A Career in Law
A law school education offers intellectual stimulation, good job prospects, and versatility in the job market. Lawyers go on to succeed in a variety of careers, and a legal education will be invaluable no matter what direction your career may take. However, attending a law school is a big commitment intellectually, psychologically, and financially and students should only make the decision to attend law school after careful consideration.
The following information should give you a very general idea about law school and careers in law. It is in no way sufficient to base a decision on whether to attend law school. After reading this document, you might consider borrowing a book on careers in law from the Center for High Achievement and Scholarly Engagement in Jordan Hall, Room 105 and arranging a meeting with our pre-law advisor.
Law school can be interesting and exciting. It is also extremely demanding so it is a good idea to consider what life in law school will be like, and whether you think you will be able to cope with the demands that it places on students.
Discipline is essential to being a successful law student. If you gain admission to law school, then you likely have the ability to understand the work. However, if you get behind by missing a couple of classes or some reading, then you will quickly find yourself struggling. Classes nearly always build on knowledge gained in previous classes and without the discipline to attend every class, there will be gaps in your knowledge which are difficult to go back and fill on your own.
You will also need to be disciplined in your reading. Some of the reading will be interesting, but some will be dry and hard going. You must also be prepared to accept that your social life might not be quite what it was as an undergraduate. Passing exams will require many hours of study, and little free time to do anything else.
Legal writing is a big part of the work of any lawyer and learning its style is a big part of law school. Some classes will require a lot of writing and you must be prepared for your writing style to be dismantled, and developed into a tool of precision. In legal writing, every word must be chosen carefully, conveying no more, or less meaning than the writer intends. Many students find the writing laborious and frustrating. However, learning how to write with clarity and concision will be an invaluable tool.
What You Will Study
The first year of study in nearly all law schools will focus on central areas of law such as contracts, criminal law, constitutional law, property, torts, and civil procedure. Many schools will also have a full year course on legal research and writing. With the first year out of the way, student's have more choice over what they study and start to focus on courses that are most useful for their career. For example, a student who wishes to practice in intellectual property may take classes including copyright law, patent law, and internet law. A student interested in family law may take classes in divorce law, wills, trusts, and poverty law. It is not an imperative to focus courses to one or two particular areas and many students will take a variety.
Examinations in law school are usually less frequent but more extensive than examinations at undergraduate level. There is generally one exam per subject at the end of the semester, or at the end of the year for a full year course. Sometimes this can put more pressure on the exams than you will be used to.
A lot of advice warns students that a legal career is different to how it is portrayed on television. Such advice is probably more patronizing than useful. However, it is worth taking into account that most of us have very little actual experience of law that can inform our perceptions. In order to make a well considered decision on whether a legal career is right for you, a good deal of time and thought should be dedicated to what life as a lawyer really entails.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to give a true sense of what life as a lawyer is really like in a few paragraphs. This is partly because a legal career is such a broad ranging profession. A great way to gain an insight is to spend some time with a lawyer. If possible, use any contacts you have with family or friends to do so. The Office of Pre-Graduate & Pre-Professional Advising can also be used to connect students with lawyers. Keep in mind however, that many lawyers have greatly varying careers and lifestyles. The work of one particular lawyer may be atypical.
Lawyers act both as advocates and advisors. As advocates, they represent parties in a civil or criminal case by presenting evidence, examining and cross-examining witnesses and presenting arguments in favor of their client. As advisors, lawyers counsel their client concerning their legal rights and obligations, suggesting the possible courses of action that may be taken within the law. For many lawyers, the majority of their work is out of court advising. The essence of a lawyer's work is researching laws and judicial decisions and applying it to the particular circumstances faced by their client.
The more detailed aspects of a lawyer's job will depend upon their level of experience and field of work. Trial lawyers, those who specialize in advocacy, spend slightly more time in the courtroom. They must be able to think on their feet under pressure, and present oral argument authoritatively. Even trial lawyers however will spend much of their time away from the courtroom, interviewing clients or witnesses, conducting research, or dealing with other details related to the case. Corporate lawyers will spend very little time in court. In fact, many cases are settled with out of court negotiations.
The nature of the work will depend greatly on the setting in which the lawyer practices. Many lawyers work in large private firms which may have over 300 attorneys, and may also have international offices. In such large firms, lawyers are usually separated into practice areas such as litigation, real estate, intellectual property and so on. Much of an attorneys work will be to supply background research to more senior members, or to write the more simple legal documents. Associates also spend a lot of time overseeing the mechanical aspects of legal documentation. Some of the cases will have millions of dollars at stake and may take several years to resolve. The financial rewards of working in such a firm can be great, but the work can be extremely demanding.
Many firms are much smaller and have a more local practice. Such firms routinely deal with family matters such as investments, wills and domestic relations. Lawyers starting in small firms are not likely to earn as much as those in a large firms, but will often practice more generally and will take on responsibility for their own cases much sooner.
A significant number of attorneys are employed at various levels of government and play an important role in the criminal justice system, working as prosecutors or public defenders. The two largest government employers of lawyers are the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense. Government lawyers also draft legislation and argue civil or criminal cases on behalf of the government. At the local level, government lawyers will be involved with civil work relating to areas such as planning and utilities law.
Lawyers have an exaggerated reputation for being rich. While some lawyers do earn very high salaries, many young lawyers struggle with average salaries to pay off student debt. The National Association of Law Placement reported that, in May 2004, the median annual earnings of all lawyers was $94,930 and the middle half of the occupation earned between $64,000 and $143,620. The median salary of lawyers nine months after graduation was $55,000, although this varied considerably with the type of work. Students who had entered private practice were earning an average of $80,000 after nine months. The median salaries of those in government or a judicial clerkship was $44,700 Salaries of experienced attorneys vary widely according to the type of work, and the size and location of the employer. While it is possible to earn six figure salaries, the majority of such large earnings are found in large, corporate firms.
A Few Fields of Practice
Business law—involves a range of different but related areas of practice. Business lawyers will frequently deal with insurance, construction and banking. Some specialize in corporate law, performing a number of functions including incorporation (partnership agreements etc), securities (stocks and bonds) and mergers and acquisitions.
Criminal Law—the reality of criminal law is much different to its portrayal in films and television programs. Very few cases actually proceed to trial and those that do have high conviction rates. Many cases are disposed of by plea bargaining—a process by which the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge at an early point in proceedings in order to seek a less severe sentence than would normally be given if the case went to trial. Criminal defense lawyers include both public defenders and private practitioners. Prosecuting attorneys work for the local, state or federal government.
Family law—at the heart of family law is divorce law. Divorce work frequently involves out of court negotiations and drafting legal documents such as separation agreements. Lawyers also deal with issues such as property settlement and child custody. Closely linked with family law is juvenile law. Juvenile law protects the rights of children and may involve acting as counsel for the child in a marital dispute, acting as a trustee for a child's funds, or protecting children from abuse which gives rise to issues including shelter, foster care and health.
Labor law—usually involves contract negotiations or resolving employee grievances. Many labor law issues use arbitration to settle disputes out of court. Arbitration uses an impartial mediator to listen to both sides of the dispute and make a decision that both parties will accept.
Property Law—a significant amount of property law is concerned with the selling and buying of property in both residential and commercial acquisitions. It is also concerned with zoning (the right to use a piece of land in a certain way), and wills and trusts.
Intellectual Property—regulates copyrights, patents and trademarks. It is one of the most complex areas of law.
This document was written and prepared by Sam Jacobs LL.B.