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Is Law School Right for Me?

There are many different reasons for why people want to become lawyers -- money, power, prestige, family influences, the desire to serve, and so on. But the question is whether you should become a lawyer.  To answer that question, it is important to have a sense of what lawyers actually do.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to describe the typical lawyer, due to the diverse nature of the profession and the variety of tasks that lawyers perform. Indeed, one of the appealing aspects of going to law school is the wide range of things one can do with a law degree. But generally speaking, lawyers serve as advocates for anyone - individuals, groups and organizations, the government- who might have a legal problem or question, need assistance interpreting the law, or otherwise require representation or advice on law-related matters. That may mean representing someone caught in a legal dispute or conflict. It may involve researching questions involving the law and what it means or requires in a particular situation. It often encompasses assisting people and businesses as they enter into legal arrangements or agreements, such as real estate, contract, estate planning, or other transactions.

We all are familiar with the caricature of lawyers contained in the lawyer jokes routinely directed at the legal profession. They are seen as ruthless, ultra-competitive, and bound to pursuit of the almighty dollar. While some lawyers may fit that description, many  of them also are among the most influential, service-oriented, and public-minded actors in our society. Most important are the defining characteristics of people who pursue a legal profession. Some of those are:

  1. Strong analytical and creative problem-solving skills
  2. Critical reading, listening and writing abilities
  3. Oral communication and advocacy aptitude
  4. Research skills
  5. The ability to organize and manage tasks
  6. An attention to details
  7. Adept at negotiation
  8. Conflict management skills
  9. An intuitive sense of human nature, and the ability to interact positively with people from differing backgrounds

The environments within which attorneys employ these traits and skills are widely varied. The majority of law school graduates enter private practice with a law firm. Once in a firm, most lawyers develop a certain area of expertise; legal specializations are wide ranging, and include corporate and securities, family, tax, criminal and civil rights, health, environmental and natural resources, real estate, intellectual property, and international law, to name just a few.

Most lawyers who go into private practice first enter the legal field as associates at large or small firms.  Associates do a lot of the day-to-day detail work on cases, while they work their way up to becoming partners with an ownership interest in the firm business. The salaries for associate attorneys vary widely; those with large firms in bigger cities may earn salaries well in excess of $100,000 right out of law school. Those in smaller firms or solo practice are likely to be significantly less; the national median salary for associates is around $55,000. Moreover, it is essential to understand that the work demands, expectations, and pressures that go with the job will vary widely depending on the size of the firm and the nature of the law practice.

There are many other legal opportunities apart from working for a law firm. Some attorneys will work for a corporation as its "in house counsel."  Others might work for the government -- as a prosecutor or public defender, agency lawyer (for example, with the EPA, Justice Department, or other federal or state agency), or with a legislative committee or office. Still others will work as advocacy lawyers outside of government with public interest firms or legal defense funds. Some who go to law school may not actually practice law.  A law degree (juris doctor) opens the door to many other career opportunities such as business management, politics, communications, consulting, education, and the military. Nearly 10% of law graduates work for government agencies, with an equal number employed by businesses. Lawyers go on to work in education, in the non-profit arena, as business leaders and politicians, as administrators and teachers, and in virtually every other sector of society. Naturally there are significant differences in the career choices lawyers make, in terms of money, lifestyle, work demands, and so on.

So, once again, should you become a lawyer?  A career in the law is not for everyone, and it is probably not advisable to choose law school for lack of something better to do. The financial burdens of a legal education are not something you want to take on unless you have given serious consideration to why you want to pursue a career in the law.  A legal career is still a widely respected and honorable profession, and one in which opportunities abound. The law can be incredibly satisfying for those who are able to match the kind of law to their individual skills and interests. Ultimately the best way to decide if a career in law is right for you is to spend time exploring and investigating legal jobs. Seek out people who have been there and done that. Talk to those who are practicing or retired attorneys and who come from a variety of backgrounds. Get some practical exposure to legal work and environments; pursue an internship with a law firm or legal organization. Read about law school and the legal profession in books or articles devoted to the topic. Finally, honestly evaluate your own abilities and values to see if you are well suited for a legal career and the demands it makes. The college years are an opportune time to do this. Be pro-active and take advantage of the pre-law opportunities on your campus!

The American Bar Assocation has an excellent discussion of the skills, knowledge and values you will need to develop to prepare for law school and a successful legal career. It can be accessed at http://www.abanet.org/legaled/prelaw/prep.html. The University of Notre Dame's pre-law website also has a helpful reflection on the question of whether one is well suited for a career in law. See http://www.nd.edu/~prelaw/legalprof.html