and similarly to have a senior lawyer review your work. A law firm can offer both of these opportunities. The hierarchical nature of a law firm means that there are experienced lawyers available to work with new attorneys. Those who have just taken the bar exam and are starting their careers often appreciate the guidance from more senior colleagues.

Law firms vary considerably in size and practice areas. Big firms offer a number of different practice groups in which to learn, ranging from tax law to environmental law. As an associate in the corporate department, you will have the chance to work on transactions involving a variety of specialists. These experiences will ultimately make you a better lawyer.

While a big law firm will have incredible resources and be able to offer a significant salary and bonus, the hours can be considerable. In contrast, smaller firms tend to offer a better work-life balance. Many lawyers will spend the first few years of their legal career at a large firm and then transition to a small or mid-sized firm once they have gotten some valuable experience (and paid off their student loans).

In-House Counsel:

In addition to working at a law firm, a JD degree will also allow you to work as an in-house attorney. As a lawyer inside a company, you only have one client. That can be a refreshing change coming from a law firm where you are expected to manage multiple clients at the same time. Furthermore, you do not have to track your billable time (a necessary task at many law firms). As an in-house lawyer, you will also work closely with the business team, which will allow you to develop new skill sets. Companies often prefer having an attorney with prior experience, rather than a law school graduate, but it will depend on the nature of the role.

Government:

Lawyers have always been heavily involved in American politics and that remains true today. The 117th Congress has 175 members with law degrees.1 A legal education helps develop drafting and negotiating tools, both of which will be immensely helpful over the course of a political career. Many people enter government after having spent time as a practicing lawyer since lawyers are trained to assess situations objectively and make difficult decisions based on the facts available.

Public Interest:

Training as a lawyer can also be a stepping stone for advocacy work. Whether it is human rights or social justice, a JD program can launch a career in the public interest sector. The nature of your legal education can do much to jumpstart a career in this space. Northeastern University School of Law (NUSL) is a top public interest law school in the country. One of the unique features NUSL offers is its Center for Public Interest Advocacy and Collaboration, which has a core mission to train the next generation of social justice lawyers, and facilitate their entry into fulfilling public interest careers after graduation.

Additional Degree:

In addition to pursuing a career immediately following graduation, there may be value in obtaining an LLM or another master's degree (whether as part of a dual degree program or otherwise). An LLM degree will allow you to specialize in a particular area of legal practice, such as in tax law, which could prove valuable down the line.

Although the most straightforward path after law school is a career as a practicing lawyer, in reality, there are many options available to those with a JD degree. Do not feel that there is only one right path.