What is the Career Path of a Lawyer?

Practicing law is like any other profession; no one follows the same path to their goals. And many times, initial goals are replaced with the acquisition of time, wisdom, and experience. The career path of a lawyer is no different: A young attorney may have his or her heart set on the goal of becoming a criminal defense lawyer, but after several years of experience in a firm, counseled by older, savvy lawyers, he or she may decide that their real calling lies in probate and estate planning. Thus, the career path of one lawyer can vary significantly over the years.

In general, a lawyer’s career path In the United States runs along this line:

·         First, a prospective attorney may attend pre-law classes in college. This isn’t always the case, however; most law schools require only an undergraduate degree in any field and a high score on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Taking pre-law classes in history, political science, economics, government, English composition, and others usually makes law school quite a bit easier.

·         Next, the dreaded LSAT. If you were to ask 100 attorneys which was the most terrifying for them, the LSAT or the state bar exam, at least half of them would say the LSAT! The reason is that without a competitively high score on the LSAT, the applicant’s career path as a lawyer is over right then and there. Yes, the LSAT is difficult; it tests the applicant’s ability to apply abstract theories to practical situations, and often there is nothing as easy as a “right” answer. It’s also true that some schools e.g. Massachusetts and Illinois don’t require the LSAT. The American Bar Association recently raised many academicians’ eyebrows when it announced it was considering abolishing the LSAT but those wheels of change will turn slowly, so for now expect that a lawyer’s career path includes scoring well on the LSAT. If you don’t do well enough on the first try, you can take an LSAT preparation course and test again.

·         Once you’ve aced the LSAT, get set for three years of law school. You’ll take semesters of contracts, torts, property, evidence, civil procedure, criminal law, criminal procedure, ethics, administrative law, probate, appeals, mock court, and others as your state requires. Law school is similar to medical school in that it’s an intensely concentrated experience, and you’ll have room for little else in your life.

·         When law school is over you have your Juris Doctorate degree in hand and your career path as a lawyer can finally begin. Oh, but first there’s another test to take and this one is as much of a bugger as the LSAT. To be licensed to practice law in your state, you must pass the bar examination. Like the LSAT you’ll have time to take a test preparation course that will not only help you nail down the legal reasoning you’ll be asked to wade through, but also tips on how to take the test itself. If you fail the bar exam you can re-take it. Recall that John F. Kennedy, Jr. failed the test the first time around but eventually passed. If a president’s son had difficulty with the test, perhaps that’s a vindication for all J.D.s who must take it more than once.

·         Now you’re licensed to practice real law! In most lawyers’ career paths they begin slowly with an established law firm where they learn the day to day tasks of “lawyering.” You, too, will have such opportunities to be mentored by older, experienced attorneys who will teach you all about preparing pleadings, courtroom etiquette, how to take a deposition, how to interview clients and witnesses and how to work with opposing counsel. (This isn’t your sworn enemy; he’s just the guy who represents the other party!) Your career path as a lawyer will likely have you sitting “second chair” with your firm’s litigator (if your practice focuses on litigation compared to transactional work), and you’ll probably be asked to conduct the direct examination of a client or witness, or the cross examination of a witness for the other side. You may also be called upon to give the opening or closing statement in a case.

·         If you practice transactional law, be prepared to be completing activities such as negotiating agreements, performing due diligence investigations (such as examining liens, mortgages, and taxes owed on goods/property/interests being sold), and closing deals. 

·         Your career path as a lawyer will include yearly continuing education hours; how many depends upon your state. Every year (or sometimes every two years) you’ll need to attend some advanced practice workshops to keep up to date on new trends in the law and in practicing law. For example, you may elect to attend a continuing education workshop on changes in probate law, or on the restriction of evidence in court based upon the “hearsay rule.” You may even gain continuing education credits by visiting another country and participating in learning events that teach you how law is practiced in other cultures.

·         Further Education:  Master of Laws (LLM) and Doctor of Laws degrees. These are most often taken by attorneys who wish to teach law school or focus on specific subjects (the most common form of LLM is in taxation).

The career path of a lawyer requires lengthy training and study, a cool-headed ability to apply the law to facts (depending on your career focus), devotion to the cause of justice and protecting the rights of clients.

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