This webpage is designed primarily for those either considering a career in law or seeking information about such a career, but it should also be of interest to the general public. The webpage provides up-to-date information about the legal profession and its educational requirements. It is not a substitute for a careful study of additional sources, nor for personal counseling by someone in or acquainted with law schools and the legal profession.
Contained in the next several pages is a brief discussion of the lawyer’s role in society, followed by general information on:
- Prelaw Education
- Law School Admission Requirements
- Choosing a Law School
- Costs and Financial Aid
- Rules for Admission to the Bar
Also included is a brief discussion of lawyer’s income characteristics, and a bibliography of reference sources for obtaining additional information on the law as a career.
Lawyer’s Role in Society
The Law is a venerable and respected profession. Law as a field of human activity came into being because of the basic need for an orderly society and for a body of rules and procedures to govern man’s relationship to his fellowmen.
The foundation of the American legal system is the common law of England: legislative acts, precedents, and procedures that emerged from the rulings of common law courts.
Upon this common law base, each state has enacted a wide variety of statutes to correct specific defects in the common law and to meet changing social conditions and needs. As a result, the law of each state is a combination of common law precedent, adaptions of the common law resulting from rulings of local courts, and a large body of legislation.
Lawyers and those trained as lawyers do many different things. To describe the work of any given lawyer or group of lawyers could take many pages at the very least and to do justice to the subject would require volumes.
The lawyer serves as both a public servant and an officer of the court.
His primary function is to provide legal assistance in peaceably resolving conflicts.
In this role, he may serve as an objective counselor and advisor, or he may be called upon to serve as a strong partisan advocate for the case of his client.
As counselor and advisor, the lawyer is a confidant who guides and assists his clients and devises the legal arrangements that put tangled affairs in workable order. Some clients are already in difficulty of some sort; others seek advice in advance to prevent legal problems from arising.
The lawyer may spend one day doing research in a law library; the next in conference with clients. Morning may be spent in court, and the afternoon visiting the scene of an industrial accident. Many hours are devoted to writing legal arguments, reports or documents. Throughout, much attention must be devoted to the office details of practice.
As an advocate, the lawyer assists in the administration of justice, arguing his client’s case as an officer of the court. American courts operate under an adversary system in which the parties to a disagreement present their partisan points of view to an impartial court. In this way, the greatest number of facts can be brought to light and the court is best able to arrive at its decision.
A basic principle of our legal system is that any person must be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The lawyer has a duty to defend all persons accused of crime, regardless of his personal opinion as to the guilt of the accused.
The Constitution requires a fair hearing, not only for the innocent but also for those who have actually committed the crime for which they are charged. The lawyer is obligated not only to function within this legal framework but also to protect this system against any who would lessen or distort the constitutional guarantees.
A number of safeguards have been set up to assure that the hearing (or trial) is fair. A lawyer, because of his specialized training, understands these rules and procedures, and knows how to apply them so that the client is well served.
In addition to his basic function of serving the client, the lawyer is expected to devote some of his time to the improvement of his profession. Ethical standards are established, and disciplinary procedures are administered, by participation in work of the organized Bar. The Bar is thus a key factor in differentiating a profession from other occupations, and its activities help protect the public from the harm that could result if unqualified persons were permitted to practice law. Sometime during their careers most lawyers participate in public service on a part-time or full-time basis. The lawyer may be called upon to be a judge, serve in government, run for political office, or engage in community affairs. No one should consider entering the legal profession unless he or she is willing to accept a share of these civic responsibilities.
General Career Considerations
In choosing a career, first make an evaluation of yourself, free from all pre-conceived notions instilled by others as to what career they think is best suited for you. After this self- evaluation, you should be better able to determine several possible areas of interest.
There can be no doubt that there are many substantial law career opportunities. But it is also true that there are other careers available which will better suit the expectations, personal goals, and working habits of many. Before deciding on a career, you should find out as much as you can about several, and carefully consider what you want to do. Self-knowledge is extremely important in choosing a career. Many enter law school without having thought through personal goals, expectations and abilities. They find themselves questioning their decision to seek a career in law only after law school work has begun. Think about yourself, what you are and what you want to be. Then compare yourself to the kind of person a lawyer and a law student should be.
The legal education process is extremely time-consuming, and many law students find that sixty hours a week are needed for careful completion of their work. Most practicing lawyers find themselves spending early mornings, late evenings and weekends in the office during most of their careers, plus additional time in continuing education and public service activities. As Albert Beveridge wrote, “Unless you are convinced that you would rather work, toil, nay, slave for years to secure recognition in the law, than to be honored and enriched in some other occupation, do not enter this profession of supreme ardor.”
How Do You Become a Lawyer?
If you choose to become a lawyer, both your schooling and other experiences should be directed to that end. In recent years, increased interest in law as a career has resulted in intense competition for places in the law school classes. Some schools appear to have as many as ten applicants for every acceptance offered, and the quality of the credentials of the applicants is outstanding. It is important then, that when considering law as a career, you develop a strategy that will aid in your being offered a place in the entering class of a law school.
Because a college education is usually a prerequisite to law school admission, it is necessary to take college preparatory courses in high school. Many state bars specifically request a high school diploma. Although it is impossible to recommend specific courses of study, those that stimulate the intellect are urged. The most worthwhile are those that develop skills in careful reading and exact writing, which will be used throughout the student’s professional life.
The influence of a knowledgeable and enthusiastic teacher is often more valuable to the student than the subject matter of the course taught. By talking to guidance counselors and fellow students, the student can often determine who the stimulating teachers are and then enroll in their courses.
Nearly all law schools require a college degree from an accredited school as a condition for admission.
All law school programs are at least three years in length with four years being the usual time required for completion of a part-time or evening school program. Most law schools have no requirements for a prelaw curriculum and you should feel free to develop an educational program that is both broad and liberal in the classic sense. The emphasis should be on an educational program, one with objectives and purposes, that meets your needs and interests. If a program is interesting and challenging, you will do your best work and your undergraduate record will reflect the effort.
Legal educators agree that the development of skills and habits conducive to legal reasoning is more important than subject matter. The student’s college courses should be geared, therefore, to the development of:
- A broad cultural background
- Habits of thoroughness, intellectual curiosity and scholarship
- The ability to organize materials and communicate the results
- Verbal skills
Courses in literature, language, speech, composition, logic and semantics are directly concerned with cultivation of the necessary skills. A well-taught course in any department will serve the same objectives if it offers:
- A variety of reading assignments selected from well-written sources
- A large volume of well-directed class discussion
- Ample opportunity to prepare and criticize written and oral reports
Questionnaires several years ago asked leaders of the Bench and Bar which prelaw subjects they considered most valuable. The following subjects were listed, in order of preference: English language and literature, government, economics, American history, mathematics, English history, Latin, logic and scientific method, and philosophy. Accounting (not bookkeeping) and public speaking were also recommended.
Law School Admission Requirements
Most law schools require an undergraduate degree as a prerequisite to admission. Some law schools still permit the so-called “combined course” in which, after three years of college, the student may elect to attend law school and arrange for his first year there to apply to his college bachelor’s degree. Arrangements for such a combined program must be made with the dean of the under- graduate college as well as the law school.
The undergraduate work and the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) are two major items considered by law schools when they evaluate an applicant for admission.
Almost all law schools require the student applicant to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), administered by the Educational Testing Service, P.O. Box 944, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, Information about the test and details about dates and places for taking the test are available from that office. The LSAT is an “aptitude” test.
The significance of the undergraduate record depends upon the school considering it. Most law schools will consider the nature of the program and the school at which it is taken in making the admissions decision. The flow of progress and improvement can be important to the law schools in making the admission decision.
Many law schools make an effort to consider employment, community activities, college extra-curricular activities, and letters of recommendation in the admission decision. The consideration and importance of various activities and of letters of recommendation varies greatly among law schools. While it is often difficult, a careful review of the particular law school’s application process and instructions will usually give a sufficient indication of the importance of activities, work experience, and letters of recommendation.
Choosing a Law School
The American Bar Association has established minimum standards which a law school must satisfy in order to be approved. A total of 163 law schools now meet those standards. All have sound educational policies, qualified faculties and adequate facilities.
Beyond designating a school as approved or unapproved, the Association does not rate law schools or rank them comparatively. Neither the ABA nor any other organization attempts to evaluate to what extent a school may exceed the minimum standards and thus be “better than others.”
The reasons are obvious. For example, one school may have more elaborate instructional aids; another may have a larger library. A school that is “best” for one person may not be for another. All approved law schools consistently produce graduates who are qualified to assume a respected place in the legal profession.
Costs and Financial Aid
Scholarships and student loans are available to most students. Most financial aids are administered by the law schools and are described in their catalogues. Loans may be obtained through the law school, insurance companies, banks, and finance companies.
Some law schools have a limited number of work/study positions available. Various state and federal agencies supply information about financial assistance to qualifying students. Inquiries should be made directly to your State Office of Education.
The American Bar Association, Association of American Law Schools, and the Law School Admissions Council support a program of assistance for economically and educationally disadvantaged individuals interested in pursuing a legal education. The program is the Council on Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO), 818 18th Street N.W., Suite 940, Washington, DC 20006. A pamphlet on the program may be obtained by writing directly to CLEO.
Financial aid in law schools is limited, and any person considering attending law school should have some personal resources available before attempting the work.
Many feel that the present numbers of new lawyers being licensed to practice are in excess of society’s ability to effectively employ them. Others feel that the ever-growing complexity of daily life and the growing population will permit all new attorneys to be fully employed. There can be little doubt in anyone’s mind that the interest in legal careers exceeds the present demand for new lawyers, and young lawyers are likely to find themselves underpaid much more often than has been the case in recent years. This furnishes us with the opportunity to make the point that you should not even consider entering the practice of law principally for the purpose of making money. It is not a profession in which you can expect to get rich. The same effort, industry, enthusiasm and acumen applied in many other occupations are likely to bring you financial returns decidedly greater than your most successful compensation in the law, measured in money.
Rules for Admission to the Bar
Rules for admission to the Bar vary considerably from state to state. Admission to practice in one state does not automatically entitle a lawyer to practice law in another state.
Following law school, most states require the graduate to pass a bar examination before a license to practice law is issued. In some instances it may be as long as six months following graduation before those passing the bar exam- nation become eligible to practice.
The usual requirements for admission throughout the nation include the following:
- Possession of good moral character
- At least three years of college study
- Three years of full-time study (or equivalent part-time study) in an approved law school
- Passing a written examination given by the State Board of Bar Examiners
Some states require registration with the Board of Bar Examiners before entering law school or during the early years of law study. Accurate information concerning bar admission is available from the Board of Bar Examiners in the capital city of each state. Inquiries should be made prior to entering law school.
* Materials reproduced with the permission of the ABA Information Service and appears in their brochure of the same name.