Those considering whether to apply to law school are advised to explore seriously the advantages and disadvantages of professional legal training. Law school requires a large measure of commitment, both of time and expense. Many persons with law degrees have pursued fruitful and enjoyable careers. But not all graduates of law schools have practiced law and not all practicing attorneys have been satisfied with their jobs. Below are some frequently asked questions by students thinking about attending law school.
What will I do as a lawyer?
There are many different fields of law and a variety of practice types. Legal fields include such diverse areas as corporate law, environmental law, intellectual property law, health law, immigration law, family law, tax law, and criminal law. Many lawyers engage in private practice, either working for themselves, in small firms, in medium-sized firms, or for large firms that may have offices worldwide. Smaller percentages of lawyers work as in-house counsel for corporations and associations or for government agencies (e.g., as prosecuting attorneys). Some lawyers practice public interest law, while others become judges or faculty members at law schools.
Lawyers do a variety of activities such as performing legal research, counseling clients, drafting legal documents, appearing in court, negotiating with opposing counsel, and managing a diverse caseload. Most lawyers specialize in a particular type or area of practice. They typically need to be familiar with the laws relevant to their areas of expertise and must be able to advocate or negotiate on their clients' behalf.
Learn about becoming a lawyer.
There are also many good books on this subject. Here are two in particular:
- Should You Really be a Lawyer? by Deborah Schneider and Gary Belsky
- The Official Guide to Legal Specialites by Lisa Abrams. This is a good source for the many types of law that laywers practice.
What is law school like?
Law school requires high levels of commitment, self-direction, and discipline. Most classes in law school require a lot of reading, and course grades are typically based on a single essay exam at the end of the term. Many law professors teach classes using the Socratic method, meaning that they ask questions in class about the assigned cases and lead class discussions about them. In this way, law students learn how to identify legal principles and apply them to different situations. Some law students find it helpful to form study groups with fellow their classmates.
The curriculum is very similar at most law schools within the United States. Most first-year students take civil procedure, contract law, property law, torts, criminal law and perhaps constitutional law. In addition, law schools usually require a legal writing and/or lawyering skills class in the first year. Other required courses may include evidence, professional responsibility, and criminal procedure. Courses on tax law, corporate law, wills and trusts, family law, civil litigation, and administrative law may or may not be required depending on the school's focus. Electives such as environmental law, international law, and labor law are also available at many schools. Further, practical opportunities may be available such as participation in legal clinics, Moot Court and Mock Trial teams, and other skill-based or experiential programs.
Can I study law and something else?
Combined degree programs are becoming more common at law schools. These include joint J.D. and M.B.A. programs, joint J.D. and Master's degree programs in a variety of humanities and social science disciplines, joint J.D. and Ph.D. programs, and even joint J.D. and Master's of Fine Arts programs. A quick web search for such joint or dual degree programs will likely turn up many offerings.
What will it cost me, and is it worth it?
A legal education can be an expensive investment. Tuition at law schools may run from a few thousand dollars a year to over $50,000 a year. According to a 2012 American Bar Association study, average student debt after graduating from a private law school was almost $125,000 in 2012. Students graduating from public law schools averaged around $75,000 in debt. Some schools offer financial aid in the form of scholarships, fellowships, and grants. But this type of aid is limited.
Is a legal education worth this potential debt burden? It can be. Some legal careers are very lucrative. But having a J.D. does not guarantee employment as a lawyer; and not all jobs requiring a J.D. are lucrative. It is important for you to assess carefully the costs and benefits of a legal education and to make sure that you are choosing to pursue a legal career for good reasons and not because you do not know what else to do after completing your undergraduate education.