Excite Careers


No respect

Question: "What do you call 5,000 lawyers on the bottom of the ocean? Answer: "A good start."

So the joke goes--one of thousands of wisecracks about a profession that just doesn't get much respect these days. Lawyers are blamed for many of society's problems, from thwarting business to promoting an ever-increasing flood of litigation. While there is certainly some truth to these allegations, lawyers are more a symptom than the cause of these problems.

I want my lawyer

Despite their sometimes dismal reputation, lawyers are an essential force in virtually every aspect of modern society. Many lawyers work in large firms, where they engage in transactional work (including tax or corporate law) or litigation (either civil suits or criminal defense). Other lawyers work in smaller firms and may specialize in such areas as divorce or tax law. Another option is to work as in-house counsel at corporations, where the pace is slower and the chances for advancement are greater. Some law school grads elect to work directly in criminal law, where they help defend or prosecute accused criminals. Finally, a sizable contingent of lawyers work at public interest organizations, where the pay is comparatively low but the satisfaction can be high.

Long hours, high pay

Whatever their focus, lawyers endure an arduous quality of life. While some corporate lawyers may have sleek offices with beautiful views, they must labor in those offices for an average of 12 to 14 hours a day. Attorneys must also put up with intense stress, a formal dress code (although this is beginning to change in some legal circles), and a culture which values workaholism. Add to this the fact that few young lawyers will make partner, and you have a profession that some view as tedious and disillusioning.

Nevertheless, some lawyers are delighted with their chosen field. The financial rewards can be substantial, as partners at top firms make millions of dollars. Lawyers at the top of the industry also enjoy work on the deals and cases that help shape their communities and the world. For those willing to endure long hours and high stress, law can be a lucrative and intellectually rewarding career choice.

Career Path  

Upon graduating from college, an aspiring lawyer must take the law school entrance exam (the LSAT) and then go through three years of law school, with summers spent in internships or clerkships at law firms. After passing the bar exam, an associate at a law firm will typically spend years at the firm, with the ultimate goal of becoming a partner. There are also many legal jobs within the federal government as well as in state and local jurisdictions. Alternately, a lawyer could aspire to become a judge or law school professor--positions with lower pay but high amounts of prestige.

At large law firms that serve mainly corporate clients, the path to partnership is long (up to 10 years) and very difficult--for many people, little more than a pipe dream. Many associates plan on working several years before moving in-house or leaving the law altogether. If a lawyer chooses to go it alone, the opportunities vary depending on the intelligence and dedication of the attorney.

With over 650,000 lawyers in the United States alone, there are many different options for those fresh out of law school. Recent competition has escalated the starting salary for top firms in major cities to well above $100,000. The reality, though, is that those searching for--and getting--the big bucks straight out of law school are usually educated behind Ivy-covered walls.


High salaries;Large-firm perks such as firm retreats and free meals


Long hours;High stress level;High level of dissatisfaction

Personality Match  


Personality Miss  



Average about 55 per week (more for first and second year associates)


Median entry-level salary: $45,000;Median overall salary: $78,170;Median starting salary in private practice: $60,000;Starting compensation at top NY, SF, LA law firms ~ $125,000-140,000;Starting compensation at top Boston, DC firms ~ $125,000


Law degree (JD) from an institution accredited by the American Bar Association;Passing the state bar exam

Our Survey Says  

The law profession may be the ultimate example of the "golden handcuffs" dilemma. On one hand, law school graduates who work in large firms generally "rake in the cash" and enjoy status "that is second only to physicians." As one contact puts it, "there's a reason why your mom wants you to marry a lawyer." If you want "easy admission to the local country club" and "plenty of expense account dinners," this is the field worth considering.

But big bucks, exalted status, and plentiful perks come at a high price. More than a few respondents warn of the "stultifying lifestyle" that involves "endless hours," "monotonous work," and "sinking morale." A few complain about "overweening" partners "who will remind you that you are beneath them" and "who will make sure that you don't leave the office before 10 pm." Says one respondent, "At my firm, they want you to get your work done--and done perfectly. If you don't, they get angry." All of this translates into a profession in which "many of us would be doing something else if we had the chance." Despite this low morale, however, law schools have no shortage of applicants who see law as a means of "doing some good in the world" or at least "making some fast loot while impressing your neighbors." For those who are "analytical," "willing to take orders," and "anal or at least willing to work with anal people," law may be a good choice. Just "know what you're getting into."

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