For a mid-level human resources manager at a large corporation, addressing legal issues might just be a part of their daily duties. Day in and out, they interact with employees, lawyers, and in-house counsel, often discussing topics governed by state and federal law. To better understand legal subject matter, non-lawyers may seek out an education that provides them with broad exposure to the law but doesn’t require taking the bar exam and becoming a practicing attorney. For that, many HR professionals turn to a master’s degree in legal studies or dispute resolution—degrees designed for professionals in need of a legal education or a new career.
“Our classic student is somebody who already is in a professional position and wants to understand all of the legal ramifications of their professional interactions,” said Jason Jarvis, dean of online programs at Pepperdine Caruso School of Law.
Non-lawyer legal jobs exist in several industries including education, real estate, law enforcement, and health care.
What Can You Do With a Law Degree Besides Be a Lawyer?
“However, the type of legal work you can do as a non-licensed attorney is so broad, it’s easier to talk about the few things you can’t do than list all the things non-lawyers can do,” Jarvis explained. “If you want to be in court, arguing in front of a jury, yes, you have to get a Juris Doctor degree,” Jarvis said.
But there’s more than one educational pathway for those seeking alternative careers with a law degree. Beyond the JD, law schools offer other graduate degree programs that prepare individuals for a variety of roles that intersect with lawyers and the practice of law.
“Many kinds of deal making, policy work, even litigation support that doesn’t involve speaking in court, almost all of it can be done without a JD degree,” Jarvis said.
Law degrees for non-lawyers include the Master of Legal Studies (MLS) and the Master of Dispute Resolution (MDR). The MLS is designed to teach students the broad principles of law and how to apply the law to specific factual circumstances. Students are required to take a core set of classes on the fundamentals but are then able to specialize based on their areas of interest. A person hoping to work at a large university, for example, may take classes focused on employment or education law. Other options include litigation support, tax law, environmental law, and international law.
“As students proceed through the MLS degree, it becomes a little more specialized and a little more hands-on and practical because we’re trying to equip people to be able to do their jobs better or to move into another job that’s a step up for them,” Jarvis said.
The MDR degree is tailored to professionals in roles that may require resolving conflict or who need formal training on how to resolve disputes between people. Graduates may work professionally as mediators in civil actions that are being litigated in court or in family disputes. They may work in other arenas such as schools, police departments, and businesses; or mediating between employees and employers.
Law Firm Jobs for Non-Lawyers
Law firm jobs for non-lawyers do exist and encompass a wide array of opportunities. Professionals in such roles work on legal issues even though they do not argue in court. Some relevant careers similar to lawyer positions include litigation support, paralegals, legal assistants, electronic discovery specialists, legal IT professionals, and others who work in support roles with lawyers. Court reporters create word-for-word transcriptions at trials, depositions, and hearings. Both mediators and arbitrators play crucial roles in settling disputes between parties.
Learn more about possible careers at law firms for graduates with an MLS or MDR below.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
Paralegal vs. lawyer—what’s the difference? The ABA defines a paralegal as someone who is employed by a lawyer, law office, corporation, or government agency to perform delegated legal work under the supervision of a lawyer. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), paralegals may be tasked with:
Investigating and gathering the facts of a case.
Researching relevant laws and regulations.
Writing or summarizing reports to help lawyers prepare for trial.
Drafting correspondence of legal documents.
Their main goal is to support lawyers by completing a variety of organizational and administrative tasks. In large organizations, paralegals may sometimes work on a particular phase of a case, rather than seeing it through beginning to end.
Paralegals can work in a corporate setting or within a law firm. Corporate paralegals typically help lawyers prepare employee contracts, shareholder agreements and review government regulations, while litigation paralegals conduct research for lawyers and organize evidence to use at depositions and trials.
While short certificate courses for paralegals have existed for a long time, Jarvis sees a trend toward master’s degrees in legal studies as the new door-opener for high demand paralegal jobs.
What Does a Legal Assistant Do?
Legal assistants (historically referred to as legal secretaries) are similar to paralegals in that they help support a lawyer’s workload. Some of their responsibilities include:
Obtaining affidavits and other formal documents that may be used as evidence in court.
Handling exhibits, taking notes, and reviewing trial transcripts during trials.
Filing exhibits, briefs, appeals, and other legal documents with the court or opposing counsel.
Calling clients, witnesses, lawyers, and external vendors to schedule interviews, meetings, and depositions.
Administrative tasks like answering phones and keeping calendars.
Legal assistants are usually heavily involved in the day-to-day operations and administrative duties within a law firm. Paralegals, however, work on litigation matters and may specialize in legal areas such as personal injury, criminal law, employee benefits, intellectual property, bankruptcy, immigration, family law, and real estate.
Another common difference between the two roles is compensation. A legal assistant’s work is paid for by the law firm, whereas the paralegal’s work is often billed to the client.
What Does a Mediator Do?
Mediators help people resolve their disputes. They are neutral figures who help facilitate discussion and guide the individuals in an argument toward a mutually acceptable agreement. According to the ABA, mediation is a private process where a neutral third person (the mediator) helps and guides disputing parties as they describe their issues, discuss their interests and feelings, and explore ideas for how to reach a resolution. It is a voluntary process.
Facilitating communication between disputants to guide parties toward mutual agreement.
Clarifying issues, concerns, needs, and interests of everyone involved.
Setting up appointments for parties to meet for meditation.
Interviewing claimants, agents, or witnesses to obtain information about disputed issues.
Evaluating relevant laws and regulations to reach conclusions.
If the opposing sides are unable to reach a settlement with the mediator’s help, then they can choose to pursue other avenues. Still, if they do come to an agreement, it may result in a written contract that is enforceable by the court. Mediators cannot make a decision for the parties, but they help establish the ground rules and agenda for the session.
What Does a Magistrate Do?
A magistrate is a federal trial judge that’s appointed to serve in a district court for an eight-year term, according to the Federal Magistrate Judges Association (FMJA). They are appointed by district judges, who are life-tenured federal judges of a district court. They supervise the activities of the magistrate judges by assigning civil cases for trial. According to the United States Courts, a magistrate is in charge of:
Researching legal issues.
Evaluating information from documents, such as motions and claims.
Presiding over hearings and listening to arguments by opposing parties.
Determining if the information presented supports the dispute.
Deciding if the procedure is being conducted according to law.
A deep and nuanced understanding of the law can come in handy for professionals across all industries seeking nontraditional legal careers. Alternative careers with a non-JD law degree include compliance officers, human resource managers, and lobbyists—all of whom may have a footing in industries such as education, social work, business, health care, and media.
Jarvis notes that he has seen a particular uptick in applicants to Pepperdine Caruso Law who are interested in pursuing social justice work through policy at nonprofits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
“From the standpoint of addressing racial injustice, we’re uniquely positioned and have specific classes that we teach students that can help them resolve racial and socioeconomic injustice in the United States and beyond,” Jarvis said.
Those specialized classes focus on cross-cultural conflict resolution, psychology of conflict, employment disputes, and a Race and the Law seminar. Jarvis believes that those who pursue this course of study will also be poised to fill the new diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) positions that are being created in large companies, law firms, corporations, and higher education institutions across the country.
“If you have taken all of these classes, you would be as well-equipped, educationally, as you can possibly be to apply for those kinds of jobs,” he said.
Is a Law Degree Worth It for Non-Lawyers?
An MLS or MDR can potentially open up opportunities for people who want to advance in careers where legal knowledge or conflict resolution skills make a difference. Jarvis encourages students to think about what they want to do with their careers in order to determine which degree can serve them best. He points to those diversity, equity, and inclusion positions as a good example of how to maximize the value in a law degree for people who do not want to work as lawyers.
“To go into a place that would hire you for a position like that, you have to show that you have the serious academic and analysis gravitas that a full-fledged master’s degree demands” he said. Just as not everyone needs a full-fledged JD degree, not everyone needs a full-fledged master’s degree. “But as long as you have a plan,” noted Jarvis, “a master’s degree in the law can be a critical stepping stone to a more rewarding career as a non-lawyer.”