A J.D. is a juris doctor degree, a doctorate in law. This is a graduate degree program that typically takes three years of full-time study or four to five years part time. Most law students complete a bachelor's degree first, so the total education for a lawyer takes at least seven years after high school. A J.D. opens up many possible careers, but the degree alone doesn't qualify you to practice law.
Before Law School
The majority of law schools require a bachelor's degree for admission, but you don't need any particular major. You can take a traditional pre-law major, such as English or history, or study whatever interests you, such as music or engineering, according to the American Bar Association. Undergraduate classes that will help you in law school include English, speech, economics, government and philosophy. Most law school admissions offices also require scores on the Law School Admission Test.
During Law School
Law schools that meet national standards are approved by the American Bar Association. In the typical curriculum, the first year of law school covers general legal subjects such as property, trusts, contracts, constitutional law and legal writing. During the remaining semesters, students choose classes in a specialty such as business law, civil procedure, public policy or family law. Law students also get practical experience through summer jobs as law clerks and on-campus activities such as practice trials, legal clinics and the school law journal.
Getting a License
A doctorate in law doesn't immediate qualify you to represent clients. Every state requires law school graduates to pass bar exams before they can practice law. The requirements vary, but many states require two-day written exams, with follow-up oral testing of those who pass. During the oral exams, you must show your competence and demonstrate the character needed for a lawyer. If you move to a different state, in many cases you must pass additional exams in the new state.
For 2020, 60,784 took the bar exam and 61% passed, 37,170. Puerto Rico, Alabama and the Virgin Islands were the only jurisdictions where less than 50% passed. California had the most law school graduates take the bar exam, 12,928 and also the most passing 6,420 or 50%.
Choosing a Career
Most law school graduates work for law firms, but lawyers also work in the insurance and finance industries and for local, state and federal government. Some J.D. graduates become judges or law school teachers, while others use their education as bankers, administrators and corporate executives. Law graduates working as lawyers earned average wages of $126,930 annually in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Law Graduate Outlook
The BLS estimates a 4 percent increase in jobs for lawyers between 2019 and 2029, similar to the average of all jobs. Nonetheless, a J.D. degree is not necessarily a ticket to a high-paying career. In April 2021, the American Bar Association reported that only 71.8% of 2020 law school grads had found jobs requiring Bar passage.
Every year, law schools produce more graduates than there are jobs available. Because competition is keen for legal positions, you'll have the best chances in the job market if you're able to relocate.
2020 Salary Information for Lawyers
Lawyers earned a median annual salary of $126,930 in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, lawyers earned a 25th percentile salary of $84,450, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $189,520, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2020, 658,120 people were employed in the U.S. as lawyers.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Lawyers
- American Bar Association: Careers in the Law
- American Bar Association: Pre-Law
- Princeton Review: Career -- Attorney
- Stanford Law School: Courses
- Bloomberg Business: Jobs Are Still Scarce for New Law School Grads
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013 -- Lawyers
- Lawyer Career: Lawyer Education
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Lawyers
- Career Trend: Lawyers