How Becoming a Lawyer Works

Law school could lead you to the Supreme Court one day.
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"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," Dick the Butcher famously declared in Act IV, Scene Two of William Shakespeare's Henry VI. In Shakespeare's time, being a lawyer was a tough gig and it's the same today. Becoming a lawyer is even tougher. But it's definitely a worthwhile profession. Some would say that attorneys are the engine of the law, and the law is the backbone of our democratic society. Without lawyers, we would have no defenders in our adversarial system of justice, and no one to guide us through the complexities of that system. Lawyers protect the innocent, ensure that ordinary folks get equal and fair chances at trial, defend the rights afforded to us all by the Constitution, assist injured parties to recover compensation or damages and even help immigrants become citizens. Their ranks are growing every day. With so many important duties, and with so many people becoming lawyers, why did Shakespeare give them such a bad rap?

Possibly because the profession is a relentless one. On average, attorneys today work between 50 and 70 hours a week. That's 10-14 hours a day, Monday through Friday. (Obviously, there's no time left over to read Henry VI.) And if you're looking for an occupation that rewards hard work with compliments and praise, you might want to look elsewhere. Many clients come to you only when there's a problem to be fixed, which means the client is probably unhappy before you even begin to work on resolving the problem. And sometimes, if you don't get a favorable settlement, you won't be paid for your time at all.


If the hours, sometimes thankless work and William Shakespeare's words don't scare you, you might just have what it takes. So, how does becoming a lawyer work? Let's find out.

Law School Commitment

There are many noble reasons to become a lawyer, not the least of which is the unique capacity the law has to influence and augment peoples' lives. More personally, however, the practice of law can be fulfilling if you enjoy meeting deadlines, exploring your intellectual limits, engaging in spirited debate, performing deep analysis and engrossing yourself in interesting research. You should also have a knack for organization, both with your work and with your time, and, of course, a passion for justice, fairness and the law.

Becoming a lawyer takes a rare kind of commitment as well; law school is three years on top of four years of undergraduate work. That's seven years of paying out tuition before you can even start thinking about collecting a lawyer's salary. And, depending upon the law school, it's often more expensive than other advanced degrees. There is a great deal of competition out there for law students (26,500 applicants in fall 2005 alone) and for lawyers (1,104,766 actively practicing lawyers in the United States as of 2005, according to the American Bar Association). It takes tenacity to face those odds.


The first step to becoming a lawyer is to get into law school. To do this, you need a college degree with a relatively high grade point average (GPA). You also need to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), an entrance exam. After three years of law school, you're required to take another test, the Bar Exam. Passing the Bar licenses you to practice law in the state where you take the exam, and voilá -- you're a lawyer. Then you have to get a job.

But it's not like in the movies. Most young associates don't see the inside of a courtroom for years. Some never get to argue in front of a jury. In fact, most of a lawyer's time is filled with paperwork, interviews, research, filing and re-filing motions and organizing case files. Unfortunately, no one gets to be Atticus Finch except Gregory Peck.

These are all things that need to be considered carefully when considering law as a career. It isn't right for everyone, but many people do it and find it a challenging, rewarding profession.

So you really want to be a lawyer -- now it's time to talk schooling.


First, study hard in high school so you can go to a good college. When you get to college, choose any major that interests you most and allows you to develop your analytical skills. Law schools accept many majors, and some majors can lead you to a focus during law school. History, for example, may help you in Constitutional Law courses, while a Computer Science or Engineering major is excellent for students who want to focus on Intellectual Property or Internet Law.

Some colleges offer pre-law majors, similar to a pre-med major. However, medical schools have specific course requirements that a pre-med major satisfies, whereas law schools don't have such requirements. So these pre-law majors aren't actual majors in the traditional sense, but rather hybrid courses of study that cut across numerous fields. You get a great variety in a pre-law major, but not an area of concentration that can be helpful later in you career.

The important things to take out of your undergraduate studies are communication skills (both oral and written), analytical skills and organizational skills. Any major, if you take the rigorous and demanding courses within it, can enhance these skills. So pick something you have great interest in and excel at it.


Entering Law School: What You Need to Know

There are a lot of different factors to consider when applying to law school, so try to be as organized as possible.

Every good Boy Scout knows to be prepared, and so should every aspiring law school candidate. You should start preparing for the LSAT in your last year of college, or soon after you graduate. Look into the deadlines for law school applications, and know that the sooner you apply the better. Applications roll into law school admissions offices in waves, the last and biggest of which crests around the deadline date. The sooner you can get your application in front of an admissions officer, the better your chances of getting in. Register with the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) and for the LSAT online or by mail. Be prepared to demonstrate your aptitude, both on the standardized tests and your application, and also by way of a personal interview, which is sometimes required by a law school.

In the end, the process is similar to what you did to get into college. Although, the competition is generally more intense at this level, and fewer applicants make the cut.


Let's take a closer look at some specifics.


The LSAT is a comprehensive exam not unlike the SAT or the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), but unique in that it is designed specifically to assess your readiness for the rigors of law school. There are five 35-minute sections to the test, four of which count toward your final score: reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and two logical reasoning sections. To pass, you must demonstrate proficiency in each category. There is also a writing sample that isn't factored into your score but is sent to each of the schools you apply to. The test is scored on a scale of 120-180.

The LSAT is administered by the Law School Admissions Counicl (LSAC). It is offered four times a year in every state, usually at major universities. You apply to take the test through the LSAC, and the LSAC submits your scores to the law schools you apply to.


In a way, the Law School Admissions Council is the great and powerful Oz of the world of law school. It acts as a clearinghouse for the entire application process and its central nature helps ensure a standardized, fair and streamlined set of procedures:

  • You first send your official transcripts and letters of recommendation to the LSAC, which forwards them along to the schools you're applying to.
  • The LSAC determines where the LSAT will be held in your state.
  • Your LSAT scores are sent to the LSAC first and then to you.

ABA Accreditation Where you go to law school is determined in part by your performance on the LSAT and by the quality of your undergraduate work (your GPA). When making the selection, you should look for American Bar Association (ABA) accredited schools. Only a student who attends and passes an ABA accredited school is permitted to sit for the Bar Exam in his or her respective jurisdiction. This function of the ABA, like the LSAC, allows for a unified national body of lawyers, with level standards and without the fragmentation that might occur if no governing body existed.

You made it through the acronyms. You feel prepared for the process of getting into law school. Now, how will you pay for it all?


Law School Funding

The first year of law school is exceedingly demanding. Just ask any first year law student. Because that first year is so academically rigorous, most ABA schools prohibit students from working more than an average of 20 hours per week -- and often working at all is frowned upon. But if financial obligations demand that you do work, there are some schools that are more accomodating. Some offer part-time/evening programs that are tailored to the student with a career. You should note, though, that this usually takes a year longer than the typical three-year program, so you're looking at a four year committment instead.

Tuition can range from $5,000 a year to more than $35,000. The actual cost of attendance is much higher, after factoring in books (hundreds a semester), lodging, food, transportation and living expenses. So, without a job or the time to get one, how can you afford this?



Grants are money the Federal or State government gives you that you do not have to pay back. These usually entail a long application process and are the most rare. Grants are usually given based on need.


Granted by the institution you are attending, the state or funded by private organizations. They usually are awarded for academic excellence.

Work Study

Provides funding in exchange for part-time work at the university, and is typically offered only to second and third year law students.


Similar to grants, except that they are awarded for a particular academic path. For instance, a fellowship may be awarded by a governmental department that would fund chosen applicants to participate in a set curriculum, which would be chosen by the fellowship committee.


Based on the school's estimate of your financial need and the overall cost of attendance, there are two types of loans. Federal loans, which are more need-based, are harder to procure and have better interest rates. Private loans require good credit on the part of the student and have higher interest rates (though still lower than the loan you might take out to, say, buy a car or house). Federal loans are further broken down into two categories: subsidized and non-subsidized. Non-Subsidized loans behave much the same way private loans do, whereas the interest on the principal of subsidized loans is suspended while you are in school. Once you graduate or withdraw, however, you must begin paying the interest six months thereafter.

It's a good idea to seek out experts and solicit their opinions. Talk to a counselor at your undergraduate college. Most universities have financial aid departments. There, you can ask for materials and advice. You could also speak to your financial planner or banker. Carrying a great amount of debt is a serious matter, even if it's an investment in your future, so proceed carefully.

Well, now you've figured out how to pay for law school. You've taken your boards and done your research on how to apply. But which school is right for you?


Selecting a Law School

You've decided to only apply to ABA-approved schools. But there are more than 200 such institutions in the United States. Which should you apply to? Of course, you need to find the school that's right for you. Look first at the curriculum. Keep in mind that the first year and a half is the same everywhere: every ABA school teaches the same core classes within the first year. However, this does not mean that these core classes are taught in the same manner. Just as with undergraduate institutions, some law schools have a reputation for being liberal or conservative. And the professors have a lot of influence over how their classes are taught. The elective classes offered depends on the school you attend. Visit Web sites for various universities or write to them for a catalogue and other information.

Look at the size, composition and background of the student body: could you get along there? Would you like a more diverse population? Would you rather be in a big city or a college town? The faculty of each school can vary by degree of clinical experience, as can the size of classes and the availability of student organizations. Some schools offer special programs of study that might interest you, while others will have mentoring programs that might fit your learning profile. There are public schools, private schools, large schools with small graduating classes, small schools with large graduating classes, schools with high tuitions and schools with comprehensive financial aid packages.


Most people agree that applying to six law schools -- two "safety" schools (schools you're sure you can get into), two "targets" (schools you would, ideally, like to attend and feel suited for) and two "reaches" (schools you probably don't have the credentials to get into, but would like to attend) -- is reasonable, but depending on your situation you may choose more or less. Keep in mind that application fees can be very expensive (up to $250 for some schools), but law schools are also generally very competitive. For more information, check out a Web site like Law School Numbers, where law school applicants post information such as LSAT scores, GPA and where they applied and were accepted, rejected or waitlisted.

Law School Curriculum

You'll take many of your hardest law school courses in the first year, but they're also some of the most important.

Hooray! You're in! You found the school that fits like a glove, aced your LSATs, secured financing, glided through the interview, and got into law school. What can you expect now that this part's over?

First, the hard part is just beginning. Law schools, unlike medical schools or some undergraduate institutions, don't have classes specifically designed to weed out the weaker candidates. The most demanding classes, however, tend to fall in the first year when you take the core curriculum requisites mandated by the ABA. Courses such as Contracts, Torts, Constitutional Law, Criminal Procedure, Property Law, Civil Procedure and Legal Writing lay the necessary groundwork for a career in law and the rest of law school, but they're also the hardest courses you'll take. All the concepts of law are spelled out in these classes; everything else flows from this knowledge base. In many ways, these first few courses are the most important courses you'll take in law school, and will be the ones you reference most as a practicing attorney.


After the first year and a half, you can take more specialized courses such as Tax, Intellectual Property, or Environmental Law. Most schools offer legal clinics such as Bar Review or Moot Court. Some schools place special emphasis on different areas, such as trial practice, independent study or clinical experience. Occasionally, you can find a program that offers a joint degree, such as an MBA/JD (Master of Business Administration combined with a Law degree). Once you get past the first year or so, you can start getting into the areas of law that interest you most. You need 90 credits to graduate, and most classes are worth 3-4 credits. The nature of the classes varies from institution to institution, and even professor to professor. Some classes will be more structured than others, some will require more research and writing, some will have only one test at the end of the semester. All classes will test your time management skills, your capacity for organized and analytical thought and your knowledge of the material presented. They will all be demanding in some fashion.

Upon graduating from law school, you will have a Juris Doctor (JD) law degree conferred upon you. This, while being a great achievement in and of itself, does not a lawyer make. The law is a profession like any other, and, as a professional, you must be licensed. This is where the Bar Exam comes in -- and if you thought the LSAT was tough, this is tougher. We'll learn about the Bar on the next page.


The Bar

You still have to pass the Bar before you can get in that courtroom.
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The Bar is the term for all attorneys, collectively, in a given state. The term derives from the actual railing used to separate the general spectator area of a courtroom from the lawyers, judges and clerks working there.

Every law student must petition for admission to the bar of the state in which they wish to practice. Applications are filed through the State Board of Bar Examiners. Criteria for eligibility are established by these boards on a state-by-state basis. Once a candidate is deemed eligible, they may then sit for the bar.


Different states have different requirements for entry into the bar. Indeed, some, like Wisconsin, have no bar exam for students that graduate from an ABA-approved state law school. Others test only for educational standards. But the majority require that you sit for a bundle of tests collectively referred to as the Bar Exam. The exams are typically offered twice a year, usually two months after each academic semester in February and July.

Studying for the Bar is generally undertaken by enrolling in a state's Bar/Bri course, which is a highly intensive two month, four hours a day, review course for Bar preparation. At this time, Bar/Bri is the only company that provides preparation courses. Although these courses are not required, they are highly encouraged. Typically, an individual will graduate from law school in May and begin the Bar/Bri courses within a week of graduation, which will last until the Bar examination in July. Because of the amount of time involved, students are encouraged not to undertake any employment until after the exam. There are loans and funding available specifically for the cost of the Bar/Bri course, the exam fees and as a supplement to income.

There are generally two days of academic testing: the first day for the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), the second for a state-specific exam. The MBE is a six-hour, 200-item test that covers the same six areas covered in the core curriculum of all ABA accredited universities: Contracts, Torts, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Evidence, Property and Torts. The state test tends to be in essay form and its topics vary depending on the state. That said, a growing number of states have opted into nationally developed tests, such as the Multistate Essay Exam (MEE) and the Multistate Performance Test (MPT) in lieu of traditional state exams.

In most states you must also pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE), which you can take within 12 months of the bar. The MPRE is 50 questions to be answered over two hours and deals with the ethical obligations and responsibilities a lawyer has. Concurrently, you must meet exacting character and ethical fitness standards, and submit to the bar a detailed questionnaire about your background. This condition of admission to the bar reflects the strict code of ethics that attorneys must adhere to. With the great power of the law also comes great responsibility, and state bars wish to ensure that their members meet the standards of ethics required to bear such responsibility.

Other Ways to be Admitted

Some state bars practice a form of reciprocity -- if you've practiced in one state for a certain number of years, you can automatically practice in another, if you ask. This process is called admission on motion. You can also practice on Limited Appearance, or pro hac vice. You may represent someone in a court proceeding in that state with the court's permission. You can be an authorized house counsel and practice in a state not your own, and also as a foreign legal consultant.

On the next page, we'll learn about life after law school.


Life After Law School

There are many different paths to follow once you have your law degree.

Once you pass the bar, it's time to get to work. You could start by taking an internship or clerkship immediately afterwards. These are great methods of advancing and preparing for your career in law, and some are actually paid positions. Internships place you within a working law firm so that you get an insider's view of what practicing will entail. Clerkships, usually with a judge, afford the clerk a perspective of the law from the highest perch in the courtroom, and are invaluable on a resume.

Graduates can also opt for a post-JD degree, either in practical application or in academic, doctorate level programs. The practical degrees include:


  • LL.M.- Master of Laws
  • J.M.- Juris Master
  • M.C.L.- Master of Comparative Law
  • M.J.- Master of Jurisprudence

The research and academic doctorates include:

  • J.S.D.- Doctor of Jurisprudence
  • S.J.D.- Doctor of Judicial Science
  • D.C.L.- Doctor of Comparative Law

Each of these advanced degrees requires additional schooling (one or two years apiece) and peer-reviewed published work on a specialized subject within the law.

Or, you can go to work.

Practicing Attorneys represent individuals, companies, associations, legal aid societies or government entities. Any and all of these clients can be plaintiffs or defendants in a legal action, and how and when these clients are represented determines a practice area.

A newly minted lawyer's daily routine will be largely determined by his or her practice area. Trial lawyers, or litigation attorneys, appear in court more often. But a young associate still probably won't appear before a judge or jury until several years into practice.

There is a division within the practice area of litigation: criminal or civil. A criminal litigator can work either for the government by representing the state (as a District Attorney), or representing the accused as either a public defender (also employed by the government) or as a private attorney. Civil trial lawyers can represent either a defendant or a plaintiff. Plaintiff attorneys represent those persons who wish to bring forth a claim (sue someone), and can sometimes work on contingency fees (receiving payment only if a favorable verdict is delivered).

Civil lawyers also assist clients in setting up wills and trusts, contracts, real estate transactions and in bankruptcy matters. The great bulk of lawyers out there fall into a civil practice area.

Positions, or One Million Things to Do With a Law Degree

The typical large law firm is a partnership (specifically, a limited liability partnership), and so there are two positions for attorneys: partner and associate. Associates work under the partners (who have a financial stake in the firm), helping with their caseload and occasionally taking cases of their own. Some associates will work for years before making partner. Some never make it. Working in a big firm is only one option for the new lawyer. Some other options are:

  • You can go to work for yourself. Finding and landing clients while competing with large firms is the most difficult aspect of this route.
  • You can work for the government.
  • You can work for a corporate entity as an in-house counsel. You advise on legal matters and practice to a certain extent. You have a guaranteed client, but it's always the same one.
  • You can go back to law school to teach.
  • You can, if you have the expertise and the tenure, be elected to a judgeship. Judges at many levels of the judiciary system are elected positions, however, and have all the drawbacks you might expect from an elected position. Still, being a judge is widely considered the top of the profession.

The process to becoming a lawyer is a long and hard one, but one that is essentially rewarding.

For more information about becoming a lawyer and related topics, check out the links on the next page.