When you start thinking about college, it’s easy to focus on getting into a “good” school. But what constitutes a good school can vary from person to person—what works for your best friend or sibling might not be a good fit for you. One of the most important considerations you should take into account when you’re looking for a school should be the academic offerings. What courses do they offer? What career paths can you pursue there?
You might know what you want to do after college already, and if you do, that’s great! But if you don’t, then figuring it out can be a daunting prospect—there are so many possibilities. Furthermore, what if you get to college and realize that your school doesn’t offer the major that best leads to your recently-realized dream career? Or what if you didn’t take the necessary classes early on to pursue a certain advanced degree. That’s why we’ll be exploring various careers and the paths to get there in this series, to help you start thinking beyond “which college?” to “which career?”. Read on to learn more about what becoming a lawyer would mean for your academic future.
What Does a Lawyer Do?
Law is an oft-discussed profession—and for good reason. Lawyers play a role in many aspects of our everyday lives, including mortgages and leases, patented items, and the court cases we most often associate with the law. These different aspects, among others, are part of the many different specialties a lawyer can pursue. But no matter what specialty, the job of a lawyer is to think critically about a situation, provide legal advice to whom they are representing, and can enact the next steps they are proposing. Some lawyers do this in a courtroom as advocates for their clients, while others advise their clients and might not spend any time in a courtroom at all.
This is because legal work is typically divided into criminal and civil law. Criminal law is exactly what it sounds like: a crime has been committed and stakes involve legal punishment. Civil law typically deals with situations where two parties are in a dispute and some type of compensation (usually financial) is at stake. In either criminal or civil law, there are a variety of types of places you could work as a lawyer:
Working in a law firm is one of the most common avenues for a lawyer. Law firms can range from two lawyers to hundreds and can practice in myriad areas, from corporate law to criminal to patent to real estate, though some may specialize. Working 60-80+ hours a week is typical here (especially at larger firms), but most lawyers can expect to work long hours no matter what field. Most law school graduates work in law firms when first starting out, to get the specialized experience necessary before going into other fields later on.
Some businesses contract outside law firms to work on their behalf, but others will retain general counsel on their staff to advise on various legal matters. This work could include negotiating contracts, managing risk, advising on business deals, and anything else that comes up in day-to-day business. The size of the legal team will vary from company to company. These jobs are a way to be involved in another industry that interests you—for instance, if you love books, then becoming general counsel at a publishing house could be a good fit. Alternatively, if you study mechanical engineering as an undergrad, then you could become in-house counsel for a manufacturing firm that patents its pieces.
This type of law involves providing legal work to marginalized groups. This could include working directly with clients at places like nonprofit law clinics or effecting larger policy change at organizations like the ACLU. Many lawyers in the private sector also undertake this work for free (pro bono) by working with these organizations on a volunteer basis in their free time.
Lawyers are highly represented in all levels of government from local through federal and beyond. These roles include things like public defenders and district attorneys, staff and advisers, and more. Working as a lawyer in the government could mean defending those who cannot afford other representation, representing the government when civil cases are brought against it, or researching and advising on laws and regulations. Many politicians also come from backgrounds in law. Clerking for a judge is also a government position available to lawyers; becoming a judge is also a possibility, but only a small percentage of lawyers go on to become judges, as it requires gaining much experience and being appointed or elected to the position.
There are other, less traditional paths in the law profession, but no matter what your ultimate goal is with practicing law, there are a number of steps you’ll want to take to get there.
How Much do Lawyers Make?
Lawyers make a median salary of $129,910, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But there is a large amount of variation between different specializations and the public and private sectors. According to Salary.com as of October 20, 2019, the average salary for the below specializations are as follows:
Corporate Lawyer: $111,050
Family Lawyer: $68,776
Immigration Lawyer: $60,982
Patent Lawyer: $123,663
How to Become a Lawyer
In high school, you should start to think about what type of law you want to practice. Start by inquiring about informational interviews or job shadowing with local law firms that specialize in different areas. You don’t need to decide now, but getting this early exposure can make that decision easier later on. These experiences are also a great asset for when you write your application essays, particularly “why career” or “why major” essays.
Remember: pre-law is not a major! You can major in anything and still become a lawyer. But maybe you already know that you want to become a Public Policy major, and how that will contribute to your dream of being a human rights lawyer. Or perhaps you want to study chemical engineering, which will help you practice pharmaceutical patent law. If so, that’s great! That will demonstrate how you have thought about your future, and how that school in particular fits into your plan.
Regardless of your prospective major, you will want to get into the best college you can with strong high school academics, test scores, and extracurriculars. Some law schools (usually state schools) will actually ask for your high school information as well as college.
Again: pre-law is not a major. You can apply to law school with any major, so study what you want while developing skills that will benefit you in law school and beyond. These include critical thinking, strong writing ability, research, analytical skills, and more. So, make sure you’re taking a wide range of courses where you can; for instance, if you major in a STEM field, make sure that you take some courses that require readings and papers rather than problem sets and lab reports. For some guidance, see our list of the top 10 undergrad majors for students interested in law school.
No matter your major, there are three main factors that will play into your eventual law school applications: GPA, LSAT (or, in some cases, GRE) score, and extracurricular activities. Much like undergraduate applications, GPA and test scores help schools understand your academic ability in the context of your school and on a national scale, while your extracurriculars demonstrate where your passions and interests lie.
Your GPA offers a high-level summary of your academic ability, so take special care your first semesters on campus, when many students have trouble adjusting to the coursework. In terms of other academic requirements, the LSAT is the universal standardized test for law school entrance, while the GRE is the exam taken by those applying to graduate school. Some schools have begun accepting it in lieu of the LSAT to offer greater flexibility to applicants. If you are considering grad school as well as law school, you might consider looking into law schools that accept the GRE as well.
However, if you are only considering law school, you are better off taking the LSAT. It is only used for law school admissions, but its wide acceptance means that it will be easier to gauge your options based on your score. Some applicants take private courses to prepare for the LSAT, though it is also possible to prepare your own course of study. Just know that the LSAT is a very different exam from anything you’ll have ever seen before, and involves rigorous logic puzzles and questions. Because the LSAT is only offered four times a year, plan to take the exam early enough that retake it, if needed.
With extracurriculars, focus your time and energy on strong, long-term contributions to activities that you care about deeply—ideally ones that relate to the field of law you are interested in. Many law school applicants are involved in speech and debate, campus government, and other clubs they think will be relevant—and those are great, if they are something you are passionate about. But don’t be afraid to go outside the traditional sphere if you can demonstrate similar skills. For instance, if you’re passionate about tight-rope walking and want to start a club on campus—which requires a petition, campus grant money applications, arguing your case to the student activities committee, etc.—that can be an equally strong addition to your application, while adding color to it.
So you got into your dream undergraduate school, you majored in something exciting, you got stellar grades and LSAT scores, and you were involved in extracurriculars you were really passionate about, and you applied to schools within your LSAT range. You got in. Now what?
Law school is typically a three-year course of study that culminates in sitting for the Bar Exam in the state you wish to practice in. The first year (“1L”) is typically considered the most difficult. The film Legally Blonde actually provides a good overview of what to expect (minus arguing a criminal murder trial as a first-year): hours of reading cases and studying each night, being cold called on to analyze cases in class, and forming study groups to get through all the material. Grades often depend on one final exam at the end of the year.
How you spend your summers is extremely important in law school. Most students use the first summer of law school to intern in an area that interests them. They then become a “summer associate” at a large law firm in their second summer. This requires an extensive interview process with multiple rounds. Eventually, some firms invite you for a later round interview in their city so you can speak with many associates over a couple of days.
These internships are important because summer associates are usually asked to return to their firm, after they graduate and pass the Bar. Securing a good summer associate position and excelling in it can mean that the first years of your career are set early on.
Different states have different requirements for their Bar exams, but you can expect to take it within a year of graduating. Passing means you can practice law in that state!
There are a lot of considerations to take into account while looking into colleges, and career exploration is at the top of that list. Luckily, prospective law students can major in anything. For help looking for the best-fit college for you on your law school journey, sign up for your free CollegeVine account, where you can explore schools, estimate your chances of acceptance, and more.