Frequently Asked Questions
We get a lot of questions via e-mail and at our seminars, but the same ones keep cropping up over and over again. Like:
- How Can I Tell If a Legal Career is Right for Me?
- Do I Have to Go to Law School Right Out of College?
- Can I "Test the Waters" Before Committing to Law School?
- Which Law School is the Right One for Me?
- How Do I Survive the First Year of Law School?
- How Do I Make the Law Review?
- What Do the Law Firms Look for in a Second-Year Student?
- Is a Big Law Firm Better Than a Small One?
- What Can I Do With a Law Degree Besides Practice Law?
- What Are Some of the Hottest Legal Specialties?
- How Do I Change Specialties?
- Should I Stay in Private Practice, or Become an In-House Lawyer?
- What Are the Best Ways to Attract New Clients?
- What are the Pros and Cons of a Solo Law Practice?
- Can I Practice Law from My Home Office?
- How Do I Avoid Burnout in My Law Practice?
- How Do You Become a Law Professor?
- How Can I "Make Partner" in My Law Firm?
- When Is It Time to Consider Leaving the Law Behind?
- How Can I Make the Transition to a Job Outside the Law?
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1. How Can I Tell If a Legal Career is Right for Me?
If you are thinking about becoming a lawyer for any of the following reasons, think again!
- "The law is a glamorous profession like I've seen on TV lawyer shows like 'Ally McBeal' or "L.A. Law'"
- "The law is a great place to make a lot of money and help change the world."
- "I want to go to grad school, I'm not smart enough to become a doctor but I'm too smart to get a M.B.A. degree."
- "I want a job where I can use my brain, but becoming a college professor takes me too far away from the real world."
Be assured, the law will fulfill none of these objectives. The best description of lawyering we've ever found in print came from a former Dean of the Harvard Law School, who was quoted in the New York Times Magazine as saying that lawyers are "the janitors of society" in that they spend most of their lives cleaning up other people's messes.
There is only one reason to want to become a lawyer: you love the law, and want to spend the rest of your life practicing it. So how do you know if you have the "right stuff" to become a lawyer? You've got the "right stuff" if:
- You are a tenacious fighter with thick skin who never lets go of an argument until you have won or the other person backs down;
- You have a razor-sharp logical mind that can look at two things most people view as identical or synonymous and find at least 10 differences between them;
- You have patience for extremely long hours of mind-numbing paperwork (why do you think so many law school titles end in the word "procedure"?);
- You have the ability to deal with clients who are not as smart as you are but make lots more money;
- You have the ability to deal with clients who do not respect your skills, and resent having to pay you to do the work you do;
- You have the ability to work with clients anonymously, helping them achieve great results while they claim all the credit (except for a handful of lawyers who become politicians and famous judges, lawyers don't usually become celebrities).
It may sound cynical, but these are the qualities we see in successful lawyers and law students. Too many lawyers go to law school for the wrong reasons, and once you start down that track, it becomes very difficult - and expensive - to get out. Before you even THINK about law school, find out what practicing law is really all about and make your decision with open eyes and a clear head.
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2. Do I Have to Go to Law School Right Out of College?
No way, José. In fact, it's one of the dumbest things you can do unless your entire family consists of lawyers and it's all you've ever wanted to do since you were a toddler.
If you are not sure you have the "right stuff" to be a lawyer (see above), we would suggest taking some time out and work for a living between college and law school. Find out what the business world is all about, and why business people do some of the awfully dumb things they do. It's impossible to be a successful lawyer without having some knowledge and empathy for human behavior at its worst.
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3. Can I "Test the Waters" Before Committing to Law School?
Absolutely! If you are not sure what lawyers really do for a living, get a job as a paralegal at a large (100 lawyers or more) or midsize (20 to 100 lawyers) law firm in your area. Many law firms (including some of the most prestigious) hire college grads as paralegals because, frankly, they are cheap labor. The pay stinks, and the hours suck, but you will be working "in the trenches" with real lawyers and get a sense of whether you can see yourself doing this for a living the rest of your working life. Besides, once you do finally decide on law school, it won't hurt to have in your pocket some letters of recommendation from well-known local lawyers, to say nothing of an "inside track" for a summer internship.
To get a list of large and midsize law firms in your area, check out the Martindale Hubbell Legal Directory in the reference room of your college library, or online at
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4. Which Law School is the Right One for Me?
If your goal is to become a prominent member of the legal community, there is only one answer to this question - the biggest, most prestigious law school you can get into. Lawyers are incredible snobs when it comes to hiring students fresh out of law school. Because of the glut of people seeking admission to law school, law firms and other legal employers have their choice of the "cream of the cream". Unless you are in the top 10% of your class at a "top 50" law school, you probably will find yourself scrambling for a job at one of the large or midsize firms in your area. Frankly, we sometimes advise law students that if they are in the bottom half of their class at a second- or third-tier law school, they should seriously consider employment outside the legal profession as there probably won't be room for them.
If your career goals are more modest - say, you want to work for a small law firm in the place where you grew up - you have a few more options. Find out where your future employer(s) hire their new lawyers from, and make sure you go to one of their "target" schools. If every firm in town tends to hire from Law School X, make sure you go there. Small-town law firms are more likely to hire new lawyers from local law schools as opposed to the "top 50", on the theory that a "top 50" law student who interviews for a job with them is "slumming" and isn't serious about working for a smaller firm. Still, your law school grades will be very important to ANY legal employer, even the smallest law firm.
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5. How Do I Survive the First Year of Law School?
Nothing - we repeat, NOTHING - is as important as doing well and getting good grades in the first year of law school. Why? Because the law firms who come recruiting on campus during the fall term of your second year will have only your first-year grades to go by in evaluating your potential as a lawyer. Because they are pressed for time and do not know how to make a more subjective evaluation, your first-year grades may well determine whether or not you get an offer for the all-important summer internship between your second and third years of law school. Everyone in your class recognizes this, they are just as smart as you are, and they are willing to work just as hard as you to get the grades they need. Competition will be nothing short of cutthroat at most law schools.
During your first year of law school, you should forget about everything except the study of law. Forget about extracurricular activities - legal recruiters do not value these, except of course for the almighty Law Review, for which you won't become eligible anyway until your second year. Forget about dating and social activities. Don't waste time making friends with your classmates - they are your competitors, and once you graduate from law school you are unlikely ever to see them again. Forget about anything that will distract you, even for a day or two, from your studies. For nine months, you are going to be a hermit, a monk, with only one goal in your life - getting in the top 10% of your class.
Buy every law summary (such as Gilbert's Law Summaries and Emanuel's Outlines) for every one of your classes, and commit them to memory. Read every case in every one of your casebooks. Take copious notes from the professors. Risk your eyesight (a friend of ours says he doesn't trust a lawyer who doesn't wear thick glasses or contact lenses). If you want to have options in planning your legal career, you have to be in the top 10% (the top 25% to 33% at the most prestigious schools).
If at the end of your first year, you haven't achieved this goal, you have one shot left at success - making the Law Review at your school.
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6. How Do I Make the Law Review?
Without a doubt, Law Review is the most important (some would say the only) extracurricular activity at any law school. Working on the Law Review staff is not only prestigious - it will give you a good feel for the type of work you will actually be doing as a junior lawyer (called an "associate") at most law firms.
Membership in the Law Review is determined in one of four ways, depending on the school:
- Your grades only (i.e. the top X% of the first-year class automatically become Law Review members, and everyone else is out of luck);
- Grades and "writing competition" (i.e. the top X% automatically become Law Review members, and a few slots are available for other students who must compete for them by writing a "case comment" or "law review note");
- Grades-eligible "writing competition" (i.e. the top X% of the first-year class only are eligible to compete for membership on the Law Review by writing a "case comment" or "law review note"); or
- "Writing competition" only (i.e. grades don't count - everyone who wants a slot on the Law Review staff must compete by writing a "case comment" or "law review note").
In deciding on a law school, make sure you know up front how they select Law Review members. If you attend a "grades only" school, for example, you will have to be in the top 10% of your class after the first year to even qualify for membership.
Look elsewhere on Legalcareer.com for advice on how to write a winning "case comment" or "law review note".
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7. What Do the Law Firms Look for in a Second-Year Student?
Lawyers are not generally judged on their people skills - this is one of the great ironies of the legal profession, and one of the biggest surprises for new lawyers. A lawyer who spends time visiting law schools to hire second- or third-year law schools is still required to perform legal services for the firm's clients and bill a certain number of hours each day.
Because lawyers hate making mistakes, and because they usually don't have time to psychoanalyze the two to three dozen law students whom they see at each law school they visit, law firm recruiters tend to make their selections based on only three criteria:
- Your first-year grades (see above);
- Your membership on Law Review (see above); and
- [Sometimes] your desire to work in the firm's geographic area, or engage in a particular legal specialty [patent law or immigration law, for example] in which the firm specializes.
If you are in the top 10% of your class, are a member of Law Review, and express a strong commitment to practice in the field of commodities regulation, you are likely to get offers from prestigious firms who practice commodities regulation. If the firm does not have a commodities regulation practice, you may get an offer anyway because you are a "top" student and highly desirable. Your interest in commodities regulation, however, will have to be extremely strong and credible (e.g. your father is Chairman of the federal Commodities Futures Trading Commission in Washington, D.C.) to get an offer if you are not in the top 10% of your class and are not a Law Review member.
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8. Is a Big Law Firm Better Than a Small One?
Generally, it's six of one, six of the other. In a smaller firm, you will get a lot more "hands on" experience in court, and in dealing with clients, during the early years of your career. Smaller firms cannot afford the luxury of a big bureaucracy, and will be under pressure to bring you up to speed as a performing (i.e. high billing) lawyer as quickly as possible. You will be thrown in over your head and expected to swim . . . fast. In a larger firm, you usually will spend the first few years on important but mind-numbing "grunt work" - researching obscure points of law, drafting routine court documents and business contracts using standardized forms, carrying the partners' briefcases to meetings, "collating, stapling and notarizing" documents at closings, and so forth.
On the other hand, large firms pay their junior lawyers more - a LOT more - than their smaller counterparts, which will help you pay off your student loans quicker and easier. Should you decide after a few years that you don't want to practice law in a big firm, you can easily transition to a smaller firm. It isn't always possible to go the other way.
Whichever way you go, you can expect to work incredibly long hours (80 or more per week) during your first few years of practice. Young lawyers, like young doctors, are expected to survive a grueling "apprenticeship" which can last anywhere from five to 15 years, depending on the firm, before they are "accepted" into the legal community. Wherever you decide to serve your "apprenticeship", make sure you can handle it for the long haul.
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9. What Can I Do With a Law Degree Besides Practice Law?
One of the biggest reasons people go to law school is "because you can do so many things with a law degree". For most of these people, this translates as "I really don't know what to do with my life, and going to law school will postpone that decision for at least three years."
Frankly, we couldn't think of a worse reason to go to law school, or become a lawyer. If your goal in life is to do something other than practice law, go ahead and do that something. You probably will find someone willing to pay you to do that something, rather than the other way around. The sad truth is that most people who graduate from law school become . . . lawyers. If you are not committed to practicing law for at least a goodly portion of your career, take a different path. You can always take law courses on the side to learn what you need.
Generally, a law degree will not help you in the world of business. Business people do not trust lawyers or law degrees. Law students, for the most part, deal with words, not numbers, whereas in M.B.A. programs it's the other way around.
Having said that, though, there are a number of business and academic careers for which a legal degree is a definite "plus":
- Contracts Administration Executive: high technology companies, especially, are contracts intensive, and require executives who can draft and negotiate contracts at a very high level. Who better than a law graduate?
- Negotiator: in any position which focuses on structuring or negotiating complex business transactions, a law degree is helpful.
- Politicians: many successful government leaders, of course, started out as lawyers. The trick is to get a position early on in your career (for example, as a public prosecutor or district attorney) from which such a transition can be easily made. It won't be easy to leave a big firm and run for public office, hoping your old firm will take you back if your election bid fails.
- Counselor/Mediator/Arbitrator: in a growing number of states, nonlawyers are providing counseling services in areas such as divorce, business disputes, and dealing with an elderly, in an effort to provide viable alternatives to litigation. Many lawyers are in fact "leaving the law" these days to take advantage of the growth in these services. Keep in mind, though, that in many states your activities may be viewed as the "unauthorized practice of law" subject to criminal penalties.
While it is true that many people have gone from being successful lawyers to being successful something-elses, they usually have had some training or experience in that something-else before they became lawyers. If you are in law school and aren't sure if you want to be a lawyer or not, you would be well advised to switch to a combined "J.D. - M.B.A." or similar combined degree that will help you build credibility outside the law later on.
10. What Are Some of the Hottest Legal Specialties?
The short answer to this question is, "what time is it?" Legal specialties wax and wane in popularity. Today's "hot practice area" is tomorrow's dinosaur. Many legal careers have been wiped out over the years because Congress changed a few words in an obscure provision of the federal Internal Revenue Code!
Generally, a legal specialty should be broad enough to give you a living, yet narrow enough that it won't be attractive to masses of law school graduates. Here's a tip (and a warning): the more boring, difficult, technical and complex the specialty, the less competition you will have. Perennial favorites are: immigration law, employee benefits law (known as ERISA), patent and "intellectual property" law, tax law and estate planning. These areas tend to do well both in good times and bad, because the laws are highly complex and confusing.
In deciding upon a legal specialty, it may be a good idea to look at how the economy is doing. In good economic times, demand picks up for corporate lawyers, securities or SEC lawyers, and commercial (read banking) lawyers. In bad economic times, demand picks up for bankruptcy lawyers, divorce lawyers, and commercial litigators (lawyers who try commercial disputes in court).
Finally, you may want to look at the political climate when picking a specialty. Generally, demand for practice areas that depend heavily on ever-changing government regulations, such as labor law and environmental law, tends to pick up during Democratic administrations, and declines during Republican administrations.
11. How Do I Change Specialties?
It is never easy to change legal specialties, especially after you've been out of law school a few years. Few law firms will permit changes in specialty, which means that your only hope of getting out of a losing specialty may be to change firms, or relocate to a different part of the country. Keep in mind that when changing specialties, you will be competing with young lawyers fresh out of law school in those specialties, and may have to lower both your expectations and income level to make the switch.
When picking your first law firm, look for one that will enable you to "rotate" between specialties during the first 3 to 4 years of practice. Many large law firms will do this as a matter of course, while smaller law firms may let you divide your time between two departments, provided of course you don't mind billing twice your normal number of hours!
12. Should I Stay in Private Practice, or Become an In-House Lawyer?
This is never an easy decision. Most lawyers who leave law firms for in-house positions are making the change because they are "burned out" and want an easier lifestyle. They are therefore extremely disappointed to find themselves sometimes working longer hours in-house than they ever did in their old firms!
The right reasons to make a career move "in-house" are:
- You are fascinated by the business process as opposed to legal analysis;
- You want to be part of a senior management team with responsibility for making complex business decisions with a legal component to them;
- You want to make the transition to a purely business career someday; and
- You believe you have the "people skills" to command the respect of business people, who very often dislike lawyers and don't understand their value to the organization.
13. What Are the Best Ways to Attract New Clients?
Sooner or later, to be successful as a lawyer, you will need to build your "client base" - a network of clients who view you as their lawyer, and will follow you from employer to employer. Ultimately, having your own clients is the only "job security" a lawyer can count on.
Attracting new clients is primarily a matter of putting yourself in close physical proximity to potential clients. This means you will have to find the time in your busy schedule to devote a specified number of hours each week to "client building" activities. This means you will have to work longer hours to keep up-to-date on your work for existing clients. Nonetheless, we believe it's worth it if it helps you become a "rainmaker" in your firm or organization.
Here are some tried and true ways to attract new clients:
- Teach an "adult education" course in your legal specialty for local colleges, or become an "adjunct professor" (i.e. you are not tenure track, you teach only one or two courses, and you are not paid for your services) at the nearest respectable law school;
- Write articles in your specialty for trade publications, business newspapers and magazines, and make sure they are written in "plain English" so nonlawyers can understand them!;
- Volunteer your time to join organizations or business groups where you are likely to meet members of your target clientele (for example, trusts and estate lawyers should always - ALWAYS - sit on the boards of several local charities, because that's where the rich people with big estates hang out) - generally, bar associations are terrible places to meet potential clients; and
- Develop strong cross-referral relationships with accountants (for business lawyers), architects (for real estate lawyers), and other professionals who are in a position to refer lawyers to their clients - and be prepared to give as good as you get!
14. What are the Pros and Cons of a Solo Law Practice?
The death of the "solo practitioner", like that of Mark Twain, is greatly exaggerated. Thanks to the personal computer, e-mail and the Internet, solo law practices are thriving as never before. A solo practice can give you the freedom to manage your time, as you are no longer accountable to other lawyers and there are no "minimum quotas" for billable hours. You can work when you like, as long as you like. Depending on the type of practice, you may be able to do business from a home office.
Of course, you will have to provide all of the support you once received at your law firm or organization. You will have to pay the premiums for your malpractice insurance, you will have to pay for office supplies, and you will have to pay for (and file) your own looseleaf services. If a client asks a question at the frontiers of your legal knowledge, you will have no colleagues "down the hall" you can approach for a second opinion. When you go on vacation, there will be no one to answer your telephones, fax documents to clients, or respond to e-mails.
Should you decide to "go it alone", make sure you form a mutual support network with other "solos" in your area. It will make the going a lot less rough.
15. Can I Practice Law from My Home Office?
This depends on the type of practice. If you are a business lawyer, and representing a lot of small "Mom and Pop" concerns, you almost certainly can work out of your home. Your clients will appreciate that you have reduced your overhead expenses as much as possible, and can provide them with services at a discounted rate. Many of them will be home-based businesses as well, and it's always a good idea to look as much as possible like your clients.
If, however, you are a trusts and estates lawyer, working out of your home probably will not be an option. Clients who are looking to entrust their family's financial well-being to a lawyer, in our experience, want to see old fashioned law offices with wood paneling and Currier & Ives prints on the wall - the sort of office that reeks of stability, security and tradition. It will be difficult to convey that image while you are lounging around your family room in your ripped jeans with a Golden Retriever at your feet.
Always remember that if you work out of a home office:
- You should never see clients in your home office (unless it's in a structure that's separately detached from your residence), unless you know them extremely well and trust they are not "casing the joint" for a potential burglary, or worse;
- Clients will expect reduced rates, because they assume (correctly) that your overhead expenses are much less than those of your traditional-office practitioners;
- Time management becomes extremely important - do not become so distracted by household chores that you fail to spend sufficient time on client matters.
16. How Do I Avoid Burnout in My Law Practice?
Burnout is a serious risk for lawyers. Lawyers have among the highest divorce, drug abuse, alcoholism, clinical depression and suicide rates among all the professions. A lot contributes to lawyer burnout:
- The long, sometimes endless hours you have to work;
- The postponement and constant disruption of family life;
- The lack of "balance" between work and outside life;
- The lack of respect from clients and the public generally;
- The increasing risk of malpractice liability;
- The glut of lawyers that is driving fees down (except at the highest levels).
The surest way to avoid burnout is to make sure, before you become a lawyer, that your love of the law exceeds your fear of not having a "balanced" life. There are lawyers, believe it or not, who work 100 or more hours a week and don't think twice about it because they love what they do and are totally focused on getting results for their clients. If you are one of these people, great. If you are not (and most of us, let's face it, are not), you may have to make tradeoffs between your career success and your future health and happiness. If the pressure becomes too great, remember that there are a lot of nonlawyers out there (many of your clients among them) who work a lot less hard than you do and make a good deal more money than you do - do yourself a favor and become one of them.
As the 18th century British writer Samuel Johnson put it, "the law is a jealous mistress". While passion and commitment are the keys to success in any profession, the lack of passion or commitment in the legal profession is a sure path to burnout and failure.
17. How Do You Become a Law Professor?
You have just spent three years of your life getting beat up by law professors, and you now want to become one of them?
Generally, law schools do not hire lawyers as faculty unless they have one to three years in private practice under their belts, usually at large, prestigious law firms. Their grades in law school must also have been "off the charts" - usually law professors were among the top 10 graduates (not top 10%) of their law school class. After three years in practice, most young lawyers are making too much money to afford the drop in pay they will have to endure in order to join the ranks of academe.
Young lawyers who feel they have the "right stuff" to be professors on a tenure track must attend the American Association of Law Schools' (AALS) annual Career Fair, known affectionately in the trade as the "meat market". Law schools looking for faculty network with potential candidates at the "meat market", and set up meetings for extensive interviews on campus.
If, on the other hand, you are not interested in a full time or tenure track position, and just want to teach a couple of courses at a local law school to keep your education up to snuff, most law schools hire "adjunct professors" without pay to teach advanced or specialized courses their tenure track faculty don't have time to teach. You won't get rich as an "adjunct", but teaching is very satisfying, and you may get some great material for your next book.
To improve your odds of getting a job in legal education:
- Write one or two articles and get them published in a Law Review (the more prestigious the school, the better);
- Write a legal treatise for one of the major lawbook publishers, but make sure it is "academic" and not "practice oriented" in nature (legal scholars are not impressed by "how to" books); and
- Develop an interest in a fast-breaking new area of the law where the competition won't be as great as it will undoubtedly be for the "core" first year subjects.
One final point. If you are going to be a law professor, your goal in life should be to advance our understanding of the law and legal systems. You must be comfortable with the facts that:
- You will not be valued for your teaching skills but for the quality of the books and articles you publish - academe is, after all, the home of the "publish or perish" syndrome;
- You will spend a large amount of your life in endless debate with your fellow scholars on arcane and theoretical points of legal doctrine;
- You will not make anywhere near the money you could make in private practice.
18. How Can I "Make Partner" in My Law Firm?
There are two ways - and only two ways - to make partner in a law firm. Either:
- You have developed specialized legal knowledge that is much in demand by your firm's clients and would be costly or difficult to replace (a firm that represents Fortune 100 corporations, for example, is never going to fire its only ERISA lawyer); and/or
- You have a "book" of client relationships (clients who look to you as their primary legal contact and would likely follow you if you left the firm) whose billings account for more than 5% (10% in a smaller firm) of the firm's total revenue each year.
In other words, if you are a "specialist" or a "rainmaker", your future as a partner is almost guaranteed. If your practice is more generalized in nature, and if you have not built up a "book" of clients during your years as an associate, you are more subject to the whims of the marketplace and the greed of the firm's existing partners. In a fast growing firm in good economic times, generalists without clients sometimes are made partner. If a firm's growth is declining and the economy is heading South, generalists without clients are the first to be "passed over" (or, increasingly, fired even after they have made partner).
19. When Is It Time to Consider Leaving the Law Behind?
The very minute you find yourself asking this question more than occasionally. More than most professions, the law requires a total commitment of body, mind and soul just to keep afloat. The moment you realize that "burnout" is more than just a rare occurrence, that you hate getting up in the morning and facing another day in the office, or that you are rushing through client assignments just to get them off of your desk, it's time to get counseling. Some of the resources on Legalcareer.com may help you.
20. How Can I Make the Transition to a Job Outside the Law?
The very traits that make somebody a successful lawyer are, very often, traits that will doom you to failure in the outside world. If you have decided on a career in business, you should stop "thinking like a lawyer" and:
- Take business courses, at least the basics of accounting, finance and marketing;
- Focus on a particular industry and subscribe to every trade journal that executives in that industry read;
- Learn the "jargon" and "lingo" of your chosen industry;
- Look for jobs (such as those involving lots of negotiation, transactional work and contracts administration) where your legal training can
give you a leg up on your nonlegal competition;
- Brush up your "people skills" and remember that business is based on risk-rewards assessments and personal contacts, not rigid logical analysis;
- Get comfortable with having to make decisions based on incomplete information; and
- Know that once you successfully leave the legal profession, it will be almost impossible to go back - your former colleagues will never take you seriously as a lawyer again.
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