Is Law School for Me?
Many lawyers end up dissatisfied with their occupation. Please ask yourself, why is that, and why will you be different?
There are many good reasons for going to law school. There are just as many reasons not to go. You will be committing yourself to three years that will leave the typical student with a mound of debt. Therefore, evaluate carefully your reasons for choosing whether to attend law school. You will find that motivation is a make it or break it factor in law school, and it begins by making careful decisions to which you are committed.
One available method of learning more about the practice of law is to Intern in a law office. Many Truman students have. Typically this is over the summer months, and you might be able to earn as many as 15 credits. In the Social Science Division, Dr. Vorkink is the person who oversees internships. He will want to make sure you have a position that provides an educational experience. Internships are also favored by many law schools because they know an applicant has some idea of the future they are undertaking. Short of an internship experience, find trained attorneys and talk to them: what do they like? what don’t they like? what would they do differently? And read. Read some more.
Law School at a Glance
- Subject Matter: Knowing just what type of law you want to practice is fine, but not necessary. Your first year curriculum is near-uniform at all ABA approved law schools. Further, the subject matter will soon seem secondary to the learning of a technique. The technique involves continuous research, narrowing of issues, sorting fact, and preparing alternative theories and arguments. They call it “thinking like a lawyer.”
In your second and third years, you will have more opportunity to choose elective courses, but still most law schools consider a legal education to be a general education: you do not “major” in something as you do in undergraduate years, although in plotting career paths, future litigators and future corporate attorneys end up in different elective courses. With the web at your fingers, visit a couple schools and see what they say about this.
- The Environment: You may complete law school having never quite figured out what happened to the Socratic method of teaching that you were promised in the movie “The Paper Chase” — being grilled relentlessly by a pompous professor who “loves the law.” While that teaching style does still exist, there are more and more professors who lecture, form discussion groups, and use only volunteers in class. Still, you may encounter an air of competition that was missing from more informal undergraduate classes. Some of this really depends on the culture of the school you attend, and this might be a factor in where you choose to apply.
Law classes are larger than the typical Truman undergraduate class; many law schools enroll an entering class of 200-500 student. The students are then grouped into smaller sections, commonly ranging from 50 to 75; it is this group of people with whom you will have all of your first year classes. Most law schools arrange for first year classes to include at least one small-section class of 20-30 students. Many students organize themselves into smaller study groups, as well.
Tools for Success
- Strong Reading Skills: The reading in most law programs is voluminous, if not overwhelming. And casebooks do not grace best seller lists. As indicated above, the subject matter is but a part of the reason for reading — much of the goal is to train you to “think like a lawyer,” which means analytically, and analogically. Sharp comprehension skills are needed as legal outcomes can depend on the choice of one word. If you do not like to read, or do not want to devote a lot of time to reading, consider alternative careers.
- Communication Skills: Communication is as important as reading. Legal writing values conciseness and precision. It is no mistake that many successful law students have a background in English. And it is also no mistake that many have a background in debate: even if you have never spoken before a crowd of more than two, you may find yourself reciting before 100 fellow students. While not absolutely necessary to complete legal training, it will help to be articulate, to be able to think on your feet and respond under pressure. Activities such as forensics (speech and debate) and theatre give opportunities to sharpen these skills.
Opportunities in the Field of Law
One of the selling features of a law degree is its versatility. Presidents, baseball managers, and attorneys have law degrees. While a legal education does not necessarily lead to the practice of law, most students enter into a related field and all law schools train for that practice.
The two main paths for practicing attorneys are private practice or the public sector.
- Small Firms
Law firms range from two-person practices which share books and a bookkeeper and divide the labor, to multi-continent behemoths. Lawyers who work for smaller, general practice, law firms are something like trouble-shooters. They focus on the daily legal needs of their clients such as settling estates, drafting wills, filing divorces, or litigating personal injury claims. In this type of practice, lawyers commonly see many different clients, and they see them after a problem has developed. In a smaller community, this type of lawyering can be socially and monetarily rewarding. In larger urban settings, traditionally the solo practitioner or very small firm has been viewed as lower on the prestige totem pole. a most needed skill for this work is the ability to deal effectively and persuasively with people ranging from juvenile offenders to Supreme Court Justices.
- Large Firms
The legal profession has been profoundly altered in the past two decades. Today, it is routine to have firms with hundreds of lawyers, and offices in several cities, and indeed, continents. Lawyers in large firms often specialize in a narrow area of the law, such as tax, real estate, or securities law. Many of these lawyers prefer roles as advisors to large corporations and rarely see the inside of a courtroom. Others who enter the field of litigation are responsible for preparing cases for court and for settling cases before they reach the courtroom. The competition for partner in such a firm can be grueling; the long hours and often tedious work tends to be well compensated. They are, after all, buying 70-80 hours of your life per week.
- Corporate Counsel
Here you work for a company’s legal services office, doing anything. The loyalty of working for one client is appealing to many people who go this route.
A substantial employer of legal talent is the government, ranging from the federal to the state to the local levels. Many of these lawyers work for regulatory agencies of the federal or state government such as the Federal Trade Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, or the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. However, there are also opportunities with non-profit groups, public interest organizations and citizen advocacy groups.
For many, the attraction of the government public sector includes a more predictable work load and salary; many people also like the public service side of the public sector, from being a prosecutor to being a cause-lawyer.
The Lawyer’s Role
There is no typical lawyer; as you can see from above, different jobs will require different skills and relationships. However, all lawyers basically handle other people’s affairs. This role requires not only certain skills, but also brings with it great responsibility.
The lawyer as an advocate must represent the client’s point of view as persuasively as possible. Sometimes, lawyers must defend interests or positions with which they disagree. An advocate has a duty to present the best possible case for the client, regardless of a personal opinion. Lawyers, however, work under ethical standards and have the role of protecting the legal system from those who would lessen or distort it.
The lawyer also serves in the role of counselor, advisor and negotiator. In these instances, emphasis is on objectively untangling existing legal knots or preventing legal problems. Whether as advocate or advisor, lawyers serve as officers of the court and as public servants. Upon entering the practice, you will become an integral part of shaping and reshaping society. In that role, you will necessarily encounter both the satisfaction and frustration that accompany any great responsibility.