Through my discussions with students working with Ivy Central, I have noticed an increase in students expressing an interest in a career in law; with that in mind, in this article and the next, I will show you how to become a lawyer.
This guide focuses on the US, and in my next article, I will look at the UK. The routes to qualification are very different in each country, so the first question you should ask yourself is, ‘Where do you see yourself working?’ If your answer is the US or the UK, then you should follow the route for that country. However, if you want to practice in a different country, research the requirements for where you want to live. Many countries will have ways in which somebody with a qualification from another country can ‘convert’ their qualification to enable them to practice in that country, but this is not always straightforward. As a general rule of thumb, people who have qualified in the UK find it easier to convert to working in another country than those whose qualification was awarded in the US.
The legal profession in the US and the UK is regulated, meaning you must meet certain professional standards to practice. Once you have met these standards, the legal profession offers many career options to suit nearly all interests. No matter what area of law you would like to end up working in eventually, all people aspiring to a legal career start the same way. Irrespective of where you intend to work and which area of the legal profession you plan to work in, the path to becoming qualified can be challenging and lengthy.
The United States is the most popular destination for Ivy Central students wanting to train for the legal profession, so I will start by taking you through the different steps required to qualify there.
· Complete an undergraduate degree.
In the US, a degree requires at least four years to complete. The first two years provide an opportunity to try out different areas of interest but will normally have some common thread running through them. As you approach the end of your second year, you will need to ‘declare a Major.’ This is where you state the area of study that you will concentrate on during your final two years and will be the subject you will do your final work. Although your major will be the focus of your work, there is still plenty of time to study other areas, do internships, etc.
If you want to be a lawyer in the future, there is no set major that is required, but there are several considerations that you should be aware of.
Consider a course that will develop your critical reasoning and attention to detail. These are critical skills for lawyers; fields such as Classics, Linguistics, and Mathematics, demand more critical reasoning and attention to detail than others. Additionally, all liberal arts curricula are designed to foster these traits. Gravitate towards schools and programs that prioritize these skills.
Choose a writing-heavy major. As a law student, you will spend a lot of time writing papers and taking long legal exams. Doing a major that will build your writing skills and stamina through frequent assessment will help you prepare for this.
Choose the right college. Your choice of college can greatly impact your chances of being accepted by a law school, but it is not just about the prestige of a particular college. Your college Grade Point Average (GPA) will be one aspect that law schools will look at; another will be letters of recommendation from your professors, so a college that offers a rigorous academic program and small class sizes is likely to be a better option than some of the very large state universities.
Look for colleges that offer ‘Pre-law advising.’ As a prospective law student attending a college that offers this will help give you the context and support, you need when it comes time to apply to law schools.
Some people refer to doing a “Pre-law track’ as an undergraduate. However, there is no such thing, and unlike medicine, there are no prerequisite courses you must take to be considered for law school. You should choose an academic subject to major in; Political Science is the most popular major among those going into law school, but other options, including Psychology, History, and English, are also popular. The one possible exception is Patent Law, where an undergraduate degree in a technical field such as Engineering, Chemistry, or Computer Science is required.
· Take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT)
Toward the end of your undergraduate degree, you will need to take the LSAT, a standardized test used by law schools to assess the suitability of potential students. The test measures the skills critical to success in law school, including critical thinking, reading comprehension, information organization, and argument evaluation. The test is offered several times a year. Dates will vary on where you are taking it; however, you will need to take the test no later than December before the fall semester that you intend to start at law school.
The Law School Admissions Service administers the LSAT, an online test of five different sections, each lasting 35 minutes, with a ten-minute break between the second and third sections. The different sections are;
Except for the writing sample, all sections are multiple-choice; the unscored section is made up of questions from any of the previous sections but doesn’t count toward the score awarded. The writing sample requires the student to take a position on a topic with no right or wrong answer. The essay is assessed based on the writer’s ability to support their position.
After taking the LSAT, your raw score (the number of correct answers) is converted to an LSAT scale, the score you will receive. The lowest score is 120, and the highest is 180. According to the LSAS, the average LSAT score is 152, although this changes from one year to the next.
· Law School
To practice law in the United States, you must be awarded a Juris Doctor or JD law degree. This takes three years to complete the qualification, which will take place at one of the many law schools approved by the American Bar Association. You should aim to complete your applications early in your senior year of undergraduate study, which means researching and planning your application during your junior year.
The first year of law school is considered by most to be the hardest of the three. This is the year where all students must gain a foundational understanding of the law by studying topics across the legal spectrum, including civil procedure, constitutional law, legal writing, and contracts. Topics are taught using a case method approach where you will analyze judicial decisions and consider how they relate to other cases.
Having made it through the first year, students better understand what is expected in the second and third years. It is also the point where you, as the student, can choose classes that match your interests. Alongside their study, most students will also become involved in extracurricular activities such as moot court competitions and the third-year legal clinic, where they can do real legal work for low-income clients.
· Bar Exam
In the third year of law school, students will start to think about taking the Bar Exam; this is the exam that all lawyers will need to pass in order to practice and is taken in the state where you intend to work.
Exams normally happen twice a year and usually last two days, although some will take three. The format for each state is slightly different but usually comprises multiple-choice questions, essays, and simulations. Having passed the Bar Exam, you are now able to practice, but that is not the end of your journey.
· Master of Laws
Many law students will continue their studies beyond the three years of law school but studying for the LLM, and the Master of Laws is normally called. This qualification shows that the student has expertise in a specific area of law, such as international law, family law, or business law. Having an LLM is often a requirement that law companies will ask for as it shows that candidates have gained specialist knowledge in the law.
· Doctor of Judicial Science
This is the highest law degree available in the United States and takes three years to complete. This is the qualification taken by those who have many years of legal practice behind them and now aspire to work as law professors in an academic setting.
So there you have it, a quick guide to becoming a lawyer in the United States. In the next article, I will look at the route for those who want to study in the United Kingdom.