So, You Want to Become a Lawyer?
What does it take to become a lawyer?
Becoming an attorney is an exciting and noble goal. Depending on what area of law you decide to practice, the profession generally pays well and you get to put that cool "esquire" after your name as well. Beyond that, you'll know at the end of every day's work that you've helped someone, often profoundly.
But do you have what it takes? Here are a few things to consider before you start down the road toward achieving this career.
Are you prepared to assume the financial burden of law school?
A typical lawyer's student loan debt averaged more than $140,000 in 2016, and becoming a lawyer is no longer a surefire path to a life of social and economic privilege. Many lawyers earn a comfortable living and a J.D. certainly has value in today’s marketplace, but you must weigh the cost of law school and three years of lost earnings against the potential returns of a law degree. Some areas of practice pay much more than others. If you take a job in a legal clinic helping low-income residents, you'll earn much less than if you take a position with a large law firm.
Are you prepared to dedicate three or more years to continuing your education?
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. 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.
Do you perform well under pressure?
Specifically, do you do well on tests under pressure? In addition to the LSAT and the bar exam, law students must take numerous tests throughout law school. Sometimes your grade is determined by only one test given at the end of a year-long course, so performing well is a measure of one’s test-taking ability, at least in part.
Are you comfortable 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 a judge and being center stage in the courtroom. Corporate lawyers must be equally at ease in the boardroom with eyes glued on 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.
Do you like 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 lawyers must 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. If English wasn't your favorite subject or if you avoid writing whenever possible, you may want to explore a different opportunity in the legal field.
Do you have 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. If you like logic puzzles, research, and critical thinking, then you may enjoy being an attorney.
Can you be available 24/7?
Granted, this isn't a requirement for all lawyers, but depending on the area of law you pursue, value-conscious clients may expect you to be accessible around the clock. This is particularly true in the case of criminal law. Smartphones allow legal professionals to stay connected 24/7, so the job doesn't end for many lawyers when they physically leave the courtroom or their offices at the end of the day.
Most successful lawyers don't work a 40-hour work week. Lawyers who do work sane schedules, such as those in public interest venues and academia, often trade high salaries for a better work-life balance.
Are you prepared to develop 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. So in addition to the demands of practicing law, you must excel at marketing yourself and your organization to prospective clients.
Are you prepared to dress the part?
Casual dress for lawyers is not the norm. Most lawyers spend their workdays in suits and business attire. This helps lawyers command respect, inspire trust and convey a polished image.
If you've been nodding your head yes to all these questions, you may have found your calling.