Legal Studies & Education

When someone says "legal career," the automatic tendency is to think "lawyer." But there are actually quite a few other careers in the legal field that do not require a law degree.

What are some legal careers, besides being a lawyer?

  • Arbiter, conciliator, mediator
  • Corrections officer
  • Court reporter
  • Judge
  • Hearing officer
  • Local/state/federal law enforcement
  • Paralegal/legal assistant
  • Private detective/investigator
  • Probation/parole officer
  • Security guard
Most judges and hearing officers have law degrees and experience as lawyers, but some states do not require a law degree. Some arbiters/conciliators/mediators also have law degrees but it is not a requirement.

Options/requirements for people looking for a legal career without a law degree

Educational options for legal careers without a law degree include the following:
  • Associate degree: Entry-level paralegals and legal assistants are usually required to have at least a 2-year associate degree or a certificate in paralegal studies. Some employers prefer a bachelor's degree and provide on-the-job training if the degree is in a discipline other than law. Some entry-level law enforcement as well as local law enforcement positions require an associate degree plus training at a law enforcement academy.
  • Bachelor's degree: Probation/parole and state law enforcement officers and most federal law enforcement agents are generally required to have at least a bachelor's degree and some law enforcement experience.
  • Other: Court reporters usually have postsecondary certificates and may need to be licensed in some states. Most states require private detectives/investigators to be licensed but most do not have specific education requirements. Qualifications for security guards vary substantially among employers.

What does it take to earn a law degree and become a lawyer?

Education for a law degree includes a 4-year bachelor's degree plus 3 years of law school culminating in a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), the J.D. is the equivalent of a Ph.D. Candidates must then pass a written bar examination in the state in which they plan to practice law. Requirements vary by state.

Can you become a lawyer through an online law degree program?

In order to sit for a state bar examination, students must have graduated from a program that is accredited by the ABA. Although some classes can be taken online, they are highly regulated by the ABA. Only California currently allows graduates of unaccredited online programs to sit for the California bar exam. However, not all states recognize law degrees that include unaccredited course work. According to an Inside Higher Education article, some colleges and universities are offering online master's degree programs in U.S. law. The ABA is also reviewing its accreditation standards with the goal of eventually increasing the number of courses a law student can take online, but it is unknown whether the ABA will accredit fully online law degrees in the near future.

What are the advantages of a degree in law or legal studies?

In addition to relatively high salaries for lawyers, other advantages for those with a law degree or with a legal studies background include the following:

  • Credibility: Getting a law degree is not easy and takes at least 3 years. Having a law degree may demonstrate intelligence and perseverance.
  • Skills: Graduates of law programs generally learn how to logically reason out an argument and develop the critical thinking and problem-solving skills so crucial to recruiters.
  • Altruism: Graduates of legal programs have an opportunity to help others by representing them as lawyers or through other legal outlets.

What are some of the disadvantages?

While there are advantages to a legal education, there are also some potential disadvantages, especially for those wishing to earn a law degree, such as the following:

  • Quality of life: Being a lawyer can be personally grueling, as the profession can be stressful and highly competitive.
  • Huge debt: According to an article in The New York Times, even a mediocre law school is going to cost around $43,000 per year.

Studying the law or legal studies, much as with any other discipline, has its pros and cons. Whether a student is studying to be a lawyer or for a career in another legal profession, it's necessary to do some serious research before heading down what may potentially be a difficult and possibly expensive road.