What is a Lawyer?
If you go through law school after earning a bachelor’s degree and then pass the bar exam, your duties may look like the following:
- Prepare and file legal documents (wills, deeds, contracts, appeals, and lawsuits)
- Conduct research and analyze legal issues
- Give advice to your clients and represent them to government agencies, in courts, and on private legal matters
- Communicate frequently with clients, judges, colleagues, and other people involved in a case
- Interpret laws, regulations, and rulings as you work for businesses or individuals
- Present facts orally in a courtroom, or in writing to your clients and anyone else involved in a case; argue on your client’s behalf
Legal Career Paths
Steps to Becoming a Lawyer
Steps to Take:
Step 1: Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree
Step 2: Take Entrance Exams
Step 3: Which Law School?
Step 4: Earn Your Law Degree
Step 5: Pass the Bar Exam
As a lawyer, you will be an advocate for your clients, no matter what legal specialty you choose. Whether you represent a client in a criminal trial, as they sign paperwork to buy a new home, representing the state in a criminal action, or assist them in writing a will, you will use your legal knowledge and advise your clients about what they should do.
The work you do will be highly varied as you go through each work day. As long as you take your profession seriously and you work ethically, you will be a good attorney for your clients.
Step 1: Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree
All law schools require their students to have a bachelor’s degree in hand before they begin attending their law classes. While your degree doesn’t have to be in pre-law, majors such as political science, education, history, or even philosophy can give you the background you need for law school. If you plan to work in corporate law, a bachelor’s in business administration (BBA) will help equip you for this legal specialty. Before you graduate, you should begin the application process for law school.
Step 2: Take Entrance Exams (GRE or LSAT)
The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is required for anyone who wants to enter law school. However, some law schools will allow you to take the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) instead of your LSAT. Whichever entrance exam you are allowed to take, your final results will be forwarded to the law schools you are interested in; they will use your score in the admissions offices to determine whether you are a good candidate for their law program.
Step 3: Which Law School?
You have a wide range of choices here. As you are considering which law school you want to attend, think about the school’s reputation, student-to-faculty ratio and even its location. The first and biggest consideration should be the school’s accreditation. Ideally, the law program should hold an accreditation from the American Bar Association (ABA). When you find proof of accreditation, you know that the school’s program has been closely examined and vetted by lawyers who are experienced in their fields. (Attendance at an accredited law program is often a prerequisite for taking the bar exam.)
Step 4: Earn Your Law Degree
The specific degree considered an entry-level law degree is called the Juris Doctor (JD) degree. If you are attending an on-campus law program, then you will have face-to-face access to professors and fellow law students. A few ABA-accredited law programs provide online JD degrees.
No matter which law program you select, you need to earn high grades so that you’ll be able to receive your JD degree. Attend all your classes, take part in every exercise and complete every assignment, just like any other degree program.
Step 5: Pass The Bar Exam
After you earn your degree, you’ll have one more exam to take. This will likely be the most important exam of your professional life. As long as your law school program was accredited by the ABA, you’ll be eligible to sit for your exam in every state.
The exam runs two days and will cover a broad range of legal questions and issues. You’ll face essay questions, as well as other types of questions. Once you pass the bar exam in your state, you will be qualified to practice law.
What Does a Lawyer Do?
Whichever area of law you choose to specialize in, you should have plenty of job options. While you are in your law degree program, explore the different areas of law so that you’ll know where you want to practice. Some of these specialties include:
- Bankruptcy: You will assist your clients (organizations and individuals) with their financial insolvency problems.
- Civil Rights: In this specialty, you will be working to balance the competing interests between governmental institutions and individuals. Your casework may involve unfair employment policies, freedom of expression, housing or education complaints, and discrimination in all forms.
- Corporate (Business): This covers the formation and dissolution of corporations, in addition to all other legal aspects of corporations. You will work on state and federal law compliance, patents, disputes between corporations, and liability issues.
- Criminal: Your work will revolve around people accused of violating laws. As a prosecutor, you work to make sure criminals are kept off the street or are otherwise punished according to the laws of the state or nation. If you are a criminal defense lawyer, you defend clients against accusations of criminal activity.
You may also work in elder law, civil litigation, environmental and natural resources, general practice, media, public law, tribal law within native populations, or tax law.
Skills to Acquire
As a lawyer, you need to be good at several things that, when combined, allow you to do well in your profession.
CommunicationKnow how to communicate in written and spoken forms. Listening is also a communication skill and you’ll need to excel at this in order to perform well in court.
Critical ThinkingTaking complex legal issues and questions apart so you can see what is being argued and exactly how is what allows you to create your own arguments in response.
ResearchYou’ll need to know how to find and evaluate information from several sources. This will be a large part of your career. You’ll learn how to determine which sources are reliable and which you should avoid.
Organization and ManagementYou will always have large amounts of material to organize as you prepare for court. Managing the materials, and any paralegals or secretaries who work for or with you, is a vital part of your role.
AnalysisThe legal questions you deal with will have to be considered against the facts of each particular case, and also in light of legal precedent from previous cases which are either similar or within the same arena of law you work with. You will be responsible for knowing these precedents.
If you don’t want to go to law school, then opting for a Paralegal degree is another way you can work in a law office, though you cannot work as a lawyer. This is also a good idea if you do want to go to law school, but it’s just not possible at the moment.
As a paralegal, you will perform tasks to assist lawyers in creating their legal arguments, including research, document creation, and once you have some experience perhaps even interviews. To work in this field in some states, you must have a Bachelor of Arts in Paralegal Studies.
If you aren’t sure that law school is the right path for you, then you’ll need to reexamine your plans for your future career. There is no alternative way to become a lawyer without completing a law program.
Law school is rigorous and generally considered difficult to complete. If you are determined to become a lawyer, then you’ll want to maintain the best grades possible, so that when you take your LSAT an admissions committee will be ready to give you a spot in the next class.
Lawyer Career & Salary
Where Might You Work?
As a lawyer, you may find yourself working as a public defender in the offices of a state agency. Or you may work as in-house counsel in a variety of settings, such as an interest group, corporate office, or government agency.
You may be the lawyer who represents a state child protective services agency, helping decide which children should remain in foster care. You could work for a large or small law firm that represents a range of business clients, or decide to open your own practice. If you open your own law firm, you will have to plan carefully, choose an area of the law on which you will focus, then begin building a network of referrals. Don’t forget about joining listservs and organizations so you can get the name of your firm out. It’s also possible that you may return to academia, this time as an instructor or professor.
Potential Career Paths
Once you pass your bar exam and begin officially practicing law, you will be able to work in one of several settings. Your main location will be in an office. If circumstances require, you may meet your clients in hospitals, their homes or in a prison.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), you’re most likely to work in a legal services office, with 48% of lawyers working for legal services firms. You may be self-employed, as 20% of practicing lawyers have established their own law firms. You may work in other settings as well.
You be accepted into most firms as an associate. You’ll be expected to have 0-5 years of experience when you join the firm. This type of firm handles a wide variety of employment issues for classes and people.
You should enjoy working with people and helping the employees that have hired the law firm. You will be expected to have good writing skills.
This position could be within a law firm that specializes in several areas of law—civil litigation, personal injury, criminal defense, family law, and/or many others. You may be asked to handle part of the caseload of one type of law, if that is your specialty, or given cases from multiple types of law, depending on your experience.
Law firms looking for attorneys to work specific cases may hire you to assist within the time frame of a specific set of court hearings or trials. When your contract is over, you will likely move on to find another firm or client that needs your specialized experience.
Firms looking for lawyers at the entry-level to intermediate-level of experience may hire you on in this position. These firms may be looking for lawyers interested in real estate law, business law, estate planning, personal injury and/or general district court, traffic cases, civil case work, or some other specialty. You will need to have excellent interpersonal skills and aptitude, as well as communication skills. These firms may consider part-time applicants, bar applicants, and those who lack experience but are promising in other ways.
Firms may be looking for lawyers with a state bar license. A background in employment law or legal publishing is preferred. You’ll need to be high on the creativity scale, and with a passion for writing. If you have a good, analytical mind that can translate legal-speak into plain English, you’ll be the perfect fit for this position. You’ll be a member of the editorial staff; responsible for developing, updating, revising, and supplementing the firms legal forms, memos, etc. You may also help produce newsletters, quizzes, case briefs, or online training. You must be flexible and willing to multi-task.
|Criminal Defense Lawyer||$79,100||$95,700||$112,200|
|Family Law Attorney||$63,400||$78,500||$90,000|
|Law Firm Partner||$115,700||$166,500||$249,700|
|Public Interest Lawyer||$51,300||$56,600||$72,600|
**Salary info provided by PayScale
The job outlook for lawyers is expected to grow about 8% between 2016 and 2026. This is about as fast as the average for all U.S. occupations.
Even with this anticipated growth in the employment of lawyers, changes are coming. Increased price competition over the next 10 years is projected to lead to law firms reconsidering project staffing as they look for ways to reducing costs to their clients. In addition, the clients of law firms are expected to shave their legal expenses by pushing for lower rates and reviewing invoices much more closely. On top of that, assignments that used to be given to lawyers may now be assigned to legal assistants and paralegals. Some of this work may include document review. Other routine legal tasks may be sent to lower-cost legal providers overseas.
However, large corporations may be joining the trend of adding a group of in-house lawyers to their staff. This, in addition to law firms continuing to hire the most lawyers, means that employment numbers should not fall.
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Advancing from Here
Once you have reached the top in your profession, you may decide that it’s time to see in what ways you can rise higher as a lawyer.
You could return to a university setting as an administrator at a law school. You will still be able to impact peoples’ lives in this position. In the courtroom you could move to the bench as a judge. You could also accept a position as a Chief Executive Officer. With your people and research skills you may be uniquely suited to run a business connected with your specialty in a specific area of law, such as real estate.