According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pays for lawyers in the US stands at around $126,930 per year, translating to just over $62 per hour. Granted, this kind of six-figure salary is highly welcome in most circles but getting there takes a lot of work.
Becoming a lawyer in the US and pretty much anywhere else in the world calls for years of legal training, passing a strenuous exam (The Bar Exam), and undertaking a continuous study to remain relevant with current laws and practices. It’s not a career path that should be taken lightly. Thankfully, it can be rather fulfilling despite the long hours lawyers work each week.
Students interested in the legal profession need to be prepared to get an undergraduate degree and attend years of law school before having a chance to sit for the bar examination
Factors to Consider if You Want to Become a Lawyer
Legal career paths vary depending on what the individual chooses to do and what kind of law firm they choose to work for after earning their law degree. Some attorneys prefer not to practice law.
These individuals choose to be consultants, politicians, or even judges as opposed to becoming lawyers. Another thing that makes this particular career extremely diverse is that aspiring lawyers have a wide variety of fields from which to choose. The options include becoming:
- A criminal lawyer
- A tax attorney
- Practicing corporate law
- Entertainment law
Regardless of the legal specialty a lawyer chooses to focus on, some factors remain standard across the entire profession. Here are some of those factors and things aspiring lawyers need to consider before deciding on pursuing a legal career.
How Much Law School Will Cost
According to statistics, the current average student loan debt for law degree graduates stands at around $160,000 with schools like California Western School of Law, leading to $164,918 with a student debt rate of 88%. This is all to say that law school is expensive, and it will most likely leave the law student in massive debt.
As expected, private law schools cost significantly more than public schools, with the average cost of studying law in a private school costing just over $49,548 per academic year and public school costing about $21,300 per year.
While this might seem quite exorbitant, it could very well be worth it depending on the kind of job and salary attained after graduating from law school. When it comes to choosing law schools to attend, students are advised not to base their choice on the amount of debt they may or may not accrue; neither are they advised to look for schools with the best scholarship.
Finding one that is in line with what kind of law career the student wants to pursue is often best and worth the hundreds of thousands of dollars accrued in debt.
The simple truth is that legal education is expensive, and many new lawyers are finding this quite frustrating. According to a survey by the American Bar Association, about 40% of all new lawyers say they owe much more than they did when they graduated law school, which means that funding their legal studies is keeping them from undertaking other major life events such as having children or buying a house.
On the positive side, paying down this debt is made a bit easier by how well a legal career can pay depending on where the legal student finds work. So, managing this debt shouldn’t be impossible, albeit arduous.
How Long the Legal Education Process Takes
Students of law can’t become lawyers unless they go through law school and pass the bar exam. These students can’t go through law school unless they first get their bachelor’s degree. Every one of these steps takes years to complete.
A typical bachelor’s degree takes about four years on average, although some students can complete it in two or in a slightly shorter time period. On the other hand, law school takes about three years for students who attend it full time.
The beauty of it all is that law students often have options depending on the school they choose, their financial capabilities, and the time they have on their hands. In many cases, schools offer an accelerated program that allows students to complete their bachelor’s degree and law school in just under four years for both.
However, this is being extremely condensed and strenuous programs that aren’t designed for most students. Alternatively, students who find that they don’t have enough time to go to school full time and keep a job or live a regular life with responsibilities can take part-time classes.
Most schools understand that students who attend their law programs already have a busy lifestyle. The only way they can maintain both is to study part-time, mostly in the evenings and the weekends.
Before a student of law graduates and becomes a bar-certified lawyer, they go through rigorous testing starting all the way back in high school. However, all the student needs to do at this stage is make sure that their grades are good enough to get them into a bachelor’s degree program. From that point on, the student needs to score high marks in many exams, including the bar exam.
In many cases, some law schools require students to undertake and pass the LSAT to be admitted. However, the LSAT exam had a 47% – 62%. The simple truth is that it’s not easy to take nor pass. It requires months of preparation and practice runs before one can confidently take it on.
Once the students get into law school, they will be tested regularly on their course materials and will be required to pass or face the possibility of being dropped from the program. Even after graduating from law school, to practice, the student must take and pass the law exam in the state they want to practice law. Should they want to practice in multiple states, they need to take a pass the bar exam in each and every one of those states too.
Excellent Writing and Speaking Skills
A good lawyer is expected to have a firm grasp of the law to the letter and be capable of framing it so that it paints his or her client in the right light. This often calls for excellent research, writing, and oratory skills.
Say, for example, someone who has chosen to practice criminal law is tasked with representing a client, who, according to the letter of the law, is guilty of the crime they are being accused of. However, there are mitigating circumstances that could make a jury of his or her peers regard them as more of a victim of circumstance as opposed to a menace to society.
It’s up to the lawyer to frame this argument within the bounds of the law. This calls for excellent storytelling skills; paint the jury the right kind of picture to free the client.
Regardless of which path the lawyer’s legal profession takes, they will need to be able to draft persuasive motions, argue cases, negotiate and be perfect at drafting legal documents. This calls for a lot of writing and arguing.
Extensive Work Hours
On average, lawyers work around 40 hours a week. However, depending on the law firm, some lawyers more often than not work more hours. Private law firms, for example, are quite demanding, and it’s not unheard of for lawyers to work 60 or even 70 hour weeks. This leaves very little time for personal use and is one of the biggest issues with many law professionals.
Client Development and Management
Lawyers who have built a law career working in a demanding field such as human rights protection understand that these are some of the most difficult clients to manage. It’s a similar case when dealing with high-paying private clients.
The main reason is that most of these clients believe that they have either been wronged by society or are always right. Managing these expectations while explaining the letter of the law to such clients can be difficult, to say the least.
On the other hand, lawyers working at law firms must do much more than excel at law. These lawyers need to be able to market themselves as well as the law firm. In many cases, private law firms require their lawyers to bring in a decent proportion of the clientele if they are to get lucrative bonuses. This calls for excellent marketing as well as lawyering skills.
A career in law is often as demanding as it is high-paying. Any student looking to study the profession needs to be prepared to face the challenges and rewards that come with it.
Educational Requirements to Become a Lawyer
Like most demanding professions, becoming a lawyer requires one to go through rigorous testing during their educational period. Lawyers, much like doctors, need to go through several institutions of higher learning, take and pass a test before getting licensed to practice law in one particular state. Practicing in other states requires taking tests associated and administered by the bar associations of those specific states.
Here are the specific steps and educational requirements a law student needs to take before becoming a licensed lawyer:
Step 1: Graduate from a Bachelor’s Degree Program
While there is no specific field of study recommended by the American Bar Association, an undergraduate degree is the absolute minimum educational requirement necessary for joining law school. Students looking to pursue a career in law can gain entry to law school by taking, passing, and earning a bachelor’s degree in almost any field of study. However, the most common and popular courses include:
- Political Science
That being said, any course that allows students to make use of their critical thinking and analysis skills is a big plus for potential future lawyers. The best law schools often prefer students who have a minimum 3.0 undergraduate GPA.
Step 2: Take and Pass the LSAT
Commonly referred to as the LSAT, the Law School Admission Test is an integral component in a law student’s journey and education process. As one of the main parts of the Law School admission process, admission officers use the results from this test to determine whether the applicant has the necessary knowledge and quality of becoming a lawyer.
It’s a multiple-choice exam with five different sections as well as an unscored writing sample. This exam is designed to measure the candidate’s skills in critical areas such as:
- Reading comprehension
- Critical thinking
- Information management
Suffice it to say that students can’t get into law school without passing this exam, requiring a score of around 150 on a 120-180 scale. The best law schools, however, only take students who have a score of 160 or above.
Step 3: Find and Apply to the Right Law Schools
The simple fact of the matter is that some of the best law schools in the country are extremely competitive. Yale has an acceptance rate of only 9.4%, while Harvard Law School has a 15.6% acceptance rate, and Stanford accepts only 10.3%. This is from a pool of thousands of brilliant applicants.
This shows that finding, applying to, and getting accepted by some of the best law schools around the country is no easy fit. However, ambitious students can always find ways to make their law school applications more enticing to these schools by:
- Undertaking some form of community service
- Getting recommendation letters from educators or alumni as well as other legal professionals
- Organizational affiliation
The Law School Admission Council is a wonderful resource for those interested in learning the application process and finding out what kind of factors could help them edge out the competition.
Step 4: Take, Complete, and Earn a Juris Doctor Degree
Also referred to as a JD, a Juris Doctor degree is the recognized degree for those looking to practice any kind of law in the US. It’s offered by ABA-accredited law schools. Students applying to this program should know that they are a wide variety of specialties within the practice of law.
This also means that there are many areas of study, different curriculum, and faculty options in every law school. Knowing this well in advance will help the student choose the right specialty for the law they want to practice.
The options often include:
- Environmental Law
- Real estate Law
- Criminal Law
- Tax Law
- Family Law
This Juris Doctor degree typically takes about three years to complete when students take it on full-time.
Step 5: Take and Pass the Bar Exam
The average pass rate for the bar exam is around 80%, with first-time test-takers in 2020 achieving a pass rate of about 82.83%, which is better than that of 2019, which was 79.64%.
This pass rate is quite high and makes the bar exam look like anything but what it is − a difficult and highly demanding step towards becoming a lawyer. In most states, lawyers must graduate with a law degree from an ABA-approved law school before passing the state bar exam if they are to practice law in that particular state. While each state typically has its own guidelines, the bar exam is often conducted over two days:
- Day 1 – Complete the Multistate Bar Examination
- Day 2 – Writing examination
As if this wasn’t difficult enough, the state board of bar examiners in each state also consider a few other factors before admitting the candidate to the bar. These include:
- Educational background
- Their ability to present and represent legal matters
That’s why taking part in activities such as community service or having a part-time job as a legal assistant is a great advantage to some students.
Once the student passes the bar exam and the state board of bar examiners finds them in good standing, they are admitted into the bar and licensed to practice law in that particular state. From this point on, it’s all about the advancement of the law career.
This often starts with freshmen lawyers practicing law as associates under more experienced and accomplished lawyers to gain the necessary experience and education while horning their skills. This process takes several years, and gifted associates may get offered partnerships at an interested law firm or branch out and start their own law practice.
Many lawyers often choose to go in a different direction, with some becoming judges, others choosing to become consultants, and many still choosing to go back to school. Lawyers interested in academia or research often choose to pursue a Master of Law (LLM) degree or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.).
Passing the Bar Exam
While it’s true that about 80% of all first-time takers achieve the passing mark for the bar exam, it’s also true that the exam isn’t easy, as evidenced by the 20% of first-timers who don’t pass it. Thankfully, there are some steps that law students who don’t want to fail this exam can take to increase their chances of passing. Here are some of the most effective tips on how to pass the bar exam:
Step 1: Maximize the Resources in Law School
Like it’s the case in most exams, the questions in the bar exam come from the material taught in law school. Students who do well in law school are therefore more likely to do well in the bar exam. Paying close attention to the coursework and material, especially first year, puts students in a better position to not only pass the bar but to also:
- Boost their overall GPA
- Increase their internship opportunities
- Improve their job opportunities
- Increase the number and quality of available scholarships
So, effectively, doing well in law school is the best way to pass the bar exam.
Step 2: Enroll in Classes that Will Help Prepare the Student for the Bar Exam
Many states have their own bar examination criteria, but some states fall under the UBE or Uniform Bar Exam States. Students who want to practice in these states can typically enroll in a number of classes geared towards preparing for this specific bar exam.
That being said, even if the student isn’t part of these states or doesn’t want to practice within their borders, taking these classes will introduce and familiarize them with how the bar exam works countrywide. These classes include:
- Evidence – This is a particularly difficult subject that takes up a huge chunk of the bar exam. While it’s taught in law school, students often assume they can learn it in a matter of hours. It’s advisable to take an entire semester to master this subject.
- Real Property – Not really required by some law schools, Real Property is a crucial subject that makes up part of the exam. It can be double-tested in the multiple-choice as well as essay sections.
- Contracts and Sales – Required by every law school, students should spend at least a semester on Contracts and Sales.
Other important sections include Constitutional Law, Criminal Law as well as Criminal Procedure. Other important subjects to master are Civil Procedure and Tort. One of the best ways for students to discover which subjects are quizzed on their specific state bar exams is to look at what has historically appeared on the tests. This is a good indicator of the subjects that the state holds in high regard.
Step 3: Take Classes to Improve Writing Skills
Writing is one of the most important skills any lawyer can master. As such, it’s tested in the exam, and bar examiners want to see that the student is adept at legal writing and at framing a case in a manner that jurors will understand. Taking any classes om legal writing and interning as a legal secretary or assistant is a good way to learn and practice this skill.
Step 4: Take Bar Prep Courses
Most law schools now offer bar prep courses to students interested in preparing for the bar exam. These classes will give the students insight on what to expect in the exam and highlight manners in which they can successfully take the exam.
It’s always a good idea to start studying for the bar exam early, especially for students who have part-time jobs or often find themselves at the bottom of their class. It’s never really too early to start preparing for the bar exam by reviewing as many past exams as possible and employing the above-mentioned tips.
How to Choose a Law School to Study to Be a Lawyer
Harvard Law School, Penn State Law, Yale Law, the Law School at Stanford University…the list of prestigious law schools in the US is quite extensive. However, not all highly acclaimed law schools are created equal. Some offer students a much higher graduation rate and an extremely potent alumnus that make landing jobs in the law profession that much easier than some.
Here are some tips on how to choose the best law school to study law and become a lawyer:
Location of the Law School
Most pre-law students often dream of going to school out of state. While this can provide them with a level of independence, the exact location of the law school matters. This is mostly because location determines a host of experiential opportunities such as internships, post-grad job prospects, professional networks, etc.
Overall Admitted Student Profile
Most law schools publish the median LSAT scores as well as the GPA of their admitted students. This offers any pre-law student a clear indication of the caliber of student that goes to that school on average. Students can then use this as a yardstick to ensure that their scores and GPA can get them into their preferred law school.
Overall Cost and Available Scholarships
Most private law schools are almost twice as expensive as public law schools. They do, however, have a much better ROI when factors such as job opportunities, prestige, and alumni networks are taking into account. It’s advisable to consider how much the school is going to cost overall and all the available scholarship opportunities to help pay for the legal education.
Other factors to consider include:
- Class sizes
- Access to faculty
- Available school facilities
- Overall student culture
- Job placements and career support
It takes years and numerous exams to become a lawyer. However, the profession pays well and offers individuals a chance to make a real difference in the world, especially if they take up paths such as environmental law or human rights. The pay isn’t that bad either.