Legal Careers: 5 Things to Consider Before Working at a Law Firm

There are thousands of law firms in the US employing over a million legal professionals.

You don’t have to work in a law firm to find legal jobs, but that’s certainly the best environment to hone your skills and work your way up the ladder. Legal careers are both lucrative and fruitful, but there’s a lot you need to know before you apply for a job at a law practice.

Today, we’re going to look at five things you should be thinking about before working at a law firm. The more you understand about your career prospects as a paralegal, legal assistant, or lawyer, the better you’ll be able to navigate the trials and tribulations. 

Like most careers that we hold in high prestige, working in the legal profession is a grind. Keep reading and we’ll tell you everything you know before you get your start.

1. Not All Law Firms Pay Well

Many young people who are just coming out of law school might expect to hit the ground running as soon as they land their first job. The fact of the matter is that you’re not guaranteed to make a six-figure salary right out of school – although, it is possible.

Your starting salary will depend heavily on the type of law firm that you land a job at. If it’s a smaller firm that deals with smaller cases, you’re going to have a lower salary. At a big firm that deals with corporate law, you might have a huge starting salary.

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The other factor that you need to consider is the type of work that you’re doing. If you’re trained as a lawyer, you’re going to have a higher starting salary, while those looking for legal assistant or paralegal work will make less money to start.

Try not to make it all about the money and think about the experiences that you want to have. At a smaller firm where you’re making less money, you may have more opportunities for learning and working your way up to becoming a partner. Larger firms are harder to break into and even harder to work your way up.

2. You Can Work Your Way Up

Speaking of working your way up, that’s an important aspect of working at a law firm. When you start out, you’ll be on the first rung of the ladder, so you’ll have to take the long view of your career. You won’t necessarily have everything you want from a law firm job right away.

When it comes to legal careers, there are many entry points. If you’re a student at the top of your class, you may be recruited by a top firm. Most people have to find their own way into the law firm of their dreams.

One of the ways to do this is by taking a different job. Paralegals and legal assistants are essential employees, especially at bigger law firms. They prepare documents, conduct research, and help lawyers with the day-to-day aspects of their jobs. 

Being a paralegal is a great way to get experience and learn from someone who is further along in their career. You can find this type of work by using a paralegal temp agency or doing it the old-fashioned way, handing out resumes.

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3. Choose a Specialty Early On

When you come out of law school, you’ll have the world in front of you. This is exciting in many ways, but it’s also incredibly overwhelming. One of the biggest decisions you’ll ever make is your legal specialty.

There are numerous areas of law, with most firms specializing in one particular area. When you go to work for one of these firms, you have to be cognizant of the fact that your experience will be in that specific type of law.

Family law requires a different set of knowledge and skills than personal injury law. Criminal law is vastly different from tax or business law.

It’s something you need to think long and hard about before applying for your first law firm job. That’s not to say that you won’t have transferable skills, but if you spend five years at a personal injury law firm, it’ll be hard to switch to corporate law without going back to the bottom of the ladder.

4. Law Firms Present Opportunities

Some of the overlooked perks of honing your craft at a larger law firm are the experiences you have and the connections you make. Even if you’re making a low salary, you can’t replace the experience you gain from working on cases that come through big law firms.

The same applies to the people you meet, however. Networking is a big part of being a legal professional. If your goal is to open your own firm one day, you need plenty of connections to other legal professionals, as well as potential clients.

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When you’re starting out in your career, it’s important to acknowledge this. Don’t pass up good opportunities and understand when you can use a particular experience to your advantage. You’re working for a company, yes, but you also need to think about the long-term impacts on your career.

5. Going Small, Mid-Sized, or Large

Choosing between a small, mid-sized, or large firm can be tricky. There are pros and cons to each that you’ll need to weigh before deciding.

Big law firms, as we’ve mentioned, pay more. It’s a good opportunity to hop into the deep end right away, pay off your student loans with a larger salary, and get the experience you need as the foundation for your career.  It also takes longer to get promoted and the workplace culture can be restrictive.

Small and mid-sized firms are usually the more enjoyable ones to work at. You won’t get paid as much, but you’ll be working with a smaller team, so opportunities for advancement will be more readily available. They’re also usually more relaxed, which many young lawyers find appealing.

Prepared for Working At a Law Firm

Now that you know a bit more about the ins and outs of working at a law firm, you’ll be prepared to make these big life decisions. Remember, there are pros and cons to each decision. Weigh them out carefully and pursue the law firm work that best suits your needs and personality.

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