Best law jobs

Arguably, when it comes to the best legal job in America, it would be hard to top Judy Sheindlin’s. As headliner of the TV show “Judge Judy,” she’s paid $47 million a year, or about 117 times more than the president, also a lawyer.

And critics say law school doesn’t pay off …

OK, so her gig may be the top of the mountain. However, lawyers have a wealth of options when it comes to legal jobs. And that’s a good thing, given the stress and challenges many of these jobs bring. It’s no secret that lawyers have long struggled to find job satisfaction in a profession known for long hours, adversarial cases and — in the law firm setting — the dreaded billable hours. It has almost become a mantra for lawyers to complain about unhappiness, as if every lawyer were equally miserable.

The changing legal market hasn’t helped matters. It’s harder for associates to make partner, and some Big Law firms have downsized. Yes, the nation’s economic picture is said to be brightening, but the demand for legal services has been forever altered, some argue. Many businesses are more aggressive in seeking lower legal costs — a lesson they learned during the downturn.

Technology also continues to have an effect, eliminating legal jobs once done by people. And law school grads continue to find an ultra-competitive job market. So, all in all, it sounds kind of gloomy.

However, there are reasons people are drawn to law. There are reasons it remains one of society’s more compelling careers. Lawyers can make a difference. They can be agents of change.

The National Jurist sought to determine which legal professions offer the greatest opportunity for happiness and job satisfaction. To determine the best legal jobs, we assessed more than 20 types of jobs open to lawyers and weighed each for internal motivation, autonomy, stress and salary.

These are the most important factors that lead to happiness, according to a recent study — What Makes Lawyers Happy? Transcending the Anecdotes With Data From 6,200 Lawyers.

Lawrence Krieger, a clinical law professor at Florida State University College of Law, conducted the survey and found that happiness is found “in work that is interesting, engaging, personally meaningful and focused on providing help to others.”

Krieger concluded that autonomy, competence and internal motivation all play an important role.

The study dispelled the myth that happiness is built on some of the perks one might expect to bring happiness, such as prestige, power and pay. Krieger found that “prestige lawyers” — those working in private practice in law firms of 100 or more attorneys — were not has happy as the public service attorneys even though the prestige lawyers got paid more.

Krieger was quick to point out that there is no one job that will make everyone happy. 

“If you take a job at a big firm because you love the work, you will be happy,” he said. “But if you take the same job just for the high salary, you will be unhappy.”

Using Krieger’s criteria, as well as some of our own, we created our list of the 10 best legal careers.

1. Judge or magistrate 

As we mentioned,  there’s Judge Judy ... and then there’s everybody else. But even traditional judicial roles make this legal career No. 1. First, judges enjoy the highest level of autonomy, and in most cases have supporting staffs to assist them. Internal motivation is very high, as most judges find great satisfaction in helping people resolve conflicts. Judges also get fairly high salaries and enjoy the prestige of the authority.

“It’s a fabulous career,” said Gregory O’Brien, who served 20 years as a judge in the Los Angeles Superior Court system. “You have independence. You’re not there to advocate. It provides a lot of professional satisfaction.”

Unfortunately, it’s a tough job to land. Judges and magistrates make up only 2.2 percent of licensed attorneys in the U.S. There are only 3,294 federal judges and an estimated 12,000 state judges.

However, it can happen. O’Brien said it’s important to maintain, at all times, a high level of professionalism as you go through your law career because your peers could play a role in your appointment or election. It’s also important to get involved in your community via volunteer work.

He did pro bono work as a pro tem judge in small claims and traffic court. That experience got him hooked on the possibility of becoming a judge full time.

“I was blessed,” he said.

2. Law professor 

While not everyone is cut out for the academic life, it is without question a cushy job. Clients? What clients?

Billable hours? What billable hours?

Nancy Levit, a professor at University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law, was featured in the book, “What the Best Law Teachers Do.” She also co-authored a book, “The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in Law.”

So she has a good sense about this …

“Law professors have a great deal of autonomy in choosing what they teach and how to teach it,” she said. “They are usually in excellent command of their subject matter area and feel competent.”

Still, the best part of the job is the personal connections you make, she said. Law professors are affecting lives, after all.

“Perhaps most importantly, over time, they develop close personal connections with many students, which thoroughly enriches the professors’ lives,” she said. “The most meaningful recognition that I have ever received was in an anonymous thank-you card at the end of a semester about 10 years ago, which said, ‘Good teachers care about how their students are doing in the classroom. The great ones care about how their students are doing in life.’”

Additionally, the pay’s not bad, either. In 2008, a full professor earned $147,000.

The downside: Legal academia makes up only 1.5 percent of the legal workforce. And with law school applications down, there are limited job opportunities.

To read about the eight other best law jobs, read the free Fall digital issue of the National Jurist magazine here.  

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