Law school, really?
August 25, 2007 11:44 AM   Subscribe

I would like to know more about law school and being a lawyer.

This is the very beginning of my search for information on this topic so please pardon some of the ignorant questions.

Would a Bachelor's in biology allow me to enter law school without taking a horrendous amount of extra prerequisites?

How important is the school you attend in determining future income and position?

If I pass the state bar in one state, does that mean I will have to pass the bar in every other state I plan on practicing in, or is there some sort of middle ground?

Considering that I have no interest in working for any level of the government, what are my employment prospects after graduating?

What should I be doing during law school to ensure that I get hired after graduating?

What do wish you had known before going into law school?

What are some good websites for more information on this whole area?
posted by 517 to Education (23 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Would a Bachelor's in biology allow me to enter law school without taking a horrendous amount of extra prerequisites?

Yes. There are no prerequisites for law school.

How important is the school you attend in determining future income and position?

Pretty important, if you consider that the highest starting salaries generally go to students who graduated high in their classes at prestige (i.e., top 20) law schools. However, those high salaries also are accompanied by the high cost of living in the cities where those salaries are offered, so you might do well to get a prestige job in a mid-sized city, and firms in those cities are more likely to draw from the local/regional schools. Also, there are lots of lawyers who went to no-name schools end up making a killing.

If I pass the state bar in one state, does that mean I will have to pass the bar in every other state I plan on practicing in, or is there some sort of middle ground?

Yes, you generally have to pass the bar in every state, until you have practiced for several years, when you become eligible for reciprocity agreements that allow you to be admitted without exam (I think that's right).

Considering that I have no interest in working for any level of the government, what are my employment prospects after graduating?

I think government lawyers make up a pretty small percentage of the number of lawyers out there.

What should I be doing during law school to ensure that I get hired after graduating?

Get on law review, do moot court, get good summer jobs (especially the job your second summer ... unless you're a freak or completely incompetent, those jobs your second summer almost automatically become permanent offers once you graduate.)

What do wish you had known before going into law school?

How unglamorous, tedious, and stressful much legal work tends to be.

What are some good websites for more information on this whole area?

No websites to speak of, but here are a couple of books:

Guerilla Guide to Law Job of Your Dreams

What Law School Doesn't Teach You ...
posted by jayder at 12:00 PM on August 25, 2007


Re Biology degree: It's fine, you don't need to take any pre-requisites to get into law school. In fact, where I went (Boalt), biology was an extremely common undergrad major because many people wanted to go into IP.

Re importance of school: It is quite important, especially for the first few years out of law school. If you want to go to a big firm (where the six-figure salaries are), a clerkship, or an academic position, you really need to go to a good school. Not impossible to get these positions at lesser schools, but it's certainly a lot harder.

That said, once you've been out of school for a few years, if you demonstrate yourself to be an excellent lawyer, you can still have a strong career in the long run.

If you've pass the bar in one state, you can practice law in other states only on a case-by-case basis, where you get admitted pro hac vice by the court in each case. Otherwise, you need to take the bar again.

Re your employment prospects, that depends heavily on where you go and how well you do. Go to a top school and graduate in the top 20% of your class, and damn near any door you want will be open to you.

Most people in that situation go to big firms, where you start at $160k/year. But I wouldn't advise it. The hours are ridiculous, the work is grueling, and it's not worth the money in my opinion. If you have a family, and you think it's important to spend time with them, forget about it. That's why a very large percentage of associates leave the big firms within a couple years.

To enhance your employment prospects, in addition to doing well academically, you should be making lots of good contacts. Get to know your professors well. If possible, get a job doing research for one.

If you want to do a clerkship, it's a good idea to get on law review, and graduate in the top 10-20% of your class. Clerkships are a truly awesome opportunity, especially if you get the right judge. I clerked for a very good federal judge when I graduated, and I wouldn't give it up for anything.

That will also open up just about any door you want.

What you should know: Attitude is everything. A lot of people hate law school. The best students thrive on it, and they do so because they have the right attitude. In my experience, these students have had some experience outside of school, so they did not come right from undergrad. But that's not essential. What is essential is that you go into it with a positive mindset.

Done right, law school is actually highly enjoyable. Law is a second career for me, and I absolutely loved school. I wish it had lasted longer.

The friends you make in law school are important, so make as many friends as possible. If you go to a top school, these are the people that will run the world some day, so best to get to know them now.
posted by mikeand1 at 12:09 PM on August 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Oh, a couple more things:

What do wish you had known before going into law school?

-- How law practice is not anything like law school; i.e., if you hate law school you might actually like law practice, and if you love law school you may still crash and burn in law practice.

-- In law school, you are trained to try cases and use incisive legal reasoning, and you're not really prepared for the rote, routine nature of much legal work; i.e., you're not really told that most lawyers feel like cogs in a system where there's very little drama in their daily practice. I.e., the job of very successful lawyers is a lot of very routine stuff that often does not call for or reward really incisive reasoning (although, of course, there are times when this is rewarded). They do the same stuff every day --- getting judgments against people who default on their credit cards, taking depositions of plaintiffs in bogus tort cases, negotiating plea deals for petty criminals. A lot of lawyers are really just going through the motions, because that's all their job really demands.

-- Being very prepared pays bigger dividends than clever reasoning and argument.

-- Very few cases go to trial (a small fraction of one percent, in most state courts). When I was in law school, I mistakenly thought jury trials were common.

-- Judges often get the law wrong and make decisions for ridiculous reasons. Being "right" on the law doesn't necessarily mean you will win.
posted by jayder at 12:11 PM on August 25, 2007


1. Doesn't matter what your BA is - mine was psych and I got into a high top-tier school. Your BA has no impact on the law school curriculum, law schools expect you to have no prior legal education. "Pre-law" undergrad preparations are no longer preferred, except that in order to be accepted you'll generally need to show analytical and critical thinking capabilities (in your own field).

2. There are locally focused and nationally focused law schools, with the top tier and more elite generally being national. Great grades at a local school can bring you to a great income/position in a law firm in that locality, or a national law firm's office in that locality, with your career progress determining your advancement therefrom. A national school is only really necessary if you want to go into elite appellate work, etc. Short story: it can be important depending on your career goals, but isn't essential, and personal achievement is far more critical.

3. Different states have different rules. Most go like this: You pass the bar in a state and practice law there with a clean record for 5 of the last 7 years, you can thereupon be admitted on application (no bar exam) to any state with "reciprocity". Not all states offer reciprocity for all other states, but typically for a handful of others. You can also typically practice in another state by getting admitted "pro hac vice" (for a single specific case with the permission of the presiding judge) or by associating with co-counsel admitted in the target state. As a last resort, you can simply take the bar exam in the target state, as the majority of the exam points these days come from the Multistate (national) test parts.

4. Private practice, corporate counsel, pro bono/legal aid work, legal work within a non-legal organization (i.e. legal consulting work for magazines or writers).

5. Getting B's, staying sane, polishing your interview suit and manner, and developing a good work ethic. Try to figure out what interests you, try your hand in legal writing (journals), moot court (practice), clinics (where you go do real legal work helping legal aid lawyers help people in need of cheap legal services).

6. I wish I had known to trust my instincts that told me how much I wanted nothing to do with the legal profession, but I don't think that helps you. I wish I had known that "Paperchase" has nothing to do with law schools' approach to teaching today. I wish I had known how much more fun I would have had if I'd taken advantage of some of the opportunities I mentioned in Item 5, above. I was lucky enough to pick a top tier school that was NOT competitive and did NOT make me hate law, but friends of mine ended up in competitive note-stealing evil nightmarish places, and I wish THEY had known it didn't have to be that way.

The legal profession can go a few ways, in my experience. You have the people who really love thinking on their feet, who enjoy it, who thrive from the challenge, yet remain courteous, intelligent, consummate professionals - those are great to work with, inspirational and very rare. There are people who are partners in Daddy's small town firm, drink too much, have no idea what they are really supposed to be doing, but yell loud and threaten to sue over every delay in returning a telephone call. There are people who just sit in corporate offices filing paperwork all day and hate their lives, unless they have really good hobbies outside the office. These are WAY over-generalizations, but my point is that law can be REALLY interesting if you make it work for you, but it can also be a drag. Long hours, everyone thinks you're a jerk as soon as you tell them what you do, you ARE a jerk because you're working an 80 hour week for pay that no longer seems worth it and NO appreciation...I ramble, but you get the point. I know a lot of people who hate it more than they thought they would, and a few who might turn around one day and decide they like it after all.
posted by bunnycup at 12:12 PM on August 25, 2007


"...80 hour week..."

Which brings up another question, what is a common work load for the first few years out of law school?
posted by 517 at 12:19 PM on August 25, 2007


One more thing to add: This wasn't a problem for me, but I know quite a few people who wish they had known prior to applying for law school that you can do the school, study for the bar, pass the bar and STILL not be allowed to practice law if you don't have a good record. DUIs, misdemeanors, inappropriate-even-if-technically-legal behavior, bad discipline records at other schools, bankrupcty and credit issues and a a whole host of other problems can prevent you from being admitted even if you pass the bar exam. If you have any concern whatsoever that any such items might be a problem for you, proceed with caution. I'm not making ANY assumption that any of these do or would apply to you, of course.
posted by bunnycup at 12:19 PM on August 25, 2007


Look up "billable hour requirements". New associates are typically expected to "bill" several thousand hours per year, but as a n00b it may take several hours actual work to yield a single hour that can legitimately be billed. The hours you must work, thus, are far more than the number you must bill. So, if the billable hours requirement is 2150/year, well that's 40 hours a week right there, no vacation. Figure you'ev got to work DOUBLE that in order to be billing that many hours.

A lot of top firms will say "oh we have no billable hours requirement", because working young associates like a sweatshop has gone somewhat out of favor. They DO have them, it's just an unwritten rule. Higher starting salaries always have higher billable hour requirements.

Oh, the sweet poetry of the billable hour.

(Caveat: I don't deal with this nonsense personally, so someone else might be able to describe more accurately. I'm in corporate/in-house where this is not an issue.)
posted by bunnycup at 12:24 PM on August 25, 2007


If you graduate law school in Wisconsin, you don't have to pass the Bar.
posted by who squared at 12:46 PM on August 25, 2007


Get a great internship and it can do wonders. My brother-in-law scored one with a good firm, and worked his butt off for them. So much so that they were impressed enough to offer him a job (well, dependent on the bar exam) as soon as he finished school.
posted by Kellydamnit at 12:58 PM on August 25, 2007


Excuse my hijack here... but i had similar question that might help 517 also... please ignor me if u think i am inapproporiate...

Just how hard is it to get through the law school and how long? I was an average undergraduate... and i always thought studying law would require very high performance study skills.
posted by curiousleo at 1:07 PM on August 25, 2007


Being very prepared pays bigger dividends than clever reasoning and argument.

Totally 100% true. Most of your "Perry Mason" moments occur when you are more prepared than your opponent and they don't realize some key aspect of the case. You let them argue their point away and then pull the rug out from under them. They aren't dumber than you, just less prepared.

Law school requires work, not brains.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:55 PM on August 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Flip side of bunnycup's advice: Sometimes, the bar association will just send you a letter telling you to wise up. A relative had an MIP citation during college, and had no problem being admitted to the bar (but the state sent her a letter reminding her of it).
posted by dismas at 2:06 PM on August 25, 2007


Just how hard is it to get through the law school and how long? I was an average undergraduate... and i always thought studying law would require very high performance study skills.

A JD is three years. As far as "how hard?" It's as easy or hard as you make it. You can do almost nothing and still pass, but if you want to compete for top grades it can be very hard. The hardest part of law school, for many people, is getting admitted to the school they want to attend.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 2:10 PM on August 25, 2007


Just how hard is it to get through the law school and how long? I was an average undergraduate... and i always thought studying law would require very high performance study skills.

All kinds of people make it through law school --- it is possible to make it through no matter what your style was. My law school class broke down into:

-- the hard-core "gunners" (I always hated that term) who studied their asses off, took everything about law school seriously, kissed a lot of ass, and knew everything, and they made law review and Order of the Coif (usually these people were assholes);

-- the people who took things seriously, did reasonably well, but weren't "gunners," were pretty nice, and they made it through;

-- the people who never seemed to study, didn't take things very seriously, but made it through anyway;

-- the people who studied diligently, took law school seriously, but never seemed to "get it," but they made it through, too;

-- the ostentatious party-boys who enjoyed becoming known as law school party animals, priding themselves on making it through law school always with a drink in hand and without opening a book --- yes, there were quite a few of these, and they made it through;

-- the depressed people who, despite being entirely capable of making it through law school, couldn't handle the artificial stress imposed by the experience (Socratic method, the boasting of gunners that was designed to make you feel doomed) and they dropped out.

-- the people who decided it just wasn't for them, and dropped out.
posted by jayder at 2:51 PM on August 25, 2007


A caveat to what others have said about bar admission: Washington, DC has a policy of admitting people who have been admitted to any state (that's just my rough understanding, so check on the details).

Here is my advice for taking the LSAT, and you might find that AskMe thread useful in general.

Not only is a biology degree not a hindrance, but it may be an unexpected asset. Someone with a technical background may very well look more impressive (not just in admissions) than someone with a run-of-the-mill law student major like poli sci or history. (This is based only on observation of others, not first-hand experience.)

Since I've graduated from law school but don't have much work experience yet, the rest of my advice will be mostly about surviving law school (especially the first year, since that's the hardest and generally the most consequential).

Believe everyone who tells you that it's essential to have a life outside law school in the first year. Being a workaholic is likely to backfire.

Get involved in at least one student organization early in your first year of law school (right when you'll feel like you have no time for anything other than classes).

Getting good grades is important, but the trend these days is to have ample opportunities for getting onto law review even with average or below-average grades. Don't listen to people who tell you that the people with the best grades are going to be the people who make law review. (Of course, there are also plenty of people who don't get top grades or get on law review and still have a great time.)

Don't believe people who tell you law review is "too much work." That's sour grapes. I did it and loved it.

There will be at least one class in your first year that's constantly freaking you out for the whole semester because you feel like you can't understand anything and you can't imagine how you'll be able to get a decent grade. Ignore these feelings. Your classes will be blind-graded on a strict curve, and the class that feels impossible to you probably feels that way to most of the students--so it's all a wash in the end.

Don't listen to anyone who tells you there's just one way you to have take notes or study or do the readings. For some reason, people love to give law school advice in absolute terms, e.g. "You have to have a study group," "You have to take sparse notes," etc. A study group can be good if it's a productive mix of people, but studying on your own might be more efficient than studying with an unmotivated group. Taking sparse notes helps some people focus on what the professor is saying, but for me it's the opposite: taking near-verbatim notes causes me to stay tuned into the lectures, while taking sparse notes causes me to space out. Use trial and error to figure out a system that works for you, stick with it, and don't worry about the naysayers.

I recommend reading the book Getting to Maybe early in your first semester. It's the most accurate description I've seen of how to learn the material and do well on the exams. An extremely successful classmate of mine told me he found it very useful.

I've looked at the book Law School Confidential. I found it very padded and sometimes shockingly inaccurate.

There used to be a good website, now defunct, called Blawg Wisdom. I'm not going to link to it, because the last time I tried going there, it crashed my computer. (The Google results turn up a special warning: "This site may harm your computer.") If you can find a safe version of the website somehow then there's a wealth of links to law school advice, but proceed at your own risk.

If you want to avoid cliches: (1) Don't state in your admission letters that you want to "make the world a better place." (That is unlikely to be your primary concern by the end of law school.) (2) Don't go around in the first year marveling at how you're learning to "think like a lawyer." (Once you actually become a lawyer, "thinking like a law student" is probably not going to be a compliment.) (3) In your first year, don't confidently assert that your main interest is "international law," "entertainment law," or "constitutional law."

In the first year, most people love their "torts" class and hate their "civ pro" (civil procedure) class. Based on my observations, the select few students who really got into "civ pro" and other procedural classes tended to be the best students. That doesn't mean you have to love civ pro. But if you do, that's probably a very good sign.

You'll take a legal writing class in your first year. This has the potential to be invaluable for years to come. Don't blow it off--even if it's very few credits, or you've heard that everyone ends up getting the same grade, or it seems overly focused on picky details. It's really important.

Someone I know who did better than I did in law school used this as an organizing principle for understanding all the material: "Assume the court is always right." You'll be bombarded by professors and students gleefully proclaiming that the court "got it wrong" in such-and-such a case. That's usually not very useful. If Justice Scalia says that XYZ is the law, then XYZ is the law (as long as a majority of the court agrees with him), and the fact that you or your classmates might think he's being a horrible right-winger doesn't change that fact.

Be prepared to spend several hours reading, studying, and discussing a case or group of cases that seems endlessly intricate--just to end up with a simple, one-sentence rule that you could have learned in five minutes. (I am not exaggerating.) In general, the most important thing is memorizing those rules. Meanwhile, those laborious hours of nuanced, Byzantine reasoning just fall by the wayside. But that doesn't mean you should ignore the reasoning. What I'm about to say probably won't mean much to you now, but you might want to write this down, store it away, and read it once you're in your first year of law school: Understanding the reasoning and the specific facts of the cases is important because it will help you do a better job of applying the rules, but in the end, the most important thing will be to memorize the rules themselves (about 1% of the readings/lectures) and put the details (the other 99%) on the back burner.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:50 PM on August 25, 2007 [5 favorites]


The hours you must work, thus, are far more than the number you must bill. So, if the billable hours requirement is 2150/year, well that's 40 hours a week right there, no vacation. Figure you'ev got to work DOUBLE that in order to be billing that many hours.

Although it is generally true that hours worked > hours billed, all but the most inefficient lawyers at a big firm have better ratios than this. A more reasonable estimate is that a junior associate will bill around 75% of his or her total time worked. Using 2,000 billable hours as a baseline, that means you're working around 2,700 hours/year, or 54 hours/week, with 2 weeks of vacation. This is a busy workload, but it's generally not overwhelming. Of course, many law firm lawyers end up working a lot more than 2,700 hours/year, sometimes by choice and sometimes for reasons beyond their control.

Most jobs in corporations, government, and public interest offer much more reasonable lifestyles than private practice.
posted by brain_drain at 4:58 PM on August 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Thanks brain_drain, for clarifying for the OP. My closest personal run in with the billable hour was to flee as quickly as I could into the corporate world. (Well, that, and the inability of "successful" young associates in my circle of friends and fam to make time for their friends and fam).

But I disagree with this comment of Jaltcoh's:
Understanding the reasoning and the specific facts of the cases is important because it will help you do a better job of applying the rules, but in the end, the most important thing will be to memorize the rules themselves (about 1% of the readings/lectures) and put the details (the other 99%) on the back burner.

At least at my school, being able to understand and cogently, flexibly apply the REASONING and debate the details in terms of material or immaterial fact distinctions, was far more important than memorizing the rule of the X case. In fact, the "memorize the rule and move on"-mindset people of my acquaintance tended to underperform us "get the gist of it"-mindset folks. Some law schools, like mine, focus on teaching critical reasoning and thinking, but others certainly focus on memorization of state procedural rules. This is somewhat of the national/local difference, and something to analyze closely. I would certainly have dropped out of a school focused on rote memorization, but that material may have been helpful in my career.

Jaltcoh is dead right on pointing out that law school is nothing like a law career - it would be as if in med school, rather than treating patients and working in the lab and hospital, you simply read about what other doctors thought a given bacterium looked like and then tried to draw your own.
posted by bunnycup at 5:25 PM on August 25, 2007


Some law schools, like mine, focus on teaching critical reasoning and thinking, but others certainly focus on memorization of state procedural rules.

Just to clarify, my law school didn't teach state procedural rules or anything like that. My school emphasized legal reasoning, critical thinking, etc. That's precisely why it was so important for the student to compensate by deemphasizing it! But I think you and I are actually pretty much in agreement that it's important to study the reasoning, make factual distinctions, and not try to get by on memorization alone.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:41 PM on August 25, 2007


Jaltcoh - that's another "something OP should know" about being a lawyer, right there. The BEST lawyers look for reasons to agree, ways to find common ground, and closely think about and try to understand colleagues (even when opposing counsel).
posted by bunnycup at 5:46 PM on August 25, 2007


Heh... thanks, bunnycup!
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:52 PM on August 25, 2007


DUIs, misdemeanors, inappropriate-even-if-technically-legal behavior, bad discipline records at other schools, bankrupcty and credit issues and a a whole host of other problems can prevent you from being admitted even if you pass the bar exam.

Yes, this is true. I know a guy who, because he did not own up to an assault charge that had been expunged from his record (which, in his jurisdiction meant it was dismissed by the court) faced a six-month delay in his admission to the bar. I also know someone who, because of unpaid/charged-off credit card debt from early in his college career, was denied admission to the bar until he had repaid the debt in full.
posted by jayder at 7:08 PM on August 25, 2007


A lot has already been covered, but:

- Think about the states where you might conceivably want to practice, and try to learn a little bit about what the bar requirements are. It'll probably help to look at the range of schools in your favored area, even if you're planning on attending a school with a national reputation.

- I ended up taking three state bar exams, though two (NY and NJ) were taken during the same week. Certain states with one-day written exams will accept a concurrent score on the Multistate exam, so you can take State 1's written portion on Tuesday, the Multistate on Wednesday, travel to State 2 on Wednesday night, and take the State 2 exam on Thursday. However, once you've passed one bar exam, it should be easier to prepare for other ones, since many of the same rules apply; all I did to prepare for New York was study some notes from eBay on local law and refresh myself on general principles, and I didn't do any independent studying for the New Jersey exam. Still, you should prepare yourself for various states' exam formats; for example, some states have 40-minute essays while others have 1-hour ones, and you shouldn't have to improvise.

- Though most bar exams weight the Multistate heavily, that's not universally true; in California, for example, the written essays and "performance tests" are weighted more heavily.

- You shouldn't stress too much about bar exams, though you should put some thought into how you present your answers. The exams are graded by volunteers who only have time to glance over the answers, and, even if you know what you're talking about, the grader won't give you credit if the information is buried under a pile of prose.

- Like others have said, personal connections are very important in landing a job, especially when you're starting out and haven't developed a professional reputation.

- I highly recommend writing for a law journal, though you don't necessarily have to work on your school's law review; one of the more specialized journals can give you the same experience, and you may have more opportunities to get an editorial position. It's great to be able to list a published work on your resume, and employers do tend to look at law review experience.

- Along similar lines, you should take the opportunity to focus on your writing. Even if it might hurt your grade to take more challenging, writing-intensive courses, it'll help you in the long run. Moreover, you'll end up with plenty of writing samples to use when you start looking for clerkships and jobs.

- Other law-related activities can be useful too; mock trial and moot court are helpful, especially if you'd want to work as a litigator. I was involved with the moot court board; although it's not the same experience as being on a moot court team, I could apply the lessons I learned from proofreading briefs and judging a few rounds. Other activities might help when you start to network.

- I was able to work as a research assistant during law school, which I would recommend. It's a good experience, and, given that you're working for a professor, there is a little more flexibility around crunch periods. Plus, if you're able to turn in good work, you can get a very good recommendation.

- You should work on building experience while you are in law school. Although I did have a clerkship during the summer of my second year, I didn't work while I was taking bar exams, and it took me a while to get over the resume gap. I would recommend working as a summer clerk or associate while you're studying for the bar.

Good luck!
posted by jennyesq at 10:15 PM on August 25, 2007


good advice above ... one more point ... if you choose to be a lawyer ... learn to touchtype ... trust me! ... J
posted by jannw at 6:51 AM on August 26, 2007


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