Factors to Consider If You Want to Become a Lawyer
Should you become a lawyer?
Becoming an attorney can be an exciting and noble goal. The profession generally pays well, and you get to put that cool "esquire" after your name as well. You'll know at the end of every workday that you've helped someone, sometimes profoundly.
But you'll need nerves of steel and deep pockets to achieve all this and be successful in the legal profession.
The Financial Burden of Law School
A typical lawyer's student loan debt topped $170,000 in 2018. Bump that up to $322,348 if you're planning to go to Harvard. The average cost of a private law school was $49,095 annually for the 2018-2019 academic year, according to U.S. News & World Report.
And becoming an attorney is not a surefire path to a life of social and economic privilege.
Cost vs. Income
Many lawyers do earn a comfortable living, but you must weigh the cost of law school and three years of lost earnings against the potential returns of a law degree. And some areas of practice pay much more than others.
You'll earn significantly less if you take a job in a legal clinic helping low-income residents rather than a position with a large, established law firm.
The good news is that people will always need attorneys. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that employment of attorneys should grow by about 6% in the decade from 2018 through 2028, even as graduates pour out law school doors, eager to tackle the bar exam and flood the job market.
But the median pay for an attorney was $120,910 as of 2018, according to the BLS—a fair bit less than that law school debt for three years, but, of course, you should have a bit of time to pay off those loans.
It's Usually a Three-Year Program
Law school is a three-year program if you attend full time, and you can only qualify for law school after you've received your bachelor’s degree, so you have to add those years of schooling into the mix as well. But you do have some options.
Some schools offer accelerated J.D. programs, so you might be able to get through in two years or even less.
On the other hand, you might want to slow things down. Law school is a full-time proposition with class work, externships, and other school-related activities that pretty much make outside employment impossible during this time.
You can attend school part time if it just isn't possible for you not to work or juggle your life with a full-time school commitment.
Performing Well Under Pressure
Law students must take numerous tests throughout school in addition to the LSAT and, ultimately, the bar exam. Sometimes your grade can be determined by only one test given at the end of a year-long course.
Performing well in law school can be a measure of your test-taking ability, at least in part.
A Comfort With Public Speaking
You must be comfortable presenting information to others, including clients, juries, judges, arbitrators, opposing counsel, witnesses, boards, and colleagues.
Trial lawyers must feel at home advocating to judges and being center stage in the courtroom. Corporate attorneys must be equally at ease in the boardroom with eyes pinned to them down both sides of the conference room table.
Even in-house lawyers are required to head committees, lead meetings, and make presentations to staff and others.
A Flair With Words
Words are a lawyer’s tool of the trade. Attorneys are excellent communicators, adept at oral argument, and they're strong writers as well.
Trial attorneys should master the art of oral and written persuasion as they argue motions, try cases, take depositions, and draft various legal pleadings. Corporate lawyers must master the art of negotiation and be proficient at drafting transactional documents such as agreements, indentures, and resolutions.
You might want to explore a different opportunity in the legal field if English wasn't your favorite subject in school or if you tend to avoid writing whenever possible.
An Analytical Mind
Logical reasoning and critical-thinking skills are essential to the practice of law. Analytical skills are necessary for all practice areas, whether you're structuring a multi-million-dollar deal or developing a trial strategy. You might enjoy being an attorney if you like logic puzzles, research, and critical thinking.
It also helps if you can leave those rose-colored glasses at home. The American Bar Association has indicated that pessimistic types do well in the practice of law. They're less taken by surprise and tend to land on their feet better when a case threatens to go wrong.
You Must Be Available 24/7
This isn't a requirement for all lawyers, but value-conscious clients might expect you to be accessible around the clock, depending on the area of law you pursue.
This is particularly true in criminal law. Smartphones allow legal professionals to stay connected 24/7, so the job doesn't end for many attorneys when they physically leave the courtroom or their offices at the end of the day.
Very few successful lawyers work only 40-hour weeks. Those who do, such as those in public interest venues and academia, often trade high salaries for a better work-life balance.
Developing Clients and New Business
Most law firm attorneys are responsible for client development. Compensation, bonuses, draws, and partnership opportunities are frequently based on an attorney’s ability to bring in business for the firm, at least in part.
You must excel at marketing yourself and your organization to prospective clients in addition to the demands of practicing law.
Be Prepared to Dress the Part
Most lawyers spend their workdays in suits and business attire. Casual dress is not the norm. This helps attorneys command respect, inspire trust, and convey a polished image.
Set some of your personal budget aside for your wardrobe.