Many people have some ideas about the legal system and its role within our society – we have plenty of TV series and movies to thank for that! But how accurate are these depictions, and what does a career in the industry really look like?

The American legal system is one of the most influential legal systems in the world. As they develop their law, American legal concepts, ideas, and approaches are often borrowed or considered by non-American courts and legislatures.

The American Court system is based on the English Common Law system. In a criminal case, the prosecutor acts as a plaintiff on behalf of the citizens or the state. The basic idea is that there are two sides, the plaintiff and the defendant, who present their arguments before an impartial judge (and sometimes a jury).

The legal industry covers an expanse of sectors, and there are opportunities to become highly specialized. Legal careers have been highly stereotyped by mass media and movies – and while there are certainly some roles with lots of excitement, many are a bit more straightforward!

Legal firms primarily provide legal advice, representation and prepare legal documents for a range of clients.

Most firms are specialized in the support they offer so that they might offer advice and guidance covering:

  • Commercial Law Services
  • Personal Legal Services
  • Industrial Relations Services
  • Property Law Services
  • Criminal Law Services
  • Intellectual property law services
  • Community Legal Services
  • Administrative, Constitutional and other law services

Solicitors, barristers, and legal aid officers typically provide these services within firms or non-profit organizations.

Alternative legal pathways in the industry include dispute resolution, conveyancing, and intellectual property services.

As well as independent legal firms who offer their services to various clients, some organizations also have what is referred to as in-house legal teams who deal with all the legal matters for that company. You’ll typically find these types of legal teams based in large international corporations such as banks or local governments.

Alongside legal roles in the commercial and private sectors, there is also a large sector of the industry focused on legal aid and working within not-for-profits. These professionals typically work with underrepresented groups or individuals who require support but may not have the means or ability to access the right legal professionals. This sector also involves many career pathways within advocacy and policy development.

The legal industry is a highly regulated field. Entry to becoming a fully registered solicitor, lawyer, or barrister will require a bachelor’s degree, alongside postgraduate study and successful completion of professional competency-based exams dependent on the type of legal work you want to do. These can also be State-dependent.

That might sound like a lot of work, but a legal career is guaranteed to be rewarding and offer many opportunities to grow professionally.

What You Could Do

Job roles in the industry are varied, as almost every industry is touched on by legal requirements they have to fulfill. As such, legal roles exist to support these industries.

The best way to learn more and help form decisions about the roles available and what you might be suited for is to conduct as much research as you can and build a profile from there.

Here’s a look at some of the top jobs you could pursue:

  • Criminal Lawyer: Criminal lawyers represent defendants facing criminal charges in courts. Their scope of practice includes bail bond hearings, plea bargains, trial, revocation hearings (parole or probation), appeals, and post-conviction remedies. As part of their job, criminal lawyers investigate the specific case details, interview witnesses, research case law statutes, crimes codes, and procedural law, build a defense and develop a case strategy that best supports their client.
  • Solicitor: Solicitors provide advice on legal issues to individuals and businesses. They usually specialize in one or more areas of the law. Solicitors conduct interviews to understand client needs, provide recommendations on courses of action, assist clients in acting on them, investigate and research legal claims, prepare contracts, and analyze documents for legal issues. They can also help prepare and execute wills and provide legal representation in court for clients when there is no need for a barrister.
  • Barrister: Barristers are legal professionals who represent clients in court. They also conduct research, provide expert legal advice, confer with clients and witnesses, and act as mediators, arbitrators, referees, or conciliators. Barristers receive written information in briefs and verbal instructions concerning cases from solicitors or other legal professionals. They then provide advice, written opinions of legal practice, prepare court proceedings, draw up pleas and other legal documents required for court cases. In some legal cases, barristers are required to represent clients in court and provide arguments on behalf of their clients to secure appropriate legal outcomes.
  • Conflict Mediator: Mediators facilitate negotiation and settlement between disputing parties by providing direction and encouragement. They work collaboratively with all parties to help them find ways to reach a mutually satisfying solution. Mediators do not represent or advocate for either side in a lawsuit. Their role is to try to bring both parties to a common middle ground. Most mediators specialize in who they work with, for example, family mediators, workplace mediators, or criminal mediators.
  • Paralegal: Paralegals perform legal, regulatory, and business-related research for lawyers and other legal professionals. Paralegals usually work for law offices, legal departments, or courts and can assist with research, document preparation, and general support. Although not admitted to practice law (except for those who have obtained a law degree), paralegals often perform tasks also performed by lawyers. Under the supervision of a senior lawyer, they can run their own files and conduct work that a junior lawyer may otherwise undertake.
  • Legal Aid Officer: Legal aid officers provide access to free legal advice and assistance for socially or economically disadvantaged members of a community. Each state or territory has legal aid organizations that deliver a range of assistance in criminal, family, and civil law matters. Legal aid officers might meet with clients face-to-face to discuss individual circumstances, or they may offer guidance over the phone or the internet.

These job roles are only just scratching the surface!

As with many other industries, many additional support roles keep this industry moving, including administrative, accounting, marketing, human resources, and IT professionals.

Graduate Outcomes & Gender Split

To practice and register as a lawyer, solicitor, or barrister, you must complete a bachelor’s degree and professional exams. You may also be required to complete some postgraduate study.

Although a competitive field, graduates confident in the industry sector they want to practice in tend to do well with employment post-studies.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers tracks graduate employment across different industry sectors.

Here’s a look at recent outcomes data for graduates:

  • Legal Professions Graduates in full-time employment: 47.4%
  • Legal Professions Graduates in employment overall: 84.6%

Keep in mind that this doesn’t account for graduates working part-time and/or who may have continued to higher studies; these are promising percentages!

Gender Split

The gender split across the industry depends on the segment of the sector you work within. Historically, the legal industry has been male-dominated, but this is beginning to change.

Recent statistics indicate the split for solicitors is:

  • 53% Female
  • 47% Male

Further research indicates that the more senior roles are still dominated by men with the following gender split for lawyers who are partners at their firm:

  • 37% Female
  • 63% Male

Average Salary

Current surveys in the sector indicate the median salaries for full-time roles in this industry as:

  • Junior Lawyer Roles: $69,200-$82,000
  • Senior Attorney Roles: $103,000-$142,000
  • Firm Partner: $162,000-$187,000
  • Solicitor: $73,000-$92,000
  • Barrister: $128,000-$142,000
  • Paralegal: $50,200-$58,000
  • Legal Aid Officer: $55,200-$61,200

Salaries can be pretty varied, with lower expectations for entry-level roles.

Salaries are also determined by several factors, including:

  • The segment of the industry you work within.
  • Your job title and seniority.
  • The amount of experience you have.

Location, some rural areas may pay less than roles in main cities.

Industry Growth

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the legal industry has been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some businesses were forced to close temporarily, and this has impacted some areas of the industry. However, this is is not expected to last as the country enters recovery and smaller companies and households resume legal services.

Certain services are countercyclical, and there was a growth in specific subsectors. For example, bankruptcy and unemployment legal services increased due to heightened business failures and unemployment.

Demand from businesses and households is expected to increase in 2022, particularly for smaller companies that were negatively financially affected by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. However, demand from large corporate clients have remained strong throughout the crisis.

The number of law graduates steadily declined between 2013 and 2019. As of 2020, 34,420 students graduated from law school across the States. Law school graduates undertake many career paths. Legal occupations can be primarily distinguished between lawyers, judges, and judicial workers on the one hand, and legal support workers, such as paralegals and legal assistants, on the other.

As of May 2020, most professionals employed in legal occupations in the States were lawyers. According to recent reports, lawyers were also the highest-paid workers in the sector, followed by judges and magistrates.

Qualifications and Entry Pathways

To practice as a solicitor, barrister, or lawyer, you must complete a minimum of a four-year bachelor’s degree, postgraduate study. Then pass exams in a specified area of law or the legal system you wish to work in.

Professional registration and licenses are also required.

To become a lawyer usually takes seven years of full-time study after high school:

  • Four years of undergraduate study
  • Three years of law school

Most states and jurisdictions require lawyers to complete a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA).

The legal industry is highly competitive, so even for paralegal and legal aid roles, where the entire seven years of study isn’t required, it’s generally expected you will hold a bachelor’s in legal studies.

Community colleges offer two-year paralegal programs, while colleges and universities feature four-year programs.

Requirements will depend on the type of role you want and the company – so make sure you research.

Best Places to Study

Where you choose to study will be dependent on a range of factors, but some universities are rated higher than others for specific subjects.

Some of the best-rated universities to study law include:

  • Yale University
  • Stanford University
  • Harvard University
  • Columbia University
  • The University of Chicago
  • New York University
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • The University of Virginia

Some of the best-rated universities to study legal studies or paralegal studies include:

  • Stanford University
  • Harvard University
  • Columbia University
  • The University of Chicago
  • New York University
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • The University of Virginia
  • University of California

Where to Learn More

You can learn more about different trades and services pathways through professional bodies and organizations advocating for careers in the sector.


Some good places to start include:

Each state will also have several professional organizations to help you learn more about the industry, network, and develop your career.