A lawyer is a person who holds a license to practice law. They advocate on behalf of their clients, or they work in another capacity in the legal field. Not all lawyers actively practice law. Completing the requirements to obtain a law license and getting your license makes you a lawyer. The path to becoming a lawyer can be a challenging one. It is important to start on your path at an early age and learn great study habits while still in high school.
What does a Lawyer do?
Lawyers work in both the public sector and the private sector. Attorneys who represent clients help their clients understand the law and pursue the course of action that is most helpful to their client’s position. Their help might range from giving their client advice on how the law applies to their case to formally representing their client in a courtroom. Lawyers might prepare legal documents, interview witnesses, conduct depositions, argue court motions and conduct trials. For most lawyers, each day is a little bit different.
Steps to Becoming a Lawyer
Becoming a lawyer takes a certain amount of academic skill. To become a lawyer you must complete five core steps:
Step 1 – Acquire Undergraduate Degree
Step 2 – Write and Pass Law School Admission Test (LSAT)
Step 3 – Acquire Juris Doctor Law Degree
Step 4 – Write and Pass Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE)
Step 5 – Write and Pass Bar Exam
Every law school requires an individual to obtain an undergraduate degree. Most people that are choosing a career in the legal field will need to keep their GPA above 3.0. Most law schools will not worry about the particular subject area that a person majors in and choosing a subject that is particularly difficult can actually be a disadvantage as your GPA could suffer as a result.
One exception is for someone that is interested in property law. A person who wishes to practice property law will need to have a degree in math or a technical science such as computer science, electrical engineering, chemistry, or biology. The reason for this is that a property lawyer has to sit for the patent bar as well as the bar which requires a math or technical science degree.
In order to be accepted into law school a person will be required to pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). This test is required for any law school that has been approved by the ABA as well as most law schools in Canada. The standardized test takes a half a day to complete and assesses an individual’s verbal reasoning skills and acquired reading skills. Law schools use this information to assess their applicants.
While this test is not necessarily the greatest measure of how a person will perform in law school, most schools place a lot of weight on these scores, near the same weight that is placed on the person’s college GPA. For those individuals who do not have a high GPA, scoring high on the LSAT can increase their chances of gaining access to law school. Many schools also use the LSAT as a factor when determining financial aid.
The LSAT is administered around the world at hundreds of different locations four times each year. Most schools will require that the LSAT be taken by the month of December in order to be admitted to law school for the following fall semester. However, it is recommended taking the test in October or June if possible. LSAT Locations and Test Dates can be found here.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to even be eligible to take the bar exam, you first need a legal education that culminates with a law degree (typically the Juris Doctor). In most states, you must graduate from an accredited law school in order to be eligible to take the bar exam. In other states, you can attend an unaccredited law school, but you must complete additional testing requirements.
Law schools have their own requirements for admission and graduation. Admission to law school is selective. Most law schools admit students who have an undergraduate degree and a good grade point average. Applicants typically must submit scores from the LSAT. Law school requires three years of full-time study, but students who choose to study part time can take four or five years to complete their education.
Before writing the Bar exam, aspiring lawyers must write and pass an ethics exam known as the MPRE – Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination. The MPRE is a two-hour, 60-question multiple-choice examination developed by NCBE that is offered three times a year. It is a prerequisite for writing the bar exam in all but three U.S. jurisdictions (Maryland, Wisconsin, and Puerto Rico).
The final step to becoming a lawyer is to write and pass the bar exam. The bar exam isn’t easy. In some states, the passing rate is only 40 percent. The bar exam usually consists of multiple choice and essay questions that evaluate your knowledge of state law and your ability to apply the law critically to various fact scenarios.
Work environment for Lawyers
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that lawyers typically work in an office setting. Whether they work at a courthouse or in an office, they’re usually sitting behind a desk for much of their day. While it varies among specialties, many lawyers don’t travel further than a day trip in order to practice law. They might travel to a handful of courtrooms in their geographic area, but it’s uncommon for most attorneys to do a lot of traveling. While lawyers might occasionally have to hit the pavement in order to meet with a client or find a witness, most of what attorneys do happens behind a desk.
Jobs for lawyers
Lawyers might work in any of the following capacities:
- Private practice
- District attorney or prosecuting attorney
- Public defender
- Legislative drafter
- Law professor
- Non-profit, charity attorney
- Advocacy and lobbying for a client
- Advocacy and lobbying for a charity on behalf of underrepresented groups
- Judge in the judicial system
- Administrative law judge
- Research assistant for a judge
- In-house counsel for a corporation
- Attorney for a government agency
Key Skills required for Lawyers
According to O*NET Online (a partner of the American Job center network), the following skills are required for practicing lawyers:
- Active Learning
- Active Listening
- Complex Problem Solving
- Critical Thinking
- Judgment and Decision Making
- Learning Strategies
- Reading Comprehension
- Service Orientation
- Social Perceptiveness
- Systems Analysis
- Systems Evaluation
- Time Management
Lawyers do require a wide range of academic and interpersonal skills. While most people likely know that attorneys need analytical and debating skills, there are a few key skills that are crucial to an attorney’s success which may not be as obvious.
Lawyers need to know how to use technology. Whether a lawyer works in private practice, for a government agency or even as a judge, they have to work with various software systems. Most law firms use a case management system to manage files and bill clients. At the very least, attorneys must type and use software systems for basic document preparation. Several free and paid services offer attorneys access to software for legal research.
Listening and Comprehension
Legal professionals can’t work effectively for their clients unless they are able to listen and comprehend what is being communicated. An attorney must be able to listen to the client in order to understand the specifics of their situation. Cases often hinge on the details, and a lawyer must be able to pick up on those details.
In addition, effective examination of a witness and effective cross examination depends on the attorney’s ability to comprehend what’s being said. When a judge gives an oral opinion and directs the parties to reduce it to writing, an attorney has to be able to make an accurate record of what the judge says. Even though lawyers are often called on to speak, if they don’t listen, they can’t be an effective advocate for their clients.
Lawyers spend their careers receiving good news and bad. They have to tactfully negotiate with opposing counsel. Sometimes, the wheels of justice turn slowly. Attorneys have to have the patience to weather these ups and downs.
For attorneys in private practice, the business of practicing law means running a business. Lawyers must know how to sign clients, how to bill and how to process payments. They must learn how to market their business and how to choose wisely among potential clients. When clients don’t pay for their services, they need to know how to effectively handle collections. Most attorneys must have an understanding of business management in order to work effectively.
Written and Verbal Communication
Lawyers have to understand and analyze large amounts of information. They must read quickly and figure out what’s important to their case. Then, they need to effectively communicate this information in writing. Some legal specialties lean primarily on speaking, while other careers focus entirely on writing. However, all lawyers need to be able to read, write, and speak effectively.
Lawyers need to be able to apply facts to law. They must be able to look at a situation and determine if the rule applies and whether any exceptions apply to the rule. They need to use their logic skills in order to find fault in the other side’s arguments. There’s a reason that logic games make up a good portion of the Law School Admission Test. Attorneys have to be able to create logical arguments, reason and evaluate the arguments of others.
How to choose a Law School
Most law schools teach the same basic first-year courses, but from there, law schools vary considerably. If you already know your chosen specialty, you can choose the law school that has a clinic focus or elective courses in your chosen field. If you aren’t sure about the path of your legal career, you might consider the diversity of programs that each law school offers.
Some law schools have generous scholarship and grant programs that can defray the cost of a legal education. You might consider your financial aid package when you make a decision. Other considerations such as where you ultimately want to live after school and the academic reputation and bar passage rates of the schools you’re considering can also be critical deciding factors when you make your choice.
Most lawyers practice in a small, niche area of law. Many areas of law are inherently complex, and no attorney could effectively understand them all. Some lawyers set up what they call a general practice, but even this is only tailored to the basic legal needs of individual clients and small businesses. Lawyers might practice in many specialties including:
- Estate planning
- Criminal law
- Contract law
- Worker’s compensation
- Disability/Social Security
- Personal Injury
- Family law
- Constitutional law
- Tax law
- Administrative law
- Professional discipline
Job Growth and Career Opportunities
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of May 2016 there were 792,500 practicing lawyers across the United States with an estimated job growth of 9% over the next 10 years.
Depending on a person’s career goals, a lawyer may decide to build their own law firm. On the other hand, an attorney might use their legal training in order to launch a political career. They might make a lateral move to working for a government agency or they might work for a government agency before moving into private practice. Attorneys also might choose academia as their focus. The career path for a lawyer largely depends on the attorney and their personal career goals.
As stated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2016 a lawyer has an annual median salary of $118,160 and hourly mean wage of $56.81 per hour. Keep in mind however that this figure can vary widely depending on the attorney’s years in practice, their specialty and their geographic location of practice.
Why become a Lawyer?
Lawyers have different motivations for entering the legal profession. It’s a profession that requires ambition. For people who enjoy the thrill of a challenge and the pride that comes with winning a case or climbing the corporate ladder, the law may be a good fit.
Other lawyers find their primary motivation in helping others. For people who want to change the world, the law is enticing, because attorneys are powerful. They can file court actions in order to ask for official orders that have a profound impact on society. Whether they help people on a large or small scale, those who enter the legal profession often find great satisfaction in helping others.