There is no one path that leads to law school, and there is no perfect time to decide to become a lawyer. Individuals bring a variety of backgrounds, a multiplicity of perspectives, and, certainly, differing misconceptions to the prospect of a future in the law.
In any career path, there are many avenues that steer people in a particular direction. There are, for example, those people who seem to know from very early on in their lives what they want to do when they grow up, and there are those who seem to move from one endeavor to another—for years after their friends have found their particular niches—before being willing or able to make a serious commitment to a vocation.
Each of these paths has its own benefits and drawbacks. In addition to individual circumstances, all of us who live in the modem world are beset by a plethora of images of who a lawyer is and what a lawyer does; these images come to us through the media and through our own observations. It's easy to point to the television and movie lawyers and say sagely, "Yes, we know that's the glamorous side and not a realistic picture." But we don't always remember that law is such a broad-ranging profession that to know one lawyer, or to have close contact with one law firm, in no way gives us a full picture of the profession of law.
Whether you've come to consider the legal profession for yourself only recently, or you've been considering it for a long time, there are advantages and disadvantages that each particular perspective brings to bear on the life-altering decision to attend law school. Let us take a look at some of the more common directions from which individuals arrive at this conclusion. Perhaps you will recognize yourself—or some part of yourself—in one of the descriptions that follows. If you are completely sure that law school is for you, congratulations! You may want to move directly to the more practical sections of this book, or you may want to read on to find out more about who your prospective classmates will be.
My Father, Mother, or Cousin Is a Lawyer, So I Guess I'll Be One Too
Those of you who feel like you've been groomed your entire life to enter the family profession have a particularly strong responsibility to assess yourself honestly and realistically. You will do no one any good—not yourself and not your family—by entering a profession for which you are ill-suited in order to please someone else and fulfill the expectations of others. On the other hand, if you indeed are drawn to the law for all the right reasons, you are among the fortunate. You are fortunate to have an insider's perspective close at hand. Notice we said close at hand, not by osmosis. You will still benefit by exploring the reality of a lawyer's life by direct observation or perhaps through working at a part-time job. Insight is not automatically conferred upon you by virtue of having a lawyer in the family. While making full use of your contacts, bear in mind that observing one kind of law practice only gives you a part of the picture. If you are interested in the kind of law, or the type of law practice, to which you have ready access, so much the better. But it would be wise not to assume that is all there is to the law. As far as assessing yourself as a likely candidate for a career in law, you would do well to ask yourself the same kinds of questions that anyone coming to law by a less direct route should ask of himself or herself. These questions are discussed in the next section.
I'm a Senior or Junior in College and I'm Undecided About My Life
Although one may begin to think about being a lawyer as early as high school or in the first two years of college, many prospective law school students begin to target law school during the last half of their college career.
Some of these students will consider medical school, business school, and other graduate programs, along with law school. Since law school is widely considered the closest thing available to a continuation of the liberal arts degree, some students will choose it by default. Students are wise to consider their choice carefully, particularly given what law school entails—intellectually, psychologically, and financially—before beginning the long and demanding process of applying to law school. It's possible that such a student will make a good candidate for law school and a successful lawyer, but he or she must first think this choice through carefully, using as many resources as are available. Law school is too serious a proposition to be undertaken by default alone. Legal study requires a major commitment of time and money; it will require many hours of serious study.
Most college juniors and seniors considering law school will fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum between the dabbler and the already dedicated. You probably know where you fall. You've been told you are bright and you can talk anyone into anything. Intelligence is, of course, a factor—but there are all kinds of intelligence. The kind of intelligence required for success in law school, and in law as a discipline, has to do with your analytical powers, your ability to reason and approach problems logically, your verbal and communication skills, and your good judgment. You must be able to read and write well before you enter law school, and you must be able to analyze diverse bodies of information to reach logical, viable solutions. Learning how to advocate a particular point of view within the context of the legal system can be both stimulating and frustrating. Being an effective lawyer calls for a fair amount of intellectual dexterity—the ability to juggle three or four ideas simultaneously. Skills in interacting with all kinds of people are also important. Depending on the kind of law you practice, you will deal with people from a variety of cultural backgrounds, professions, income levels, needs, and interests. Some of your relationships will be very rewarding, both professionally and personally. Others may seem difficult—if not distasteful. In any case, you must be willing and able to offer intelligent, competent counsel to all of your clients: the practice of law is a service profession.
Native intelligence and communication skills, however, are not going to be enough. Staying power is also necessary. There are some very intelligent people who do not have the ability or are not willing to stay focused, to maintain the discipline required to absorb large quantities of information, and to persevere. There are others who are not geniuses, but who succeed in law school because they are dedicated and willing to work hard.
Jim Riley, prelaw advisor at Regis University in Denver, puts it succinctly: "Whether you succeed or not will depend on your persistently doing the work that is necessary on a daily basis... I have had students who have been less than brilliant—(who were) average—but who worked as hard as the dickens to get the job done. That willingness to work hard and pursue the hard chore, and get it done, that is much more important than intellectual brilliance. Once you have that ability to persist, it's going to stay with you (throughout your entire career)."
What other characteristics are a good match for someone considering law school? A prelaw advisor who talks to students at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, cites the following typical answers that demonstrate to her that someone is on the right track: "I love learning new things. I love reading about new things." She is wary of what she calls the "external affirmation" that exists in students who have been told by others that because they're argumentative, or good at persuasion, or good at writing, they qualify as candidates for law school. Students should probe themselves for the internal counterpart to those characteristics, asking themselves: Do I think those are good descriptors of me? What other traits do I have that I'd want to use in a job?
The junior or senior who is seriously considering law must not only assess personal attributes and take a full measure of personal goals, but also look closely at his or her academic credentials. It's not enough to know you're good at writing; you will need to have some documentation of your abilities in this area. This is where grades and course selection come into play; we devote more time to that subject later in this book. As you begin to get more serious, you will have to give some considered thought to the taking of the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). All law schools presently approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) or the Federation of Law Societies of Canada (FLSC) require students to take the LSAT as part of the admission process. You must also begin to research actively the details of what it is to be a lawyer through talking to lawyers, reading books on the subject, or perhaps working at a law firm
. Many colleges have prelaw advisors who can be of enormous assistance to you, and who can possibly put you in touch with lawyers in the area if you don't have any contacts of your own.
Opinions differ on the question of whether you should begin law school with a sure sense of the direction you expect to take after you earn your law degree. Frequently, persons coming to law school with a career direction in mind change it as a result of certain courses, professors, and programs, and some students with no particular career path in mind discover one. There is no question that the education you will get in law school is invaluable, no matter what your long-term career goals are—or what fate has in store for you.
"Legal education," says a prelaw advisor Chicago, "teaches you to think precisely, to think through the implications of things clearly, and to make an argument—and that's an education, a training, that is valuable in any career."
A former prelaw advisor at the University of Rochester in New York, refers to legal training as "the last generalist professional degree." The director of the prelaw program at the Central University of Iowa, points out that as an "extension of the liberal arts preparation," a law degree is useful preparation for a range of careers, including education, business, and government service. Nevertheless, others are more cautious on this point: The prelaw advisor at Southern Methodist University assesses those who pursue a legal education without some notion of "wanting to use it for something" as indulging in "a pretty expensive pastime." She concurs with other prelaw advisors, however, when she makes it clear that "people who go to law school often wind up doing some pretty wonderful tilings" even if they weren't certain about their goals when they first entered law school.
I've Been at My Job for Two Years (or Five or Ten) and I'm Ready for a Change
It's not unusual to find law school candidates who have been out of school for a while, and who did not matriculate immediately following their graduation from college. Some have been out of school for just a year; often these are students who considered law school earlier, but were not quite ready to make the commitment at that time. There is nothing sacred about attending law school right after graduating college. You should not assume that an educational career or life experience that is unconventional, or reflective of a diverse background, will automatically be prejudicial to your cause. To the contrary, it may enhance your cause. Some admission officers, in fact, applaud the decision to work for a few years first, acknowledging that such "time out" from school may provide important life experiences that enhance your understanding and maturation.
Once you enter law school, however, there is no waffling. A legal education will demand the best of you, and if you don't have a clear commitment when you begin, it's going to be very difficult to keep your focus and succeed in mastering the program of study.
Naturally, some who intended only to delay law school by a year never do go back; they may find success in some other endeavor. Others will be happy with whatever they choose as an alternative to law school for a while, but the dream of law school comes back to haunt them, prod at them, and ultimately inspire them to follow their original ambition after all. Those who decide to return after five years or more can rest assured that they will find the company of many other students in their age bracket; it's not unusual for an entering law school class to be made up of students in their twenties, thirties, forties, and older.
Among this group of returning students there are those who are intent upon using their law degree to enhance their current profession. You may be a certified public accountant who intends to become a tax attorney, or an engineer or scientist interested in patent law, or perhaps you are someone in health care—a doctor or nurse—who is drawn to environmental law because of the impact of the environment on the health of our citizens. For some, it's a question of "maxing out" at a certain income level in a chosen profession; for others it's the need to be continually challenged that spurs a successful professional to undertake the rigors of law school.
If an expected higher salary is a factor, you should probably find out if your expectation is realistic by talking to other people in your field who have gone for the law degree. Do not just assume that your income level will rise. Think also about how easy or difficult it will be to get back into your field after taking time off for law school; this may be a case where a part-time schedule is appropriate.
Most returning students are individuals who are dissatisfied with their current career or who are moving into a new stage of life and very much want to transform their lives: they seek a change of venue, a change of faces, a change of tasks. Some have raised families and are now looking to begin or resume a career. Some who feel underutilized in their current positions are determined to advance themselves professionally; they understand law to be an area that requires some mental muscle. There are also those individuals who work in highly technical fields, and who have found themselves very restricted (due to their lack of) people contact.
For those of you who are dissatisfied with your work and believe that law is where you really want to be, it is particularly important that you get a clear idea of what lawyering is, and how the job description may vary according to the type of law you practice so that you don't have unrealistic expectations. Samuel Johnson, a prelaw advisor, gives an example of the individual who didn't enjoy his current position because, he said, "it required too much reading and writing"—clearly, law may not be the right direction for that person because both law school and the law profession require a good deal of both. Even for that person, however, the realistic career possibilities after law school
are worth exploring; there are positions that characteristically require less reading and writing than others. "Some people dislike their current situation so much they'll do anything to get out of it," say Johnson..
There are also those who have been backed into a comer by circumstances beyond their control and who must explore new career possibilities and ultimately land on one they can live with. One prelaw advisor calls these the "reluctant career changers" and cites examples such as "people who have been downsized out the door due to corporate restructuring... people reading the handwriting on the wall and who, though they haven't been laid off, are saying to themselves, "There's no future here, let me think about my second alternative.'"
It's probably worth pointing out here that along with concerns about fitting in because of age, returning students often wonder whether they will be admitted to law school, especially if their academic record is not recent, and not as outstanding as they would wish.
One special feature of the returning student is this: Whereas students who choose law school immediately after college often see it as an opportunity to move to another city, post-college students—who may have put down roots in terms of jobs, families, or ownership of a home—often prefer to stay closer to home. Those who do elect to move may have different concerns with respect to relocation; for example, they may need to know about schools for their children or job possibilities for a spouse. When it comes time to make such decisions, an admission office can often direct you to information sources. But it would be wise to talk to other returning students, even earlier on, who may have made similar choices and who can guide you in your thinking and planning.
Maybe you are someone who has only recently begun to consider law school; maybe it's only a tiny spark, a buried thought that hasn't even come to fruition yet. If so, you will want to ask yourself where that spark came from. See if you can clarify your thinking. What inspired you to consider law school in the first place? Was it a person, an event, an experience, a problem, an aspiration, a desire? Give some thought to recalling, sharpening, and refining your answer to this question. Perhaps your motivation is based on an idea you have formed about what lawyers do, the kind of salary they earn, or the power that lawyers are thought to exercise in our society—their capacity to change things, to help people, to solve problems, to make a difference, or to exert influence. Many lawyers are certainly drawn to the profession because of some combination of these ideas and ideals. But broad impressions are not a sound basis for making a decision that will require a major investment of your resources—personal and financial. It is important, therefore, that you take a close look at the profession today and assess just how close your ideals measure against the reality.
Ask yourself what it is about being a lawyer or a law-trained person that interests you. How does being a lawyer fit in with your needs and your career goals? You must spend some time and energy exploring your own particular reasons for wanting to study law, and you need to examine the real truth behind any assumptions you have made.
If any of the following activities interest you, you may be looking in the right direction when looking toward law: debating, expressing ideas clearly, reading and studying, assembling and developing facts, probing issues and problems to find basic premises or solutions, and conducting interviews to obtain information. Similarly, if you are interested in social and human problems, governmental and political arrangements, or the art of negotiating, you may wish to study law. If you are articulate in both speaking and writing, and you enjoy the dispute, argument, and resolution of conflict, the study of law may offer you the satisfaction you seek in a career.
Good communication skills are among the most important characteristics for aspiring law school applicants. Besides the requisite "good reading and writing skills," the following skills are equally important: reading with comprehension and speed; proofreading/editing effectively; thinking quickly under pressure; analyzing and synthesizing information; writing with precision; writing persuasively; interviewing effectively; listening accurately; and speaking convincingly. Some of these skills are grounded in natural ability, though most are honed through the rigorous academic study available during your college years, or over a period of time working at certain kinds of jobs. In any case, you will ultimately need to demonstrate some aspect of these skills when making your case for acceptance to law school.
In addition, you will, of course, have to take a realistic look at your credentials and assess yourself with the kind of barometer that will be used by admission officers at the law schools to which you will ultimately apply. In most cases, you must first complete four years of an undergraduate college education (although there are some schools that will accept you after three years of college under a program permitting you to finish an undergraduate degree while at law school). The details of how your college's reputation, your own standing in your class, and your performance on the Law School Admission Test affect your chances for law school admission will be discussed in greater detail later in this book.
The remainder of this article is devoted to a closer look at the reasons people choose law; we explore the myths and the facts behind each of these reasons. We discuss the overall benefits of a legal education as well.
The Reasons People Go to Law School
As we said earlier, legal study and practice may challenge your abilities to reason, analyze, and communicate as they may never have been challenged before. Additionally, you'll be able to further your legal education and refine your skills through the camaraderie of your colleagues and through the various publications and associations with which you'll be involved. You may even work on a case that sets a legal precedent. At the same time, you should know that a good portion of legal work is often tedious, repetitive, and downright boring. For example, it's not uncommon for a lawyer to spend hours poring over thousands of pages of background material to research a case, or filling out the same kinds of forms day after day. Be prepared for both the excitement and the monotony.
Many students choose law because of its reputation for offering a financially rewarding career. There's no doubt about it: You may make a lot of money as an attorney. But too many individuals have unrealistic expectations in this area. Serious misconception ... particularly in terms of salary ranges, variances between geographic areas, types of positions, and so on." Many students she has spoken to, she says, are surprised when she tells them that the higher-range salaries are almost exclusively the province of large firms in larger cities, and that only a small percentage of law school graduates go that route.
One prelaw advisor asks her students—if it is money that motivates them—if they are willing to put in the time it takes to make that kind of money. "There are long hours if you're going for the high ticket," she warns them. "No one gives you that kind of money for nothing."
Let's suppose you are an excellent student, and your goal is to help the indigent, or work in a district attorney's office, or establish a private practice in a local community (as do roughly half the lawyers in the United States). You can expect to earn a significantly lower salary than those individuals working in the big corporations in the larger cities—not only at the start of your career but quite possibly throughout your years of practice. There is nothing wrong with wanting to make a lot of money as a lawyer; just be sure your goals are realistic.
Effecting Social Change
Joining the legal profession is one of the most effective ways to bring about social change. It can be especially valuable to those who seek the opportunity to work within the legal system to reform social injustice. At the same time, the legal system can be a source of great frustration, because real change takes years to accomplish. If you intend to study and practice law with the goal of changing the status quo in any area, you will have to supplement your expert legal skill with all the patience, determination, persistence, and political savvy you can summon.
As a lawyer, you may work for a prominent Wall Street law firm, defend or prosecute a notorious person, serve as judge, and get elected to public office. Even so, our society regards the legal profession with ambivalence. On the one hand, lawyers are esteemed for their esoteric knowledge and expertise. On the other hand, they are often mistrusted and sometimes seen as cold, calculating scoundrels who are motivated only by greed and power. It pays to be aware that not everyone will appreciate or respect the skills you worked so long and hard to achieve.
General Benefits of a Legal Education
As we discussed earlier, the study of law is the most generic of all professional postgraduate disciplines. A legal education teaches you to read for a clear grasp of content and relationships, to analyze and solve problems creatively in concrete situations, and to advocate and persuade orally and in writing. Whether or not a person chooses to practice law specifically, a legal education is clearly excellent training for almost any professional position. Besides the conventional avenues for lawyering jobs, many more general professions such as banking, insurance, real estate, securities, government, education, and international trade—to name just a few—are significant areas of employment for law school graduates.
Getting More Information
By now you may have a better idea where you fit in the wide-ranging category of "people who want to be lawyers." You understand that people come to this decision from many different perspectives and are persuaded by an array of information that is not always reliable. If you are thinking about becoming a lawyer, then you should by all means take the next step in exploring the possibilities: gather more information. But get your information from people who know. If you are in high school, talk to your school counselor. You will, at the very least, want to prepare yourself scholastically by adhering to a rigorous academic curriculum so you can begin to think about choosing an appropriate college. If you are already in college, you may want to seek out prelaw advisors at your school.
If you now are working, go directly to the source: the admission offices of law schools in your area. Talk to lawyers as well, if possible. Begin to explore the world of law, whenever and wherever you can. Talk to friends, family, and colleagues. You will find your ideas taking shape and taking on an importance when you speak them aloud in a way that they never can when they remain hidden in the private reaches of your mind.
Career services and alumni offices at law schools are all possible resources for finding names of people you may call, if you don't know anyone personally or through a reference. If it's possible to work in a law setting for a time, you may clarify your own sense of what it is to be a lawyer and what you may want to do in your own career.
Any inside information you can get that will help you clarify your thinking can only end up helping you when you begin the process of persuading an admission committee that you are a worthy candidate for their law school. Bear in mind, however, that it is still your academic record that takes precedence and, next, any personal accomplishments in which you demonstrated initiative and leadership capabilities.
Finally, a question that comes up repeatedly, even by those who themselves are considering law as a profession, is: do we really need more lawyers? Aren't there too many lawyers already? Like any profession or any employment area, there is always room for another qualified member. You may have to adjust your plans concerning the practice area you had hoped to enter; you may have to live in a part of the country that you didn't plan to live in at the outset of your career. But if you graduate from law school, do reasonably well, and maintain a flexible attitude, you will find that there is a place for you in the legal profession.