Lawyer jokes aside, practicing law is critical to the smooth functioning of society. Laws define the rules that people follow when interacting with each other and the government. Without laws and lawyers, people would be left on their own to resolve their differences. As a result, winners would be determined by power, money, and influence rather than the fair application of justice.
For example, without the cases surrounding the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting excessive bail, the government could hold indefinitely anyone arrested. However, because of laws and lawyers, defendants can use bail bonds to secure their release until trial.
Similarly, without laws and lawyers, an influential and wealthy doctor could act negligently in the doctor’s medical practice. However, because of delayed cancer diagnosis lawyers, doctors, and other professionals — including lawyers — must provide reasonably competent services or they can be held responsible for the damage their negligence causes.
Becoming a lawyer requires at least three years of full-time law school or four to five years of part-time law school. However, attending law school is only part of becoming a lawyer. Here are some tips and advice on becoming a lawyer:
Understand What Lawyers Do
When you search for advice on becoming a lawyer, you will likely find many sources about the requirements to qualify as a lawyer such as attending an accredited law school, passing the state bar exam, and setting up a practice. However, before you do any of that, you must first understand what a lawyer does and decide whether you have the desire and ability to do that.
Lawyers research, interpret, and advise clients on the law. Some lawyers also prepare documents and advocate on behalf of clients, however not all lawyers perform these tasks.
The clients that lawyers represent depend on their practice area. Lawyers can represent individuals, businesses and organizations, public interests — like the environment or workers, and the government. In the course of representing these clients, lawyers generally fall into a few broad types of practices including:
- Transactional: Transactional lawyers are deal-makers. They generally negotiate loans, purchases, or other deals and prepare the contracts to put them into place.
- Litigation: Litigators represent clients in court and advocate for their clients’ positions in front of a judge or jury. Although litigators have a reputation for being talkers, litigators must be skilled at both written and oral communication.
- Administrative: An administrative lawyer represents clients before administrative agencies like the U.S. Patent Office or the IRS. Administrative lawyers are the lawyers you turn to when you need to file a patent application, environmental impact statement, or zoning variance. They also defend you against enforcement actions like tax audits and shutdown orders.
- Public interest: Public interest lawyers work in favor of particular causes. They propose changes to the law and advocate for those changes to legislators, judges, governors, and agency leaders.
The first piece of advice on becoming a lawyer is to take a deep dive into what lawyers in these various types of practices do, and identify the skills, aptitudes, and interests that will keep you motivated to be a great lawyer.
For example, if you are passionate about children, there are many careers within the law to help kids and families. You could become a public interest lawyer who advocates for childhood nutrition or safe products. You could become a prosecutor who litigates child abuse cases on behalf of the state. You could become a child custody attorney who ensures children are placed in a caring family environment.
Far too many lawyers are only interested in making money and building social prestige. However, great lawyers are passionate about the law and their role within the legal system. Finding your place in the law will ensure that you will have a satisfying and successful legal career.
Try Different Things in Law School
Law is the biggest buffet you will ever see. Lawyers are involved in every part of our society. One of the most important pieces of advice on becoming a lawyer is to try a lot of different things while you are in law school because you never know what you might like.
Most law students enter law school with only a vague idea of what they will do after graduation. Perhaps they have an interest in finance and believe they might make good bankruptcy lawyers. Or perhaps they had a scrape with the law and want to become a criminal defense lawyer.
However, law school is a good time to experiment with different areas of law and skills. Once you begin your practice, changing focus areas and types of practices is difficult. Law firms focus on particular types of cases and clients and you might have to quit your job to try something different.
While you are in law school, trying something different is much simpler. Try a few classes in areas where you might have a passing interest. Even if you do not plan to litigate, clerk for a judge so you can see what happens inside a courtroom. If you want to become a corporate litigator, spend a semester in an internship for a public interest group. Everyone providing advice on becoming a lawyer will generally agree that there is no such thing as a bad experience because every experience will help you grow as a lawyer.
Prepare for the Bar Examination in Law School
Every state requires new lawyers to pass the bar examination to practice law. The questions on the bar exam ensure that every new lawyer is broadly competent across a range of legal subjects that every lawyer should know.
Regardless of what your practice area will eventually be, you will be expected to know property law, criminal law, contract law, civil procedure, wills and estates, family law, and a host of other general topics. Even if you intend to limit your practice to divorce cases, you will still need to know your state’s homicide statutes and personal injury laws to pass the bar exam.
Bar exam review courses are expensive. Many law firms will pay for the bar review courses for their new hires. However, lawyers without job offers at big firms may need to find other ways to prepare for the bar exam. Since many states only offer the bar exam one or two times per year, failing the bar exam could delay a new lawyer’s career by as much as one year. Therefore, critical advice on becoming a lawyer is to thoroughly prepare for the bar exam.
Some ways to prepare for the bar exam without a bar review course include:
- Take courses in law school that cover the bar subjects. For example, family law is a bar exam subject for all lawyers — not just family law lawyers.
- Buy used bar review materials. The bar exam changes very little from year to year. Buying last years bar review materials can save you money on your bar preparation.
- Find free videos online. The bar exam is the subject of many free online videos. While this cannot substitute for written bar preparation materials, the tips and advice on becoming a lawyer by getting a high score on the bar exam can help you manage your studies.
Find a Mentor
After you pass the bar exam, you will have the authority to represent clients. However, becoming a lawyer is more than having a license to practice law. Instead, becoming a lawyer requires you to develop the competence, judgment, and creativity to represent your clients effectively. Thus, becoming a lawyer should be viewed as a process rather than a single event.
Mentors are an irreplaceable resource for advice on becoming a lawyer. Having a mentor can provide you with:
- Advice: A mentor is a resource for your quick questions that can help you avoid making mistakes. An experienced lawyer probably made a few mistakes in the lawyer’s career. Asking for help allows you to learn from your mentor’s mistakes so you do not repeat them.
- Ethical guidance: Lawyers who have practiced for a while have seen many ethical issues arise. When you run across an ethically questionable situation, your mentor can help you avoid breaching the ethical rules.
- Creative thinking: Once a lawyer has mastered the black letter law, the lawyer can begin to work creatively within the system to help clients achieve their goals. For example, a DUI attorney who has many appearances before the local judges and many cases against the local prosecutors can use their past experience to help a client get treatment and other help through the court system rather than simply going to jail.
Scrupulously Follow the Ethical Rules
Once you have been admitted to the practice of law, you are technically an attorney. However, some of the best advice on becoming a lawyer who is respected in the legal community and is financially successful is to follow the ethical rules.
The ethical rules are not intended to hamper your ability to practice law. Rather, they exist to protect you and your clients from sticky situations. Although the rules may occasionally require you to pass on cases or case strategies that will produce wins and fees, over the long run, following the ethical rules will bring you greater success and monetary rewards than breaking them.
Specifically, following the ethical rules provides benefits including:
- Reputation: An ethical lawyer is respected by the legal community and clients alike.
- Less risk: Following the ethical rules minimizes the risk of being sued for malpractice. Moreover, a lawyer who does not receive complaints from the bar will have lower malpractice insurance premiums.
- Longer career: A lawyer who plays fast and loose with the ethical rules can be suspended or disbarred, ending the lawyer’s career or placing a serious crimp in the lawyer’s practice.
For the most part, practicing ethically just means that a lawyer follows common sense. A medical malpractice attorney who is scrupulously honest with clients will have greater credibility with the court and opposing lawyers and insurance companies. A lawyer who fabricates evidence, on the other hand, will be viewed by judges, lawyers, and insurance companies with skepticism. As a result, the unethical lawyer will be less successful.
Whether you are in a law firm or on your own, marketing yourself is critical advice on becoming a lawyer with a book of clients. Lawyers, like doctors and other professionals, have a personal connection to their clients. When lawyers leave a firm or open a new practice, their former clients often follow them to their new job.
Marketing directly to clients can take many forms including:
- Community involvement: Using your legal skills to help others, even if it is for free, earns you a strong reputation among other lawyers and potential clients. For example, a child adoption attorney who volunteers to take on a few pro bono adoption cases will have the respect of judges and lawyers who can steer paying clients to the lawyer.
- Legal involvement: Showcasing your legal skills by getting involved in the bar association or advocacy groups can help you market your practice. For example, a litigator who helps revise court rules to provide a more open and fair process will increase the lawyer’s profile among lawyers and judges.
- Client outreach: Whether you take clients to lunch or present at events your clients attend, you can often market your practice by simply making a personal connection. For example, if you are looking to increase your criminal defense practice, presenting at a national event for bail bond agency owners can help.
Remain Current on the Law
Advice on becoming a lawyer also include advice on remaining a lawyer. The law always evolves and remaining current on new developments in the law is critical to serving clients.
Continuing education, a term used primarily in the U.S. and Canada, broadly describes a wide array of secondary education programs. Continuing education is required for lawyers to maintain their law licenses.
Many lawyers view continuing education as a burden. However, if you view this as an opportunity, you could learn something valuable for you and your clients. Continuing legal education programs cover a range of topics including:
- Practice-specific topics: Whether your practice focuses on personal injury law, trademark law, or divorce law, you can find continuing education courses that cover new developments in your practice area and hints for providing better service for your clients.
- Ethics: Most states require a periodic refresher on legal ethics. As lawyers grow and develop in their practices, it is always helpful to remember the principles intended to protect lawyers and their clients from sticky situations.
- Practice tips: The practice of law requires more than just knowledge of the law. A law practice is a business that requires accounting, human resources, and marketing tasks to be performed. Learning more about the business of practicing law will make you more efficient so you can spend time helping clients rather than running your office.
Becoming a lawyer is not an easy task and requires you to take on a lot of new responsibilities. The best lawyers are those who make a client’s legal problems their own and handle their case accordingly. To do this, lawyers must be passionate about the work they do and have the drive to learn and improve as their career develops. If you view becoming a lawyer as a process that never ends, you will have a legal career that is interesting, successful, and fulfilling.