Explore Legal Careers

Why should I explore legal careers now?

As the American Bar Association explains, “There are many good reasons to explore the law and the legal profession before entering law school.  You will gain a more realistic view of the actual practice of law, the skills you will need, and the realities of the legal employment market.  Greater familiarity with the legal system—its institutions, concepts, and even vocabulary—can advance your understanding of law school curriculum.  You may identify potential practice areas that suit your personality, interests, and values.  You may even enhance your candidacy for admission to law school, as well as your opportunities for employment during and after law school.”

Lawyers provide legal advice and representation to companies and individuals in both civil and criminal matters. They are essential to all major aspects of business, personal and government matters. Lawyers often find themselves on the cutting edge of political and social debates, responsible for managing deals involving millions of dollars or even helping to settle life and death questions.

A practicing lawyer’s work can encompass:

  • Reading about legal precedents, spending hours or months in law libraries or with online databases

  • Preparing contracts, briefs, and other documents, assembling boilerplate paragraphs or writing text from scratch

  • Planning and conducting depositions, which in complicated cases can generate thousands of pages of testimony, all of which has to be read, analyzed, and refined into usable information

  • Traveling to jails and prisons to meet with clients, sometimes having to deliver devastating news

  • Appearing in court frequently (Litigation Attorneys), or never/seldom appearing in court (Transactional Attorneys). Lawyers who specialize in litigation will argue cases before judges or juries.

Almost all American lawyers earn their JD degree after three years of law school, and then take the bar exam in the state in which they wish to practice. They do not have to stay in the same state where they earn their JD, though it is very common (70% of attorneys get a job in the state in which they graduated law school).

Attorneys who graduate from a law school in Wisconsin (Wisconsin Law School or Marquette Law School) also have the option of receiving diploma privilege, which means that they can be admitted to practice law in the state of Wisconsin without having to take the Wisconsin Bar Exam.  This is currently the only state that has diploma privilege.

Learn more about law degrees from the Law School Admissions Council

The Occupational Outlook Handbook: Lawyers

While many lawyers are generalists, there are opportunities for specialization. Here is a comprehensive list of law specializations.

Salaries can vary widely depending on what type of law you practice. See Law Salaries by Job Sector. If you’re curious how common each of these job sectors are for law graduates to pursue, see Percentage of Law Jobs by Sector.

American Bar Association: Career Paths in Law

The American Bar Association recommends taking “advantage of opportunities to shadow, network with, or be mentored by practicing lawyers. Seek credit-bearing or paid internships in law-related settings during college breaks and summers.  Consider law-related employment between college and law school. While these experiences are not required for admission to law school, they can help you make informed decisions that lead to a successful law career.  Legal employers are increasingly seeking law school graduates who are practice-ready.  Your experience before law school can help you hit the ground running when you become a lawyer.”

AccessLex Institute

AccessLex is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing valuable FREE resources for prelaw students and law students related to financial education. MAX Pre-Law by AccessLex(Now Ask EDNA) provides asynchronous lessons on financial education, as well as a live hotline, AccessConnex. You can also attend a live webinar, search the database for law school scholarships, or get ideas about schools you may want to look into using XploreJD.

READ: Guide to Financing Your Legal Education

Paralegal/Legal Assistant

While most jobs in the legal field require a JD, there are positions within law firms that are research focused, usually paralegal/legal assistant positions. Most students use these positions as a “stepping stone” to law school for 1-2 years. These positions may involve doing basic legal research, filing court papers, and gathering relevant information from clients.

Lawyers and paralegal/legal assistants typically work in the following settings:

  • Private law firms ranging from sole practitioners to global firms with over a 1,000 lawyers

  • In house counsel for companies.

  • At all levels of the government (local, state and federal)

  • Nonprofits and public interest organizations

The qualifications for a paralegal job can vary from state to state.  Some states may require you to have certification as a paralegal, while others will not.  In Wisconsin this is not required but is often listed as a preference on many job postings. Keep in mind that a job posting is a wish list, and not a list of requirements, so this should not prevent you from applying. Undergraduate students and recent alumni have been successful in obtaining these positions in the past.

The Occupational Outlook Handbook: Paralegals and Legal Assistants

Legal Internships

The term “legal intern” is often used for internships designed for students already in law school, so a search for legal internships can sometimes feel very discouraging to undergraduate students at first. You will find some jobs with the title “legal intern” are designed for undergraduates, but you have to be willing to sift through those that are for first and second year law students to find them. Try being more nimble with your search term and look for internships that mention specific areas of law you might be interested in i.e. Human Rights, Immigration, Patents, etc.

Public interest, nonprofits and government agencies tend to have more substantive opportunities for undergraduates than corporate law firms.

How do I search for legal jobs and internships?

Legal employers may not have bandwidth to do a lot of undergraduate recruiting, so you may have to look harder and try some additional tactics to secure these types of positions.

Here are some steps to take to find these types of opportunities:

  • Meet with a career advisor with your school or college to go over job search strategies, the best websites to use, and to review your resume before applying. You can use your school or college’s career center for pre-law job search questions even if you are not in a major that is typically seen as common for pre-law students. The information listed on this website will give you some ideas but is not exhaustive. (For more information on what to ask your career advisor versus your pre-law advisor, check out our advising page)

  • Because it is common for “legal” interns to perform administrative tasks, highlight those experiences on your resume and in your cover letter.

  • If you haven’t already, sign in to Handshake, UW-Madison’s job search platform, to activate your profile and begin searching for jobs and internships

  • Start your search with some of these top Legal Job Search websites

  • If you are open to an internship with a Non-Profit, try searching at Idealist.org

  • If you are looking for opportunities with the Federal Government, the main search site is USAJobs.gov. The Federal Government hires all majors, and entry level jobs for undergrads are typically GS level 5-7. The website MakingtheDifference.org is designed to teach you all you need to know for an effective job search within the Federal Government.

  • If you are into social justice, check of the Successworks Social Justice Internship Program
  • If you are interested in interning abroad, check out UW-Madison’s International Internship Program

  • If you’re looking to become more involved on campus and advocate for issues with the UW Administration, Madison City Council, or the WI State Legislature, you may consider applying for an internship with the Associated Students of Madison (ASM).

  • Students who are interested in policy, politics, legislation or government often pursue internships at the Wisconsin State Capitol. See the Political Science Department Internships page

  • Want to work in DC? Check out the Wisconsin in Washington Program
  • Join the UW-Madison Internships & Careers in Government, Policy, Int’l Affairs & Law group on Facebook for relevant job postings.

  • Follow the Center for Pre-Law Advising on Facebook- we sometimes post job opportunities there.

  • Follow firms that you are interested in on Linkedin, Facebook and other social media. Sometimes they might only post a job via social networks.

  • The best way to secure an internship in a legal firm is to utilize your contacts and further develop a network of legal professionals.  Know an attorney? Know someone who knows an attorney? Let them know you are looking for positions, and ask them to suggest anyone they know who may be looking for help.

  • Cold call. Sometimes lawyers are so busy that they need help but do not have the time to post an ad, especially in public interest or small firms. Consider reaching out to inquire about whether they are currently hiring or planning to hire anyone soon.

  • Be nimble in your search terms. Many legal internships do not have the word law or legal in the job title. Ex. “Immigration intern”