Carved in stone above the columned entrance to the Supreme Court is the phrase, "Equal Justice Under Law." Assuring that principle to the more than 249 million people in the United States is the work of the country's lawyers and judges.
The American legal system is complex. The foundation of the system is the United States Constitution, but we also are governed by the acts of the United States Congress, fifty state constitutions, and state and municipal statutes. Besides these statutory foundations, American law is grounded in the decision of its courts. These decisions make up the Common Law, and prior court decisions are precedent for later courts deciding the same issues. Furthermore, because of our heritage as a colony of England, the common law of England -- that is, the rulings of the English common law courts -- is also considered as precedent by our courts.
In the United States, a lawyer has a dual role as advisor and as advocate. As an advisor, the lawyer keeps clients out of trouble by informing them about the legal consequences of proposed actions, by drafting legal arrangements that comply with the law, and by advising about the client's rights and obligations in dealings with other people. The lawyer also assists in putting entangled affairs in order through counseling and negotiation. As an advocate, he or she assists in the administration of justice. American courts operate under an adversary system in which parties to a disagreement in a civil case, or the prosecution and defense in a criminal case, present their points of view to a judge or judge and jury. Lawyers, who are licensed by the courts and are officers of the court, are qualified to present other people's cases through written and oral arguments and application of the appropriate law, procedures, and rules of evidence.
In addition to his or her regular work, a lawyer is expected to render public interest legal service. This includes providing professional services at no fee or reduced fee to persons of limited means or to public service or charitable organizations. Participation in activities for improving the law, the legal system, and the legal profession, such as taking part in bar association projects concerning professional ethics or improving the administration of justice, are also acceptable ways for a lawyer to meet his or her public service obligation.
Not All Are Trial Lawyers
When people think of lawyers, many will picture those portrayed in movies or on television. The image is of an actor or actress speaking eloquently in front of a jury in a mahogany-paneled courtroom and producing a last-minute rabbit from the hat to save a client. In reality, most lawyers spend much of their time outside the courtroom setting. They talk to clients and to others on behalf of clients; they research legal issues; they draft contracts, deeds, wills, corporate by-laws, ordinances, and legislation; they counsel, mediate, and negotiate settlement; they draft depositions, interrogatories, pleadings, trial and appellate briefs, proposed jury instructions, and court findings, and they present matters to administrative boards and agencies. Lawyers' careers are extremely varied. Some lawyers in private practice specialize in advising corporations; some concentrate on solving individuals' civil legal problems; some practice criminal defense. About 10 percent of all lawyers work for various governmental units in either civil or criminal law. A much smaller number teach law or become judges. Yet others do not practice law at all, but use their legal skills in the business world as executives, corporate tax experts, and bankers. Some combine careers, such as a law practice and politics. Others become legal affairs reporters.
Should You Be a Lawyer?
In considering a career in law, first evaluate your own interests, goals, and qualifications. The qualities most needed to be a successful lawyer, according to a survey of bar association leaders, are dedication, motivation, and the willingness to work long hours. Other important qualities include a good vocabulary and thorough knowledge of the English language; sound reasoning skills; an ability to write clearly and concisely; a good memory; and the ability to communicate well orally. Temperament is also a factor to be considered. It is often necessary to work under pressure of tight deadlines, have the patience to spend many hours researching a single legal point, and analyze facts carefully and marshal them to create a persuasive argument. If you think you are interested in a career in a courtroom rather than in an office, you also will need the ability to think quickly on your feet, speak with ease and authority in public, pursue details, and understand courtroom strategy. Many people are looking at law as an adjunct to another career. More students are attending law school not to practice law, but as an alternative to a general business graduate degree. Many officers of major corporations have law degrees.
Opportunities for Women and Minorities
The number of women and minorities group members attending law school has grown dramatically in recent decades. In 1963, only 1,739 women were enrolled as degree candidates in ABA-approved law schools; in 1990, women law students numbered 54,097, or 42.5 percent of all Juris Doctor degree candidates. In 1969 (the first year for which minority student figures are available) they were 2,933 African American, Hispanic American, Asian American, American Indian, and Alaskan Native law students. In 1990, the total minority enrollment was 17,330. Although the fluctuations of the economy will always have an impact on the legal profession, opportunities for women and minorities remain in all sectors of the profession, including law firms, corporations, and government. Minority group members and women in the top portion of their graduating classes are likely to continue to be in great demand.
What About Jobs?
Lawyers can choose from a wide variety of jobs. Many new lawyers join law firms, but even the jobs offered by law firms vary greatly according to the type of law practiced. For example, many large urban firms primarily have corporate clients. Some firms offer a "general practice" that serves both corporate and individual clients in civil and criminal matters. Other firms specialize in litigation work or in personal injury cases, family law, or patent law. A few firms concentrate on public interest law. Law firms range in size from one attorney in a single office to more than 1,000 attorneys in offices located around the country and overseas. Many corporations, businesses, banks, and title companies have legal departments and offer a different type of work for the graduate. Some examples of positions frequently filled by law school graduates are: chief executive officer and other executives of major corporations; insurance executives; real estate brokers; university presidents; accounting firm executives; state governors and other officials; and federal and state legislators and legislative aides. Federal, state, and municipal governments have frequent openings for lawyers. The growing complexity of the law requires governmental legal offices to expand their staffs continually, and there is often considerable competition among graduates to begin their careers in such agencies as the Securities and Exchange Commission, the internal Revenue Service, and the Justice Department. Openings for government jobs occur all over the country, not just in Washington, D.C. Among the most prestigious positions are clerking positions for judges. Supreme Court justices and federal appellate judges each have several clerks. Federal district court judges and many state court judges also have at least one clerk. Clerking positions are usually for a one- or two-year term. Suburban law practices are growing rapidly. In addition, lawyers are often needed in rural communities throughout the United States. It might be a good idea to contact some law firms in a rural area of interest to see what is available. Unfortunately, the job market for graduates is tight and may become even more competitive. While graduates of prestigious law schools and top students from other law schools are always in demand by private law firms, corporations, and the government, others will have a more difficult time finding a job in a preferred line of practice or in a preferred location.
A growing number of individuals have decided to follow careers as paralegals, who are assistants to attorneys. The functions they perform vary considerably, but may include interviewing clients, conducting legal research projects and drafting legal documents under the supervision of attorneys. The paralegal industry is second only to home health care in growth, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A number of tax-supported junior colleges and four-year colleges, as well as for profit private schools, now offer training for legal assistants.
Selecting a Law School--Choices and Criteria
The process of selecting a law school must begin with an honest self-assessment. Applicants need to consider the ways in which their education and work experience have prepared them for legal education, and to think about future academic and career goals. They will need to decide the kinds of locations and environments (urban or suburban, large or small) where they will be most comfortable, whether they prefer to attend full-time or part-time, and how much they can afford to spend. Once applicants understand both their strengths and weaknesses and have a good sense of what they expect from a legal education, the process of selecting law schools to apply to will be more focused and considerably simpler. Next, applicants should learn as much as they can about the law schools that interest them, paying particular attention to their admission requirements. Competition for law school seats is strong. Typically there are twice as many applicants as seats. Half of those who apply to law school won't be accepted. In the face of such competition, many law school applicants apply to several schools (about five, on average), selecting two or three that may or may not accept them, and two or three others where their likelihood of admission may be higher. Application volumes vary from year to year, of course, and competition may ease over time, but the law school admission process is likely to remain competitive for years to come. This competitive environment makes it doubly important for applicants to assess their credentials in relation to the requirements of individual law schools. Law schools look at a variety of factors in considering applications. Among the most important are undergraduate grades and scores on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Other factors include the rigor of an applicant's undergraduate program and any graduate work they may have completed, the nature of any work experience, letters of recommendation, examples of leadership and character, and the strength of a personal statement. Personal interviews usually are not required. Law schools seek a diverse student body. Most offer special recruitment and academic assistance programs for members of groups traditionally under-represented in legal education and the legal profession. To find out about the factors that are important to a particular law school, applicants should contact that school directly. Many admission directors will be happy to speak frankly about the qualities they seek. Even if people have been out of college for several years, their undergraduate prelaw advisor can be an invaluable source of information about various law schools program and the success of fellow graduates in applying to them. An undergraduate should be aware that there is no particular course of study that is required or preferred by law schools. Accordingly, students from a wide variety of majors (e.g., philosophy, physics, political science, engineering, and business) are admitted to law schools each year. There is no true prelaw curriculum. Generally, a broad-based education that is rigorous and that stresses analytical and verbal communication skills will be useful. Increasingly, colleges offer law-related courses as part of the curriculum (e.g., sociology of law, constitutional law, law and psychology, law and literature, criminal justice, etc.). These courses are not designed to prepare students for law school; rather, they show the interrelationships of law, the legal process, society, and culture. Thus, while they are useful to all students who seek a broader understanding of the role of law in our society, they have no special value as "prelaw" courses. With all these things to think about, where should a person begin? Many would be lawyers begin by preparing for and taking the LSAT. It is a half-day, multiple-choice test that measures verbal and reasoning skills. These skills include the ability to understand complex problems, analyze relationships between things or events, and understand and analyze logical arguments. It is important that individuals prepare themselves for the test before they take it. The best way to prepare is by working through previous LSATs, which are available from the test's sponsor, the Law School Admission Services. For many, the LSAT score is the last credential earned before the admission process can begin. After the LSAT score is in, the process of selecting appropriate law schools picks up its pace.
What Is Law School Like?
Law school consists of a three-year course of full-time study or a four- or five-year course of part-time study. Although the approach to the study of law varies somewhat from school to school, the first segment of law school study consists of what is defined as the core curriculum and generally includes courses such as contracts, constitutional law, torts, criminal law, legal writing, civil procedures, and property. All law schools offer instruction in practical professional skills, what is commonly called clinical legal education, and the breadth and number of these courses are increasing. All students as part of their law school studies receive instruction in the duties and responsibilities of the legal profession. In the remainder of their course study, students choose from a variety of courses and areas of the law. Areas of study include such courses as commercial law, business organizations, evidence, tax, labor law, estate planning, antitrust, and international and comparative law. Law school classes have traditionally used the case method of teaching, which involves detailed examination of a number of related, sometimes contradictory, judicial opinions. This method relies heavily on socratic inquiry and student-faculty exchange. Law school methods of instruction also include problem solving, readings, research, and seminars. Increasingly, a number of law school courses are interdisciplinary in nature.
How Much Does Law School Cost?
In addition to assessing the admission criteria of the law schools that are being considered, one must pay attention to finances. Legal education can be very expensive. You must look at the tuition at public law schools and at private institutions at the law schools you are interested in applying. In addition to tuition costs, there will be books and supplies, travel, rent, and food expenses. Law students can expect to spend much money to complete a law school education.
What About Financial Aid?
Unlike most graduate programs, fellowships and grants are not widely available for legal education. Most students pay for law school with student loans. In considering which law schools are affordable, applicants need to think about existing debts, including any undergraduate student loans, and determine the amount of additional debt they are willing and able to assume. Law school financial aid personnel will be able to assist with this process. Some nonloan financial assistance also is available, and individuals should pursue these sources before undertaking educational debt. Most law schools have a small number of scholarships or grants that do not have to be repaid. The best sources of information about these scholarships and grants are the law school financial aid officer and law school catalogs. Veterans may be eligible for financial assistance from the Veterans Administration. Applicants who think they may be eligible for such assistance need to contact the VA office in their state. Academic-year employment often involves working as a legal research assistant. Summer employment typically involves work in a law firm, court, or government agency. These positions help defray the cost of legal education and afford the opportunity to gain hands-on experience. Students who must work full-time during the school year should explore the part-time academic programs offered by many law schools. These programs allow students to extend their studies over a longer period of time, usually four to five years. When considering law school, applicants should give themselves plenty of time. The process of gathering all credential information, researching the law schools, looking into finances, and picking the law schools to apply to, can be very time consuming. It is important to know and meet all application deadlines.
Admission to the Bar
After graduating from law school, an individual must gain admission to the bar of the jurisdiction in which he or she wishes to practice law. The usual requirements are graduating from a law school approved by the ABA, the national accreditation agency for law schools; passing a written examination administered by the jurisdiction's board of bar examiners; and meeting the requirements of character and fitness. Requirements vary nationally; for example, a few states permit graduates of non-ABA-approved law schools to take the bar examination. Bar examinations are administered in February and July. After passing the bar examination, an applicant who has established his or her good character and fitness is formally admitted to the practice of law by the highest state court in the jurisdiction. Admission in one jurisdiction does not qualify a lawyer to practice in other jurisdictions, although roughly half the jurisdictions permit admission of experienced attorneys without additional testing under what is variously termed motion admission, comity admission, or admission by reciprocity. Information concerning bar admission can be obtained from the board of bar admissions.