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The Five Essential Things You Must Know About Becoming a Lawyer
Few professions are as romanticized in our culture as practicing law. So much so that few people really understand what is involved in becoming a lawyer and what it is like to be one. Many people consider law school while in college but only a small fraction actually go. Of those that do, only an even smaller fraction end up becoming lawyers for their careers and no this isn’t because a law degree qualifies you for other careers, it doesn’t, it is because being a lawyer can be dissatisfying to many people who chose the career after watching tons of reruns of Law and Order. What follows is the five essential things that you will need to know if you are considering a career in law.
WHAT DO I MAJOR IN?
This is one that a number of people get wrong right off the bat. Before you can even apply to law school you have to get through college, or at least to your third year when you will start applying. While it is true that you can get into a law school no matter what your major is, from mathematics to physical education, there is no doubt that certain majors are better. First of all, when you are applying they are going to be looking at your grades and even if you got straight A grades, if your major is fashion, then the admissions board is going to look at that Physics major with the 3.2 GPA a little more seriously.
So the first point is that a challenging major will make you look better in the eyes of admissions than an easy one but also there is one major that is better than any other and that major is philosophy.
This surprises most people. Many pre-law students pick political science, or business as majors, believing these to be the best for law school but that isn’t so. In most colleges the pre-law advisor is a philosophy professor. This is because no major prepares students for the law better than this one. As a philosophy major you will learn three skills that are invaluable as a lawyer. These are: the ability to read and understand dense complex texts, basic skills of logic and argumentation and the ability to consider multiple points of view and solve problems in unconventional ways.
What is most important of all is that there is one major that does better on the LSAT than any other one. If you guessed that it is philosophy you are already doing good on those logic skills.
PREPARING FOR THE LSAT
While things like your major and your grades are important, especially when you are competing against other students for limited spots and scholarships, no one factor is more important than the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT. You can take as many practice tests as you need to prepare but once you take the real LSAT it stays on your admissions even if you take it again and do better. A good LSAT score can get you into law school with mediocre grades and a bad one won’t get you in even with a 4.0. Surprisingly, hundreds of people pay to take the LSAT each year and walk out before it is even finished.
You will want to start to study for the LSAT as soon as possible. The latest you will be able to take it is in the fall of your senior year, so you will want to start studying at the beginning of your Junior year at least. The test consists of four sections and is timed. The first practice test will be rough. You only get a little under a minute a question but with practice you can get through it. Remember, you can take as many practice tests as you need to in order to get the score you want on the big day.
Two of the sections will be on inductive logic. If you majored in philosophy, both of these sections should be a breeze for you. If not you will have to play some catch up. Another section is on reading comprehension. The time limit will cause some stress on this section and you will be asked to read sections on Law, Criticism, Social Sciences and Hard Sciences. I found the Hard Science to be most difficult but it will depend on your background. With this section the way to do well is just to practice, practice, practice! The final section is logic games. These will be the toughest unless you are some kind of mathematical genius. There are secret short cuts to doing these puzzles and unless you learn the short cuts, try buying an LSAT book, then you will never learn them. Once you get them down all you will need to do is recognize which puzzle you have been given and apply the shortcuts.
A perfect score on the LSAT is a 180, but pretty much anything over 170 and you can breath a sigh of relief. A perfect score on the LSAT or even close will net you a number of scholarship offers and worrying about anything else will take the backseat to wondering where you are going to go.
But lets say you aren’t an LSAT ace or you have your site set on Harvard where even perfect LSAT scores aren’t going to guarantee you a spot unless you are the total package. You will need two other things to help you get into law school, The first is recommendations from your professors, at least three, and the second is an awesome “letter of intent.”
Getting letters of recommendation can be nerve-wracking for students. What you have to remember is that your professors want to help. They had to go through the same process in order to go to Grad school and they know exactly what it is like. Try to take multiple classes with professors you like in your major. Professors like students who are bright, pay attention, are interested in what they are teaching and show up to class. If you do all these things then you have it covered and when you ask your professors to write letters for you they will be more than happy to help.
The letter of intent is a little trickier. When you write a letter of intent you want to make yourself seem awesome but not arrogant and interesting but not weird. This letter, if it gets used at all, will be read when the admissions board is stuck on trying to choose candidates to let in. So it will help if you did charity work over the summer, volunteered for a political campaign, ran a marathon or anything else that would be an awesome story to put into your letter of intent. Everybody hates writing these, so if you have great grades and an awesome LSAT don’t sweat it too much. If not it could be the difference between you getting in and getting rejected.
WHAT IS LAW SCHOOL LIKE?
Well, first of all you can’t have a job while in Law School. Most schools make you sign an agreement not to work. During the summer you will have a series of internships that will get you valuable connections for when you graduate. You will study a lot and all your grades will be on a curve, so a 97 could still be a B. Did I mention that in your classes there will be one grade, your exam! There will be no papers, homework or extra credit to bring it up.
So basically law school is like a death match between you and all the other students over who will graduate top in your class and get the best job. If you were bad under pressure or hated studying or liked having a healthy social calendar in college then you will hate law school. Also, if you didn’t get a full scholarship it will be expensive. Even if you do get a full scholarship you still have to eat and other expenses, so expect to have to borrow more money on top of any other money that you may have borrowed as an undergrad.
What I’m basically saying is law school is tough. If you aren’t prepared for it than don’t go. If you are already in crushing debt from undergrad you might want to think twice about it. That brings me to the last essential fact and the one that should most effect your decision.
WHAT IS BEING A LAWYER LIKE?
The answer to this is simple, probably not what you think. Lawyers have a very high dissatisfaction rate with their profession. There is a reason you see so many lawyers in politics, teaching, going into business etc. and it isn’t because of the versatility of the degree. The reason is that many people would rather do anything but practice law after they get out of law school.
First of all, just getting out of law school doesn’t make you a lawyer. First you must pass the bar exam, and there are tons of law school grads who never do this. That means you went through law school and don’t even get to be a lawyer. Studies show that law school graduates who don’t pass the bar do even worse in the job market than those who never went to law school.
As far as money goes, if you do pass the bar exam and become a lawyer to get rich you will have a rude awakening for you. The average lawyer a year out of law school makes around $75, 000 dollars a year. Now this is a lot of money, especially to start out, but when you learn that the average business major with three years of work experience makes $70, 000 dollars and didn’t spend however much money you just spent on law school that makes the investment kind of lame for money alone. A computer programmer with an associate’s degree could be making the same amount of money within five years in the work force, which puts them about dead even. Sure, you can make much more as a lawyer eventually but just like with any other job, you’ll have to work hard to get it.
But hopefully you didn’t want to be a lawyer based on the money. Some people want to become lawyers to be criminal prosecutors or public defenders. These jobs are civil servants jobs and just like all civil service jobs you will be overworked and underpaid. (You will be making less than average private sector lawyers.) Private defense attorney’s make more but only if you really enjoy defending rich guilty people. And if you have fantasies about dramatic courtroom arguments, forget it. The whole point of being a lawyer is to make deals so you don’t have to go to court. Theoretically, the less a lawyer sets foot inside a courtroom the better they are at their job.
If you want to do civil liberties work or other kinds of activism, you’ll have to do it mostly for free. The jobs that pay the best for lawyers are often the most boring (contracts), most crooked (corporate lawyers) or most depressing. (divorce lawyers) So unless you are prepared for what a career as a lawyer is really going to be like then it is best not to go to law school. Many suggest that a good way to start is as a paralegal (a two year degree) and if you like it continue on to law school. This will give you an idea of what being a lawyer is really like before you invest all that time and money.