How to Become a Lawyer
by Sue Basko, esq.
People often tell me they want to be a lawyer, or that they are thinking of going to law school. Most of them do not know what is involved. This is for them.
This is the path to becoming a lawyer, in chronological order:
1) High School. You must be a high school graduate. If you are going to be a likely candidate to become a lawyer, you should be attending a high-ranking school, getting top grades, scoring in the top 5% of standardized tests, and have a good character. The good character part involves not abusing drugs or alcohol, not getting arrested, and developing a clear sense of morality and ethics, including a sense of justice and equality for all.
2) College. You need at least an undergraduate degree to apply for law school. Today, many law school students already have Masters, PhD, or other degrees. The law school I attended had a medical law program, so many of the students were doctors with an M.D. or nurses with R.N. They came to law school after years of practicing medicine. Law schools today like students with varying backgrounds, so it is good to get your undergraduate degree in a field you love. It is important to have a high GPA if you want to go to law school. It is also important to avoid getting arrested or getting in trouble at school. This includes arrests for DUI or drugs, which will tend to exclude you from becoming a lawyer.
Many law schools like applicants who have worked in another field for some years. I went to law school with people who, before law school, worked as accountants, doctors, nurses, teachers, professors, a construction foreman, a stockbroker, a prison guard, people actively in the military. Several were musicians. My B.A. was in Film and Video and I had worked in film, TV, video, music, and event production before law school. Many of my law school classmates had children or grandchildren. Some other law schools tend to have single students straight out of undergraduate school.
My classmates went on to a wide variety of activities – to be State or federal prosecutors, to work at a public defenders office, to be military lawyers for the JAG (Judge Advocate Guard), to be professors, to work for insurance companies, to private law firms. Several went on to be FBI and CIA agents. Several ran for public office. Quite a few run their own small legal businesses, working in whatever fields appeal to them. Others continued on to get degrees such as Masters in Social Work, PhDs in various fields, etc., and have used their knowledge of the law in those fields.
Computer Skills. To go to law school, you should also be sure you have very good computer skills. You will need to be able to do legal research on a computer. You will need to research databases. You will also need to do your own word processing. This is a minimum. As many computer skills that you can learn, the better.
3) LSAT. To apply for law school, you have to take the Law School Admissions Test, or LSAT. It is expensive to take the test. There are test prep courses offered. I used an LSAT test prep book called “Cracking the LSAT.” This worked well for me. Most people take the test about a year before they want to go to law school and then apply once they get their test results. However, you can also do it quickly. I took the test in May, got my results in June, applied, and started school in August.
4) Applications for Law School: CAS. Most law schools use the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) service called Credential Assembly Service, or CAS. You will send your undergraduate transcripts, LSAT scores, letters of recommendation, and a writing sample to the CAS. The CAS adjusts grades to a norm scale, and provides this information to the law school admission departments. The CAS charges a hefty fee.
5) Applications for Law School: School Applications. Then you figure out what schools to apply for, and fill out their applications. This includes an essay and writing sample. It also includes disclosing if you have ever been arrested, have any issues with alcohol or drugs, have mental illness that affects judgment, have ever had serious disciplinary issues in school, ever had a residence hall violation, or have physical health issues that need to be accommodated. Students are weeded out if it seems they will not be able to pass the character and fitness requirements to become a lawyer, which are quite stringent. If you have such issues in your past, you should talk with a counselor at the LSAC to see if you are likely candidate for law school or the legal profession.
6) Law School. Law School is 3 years of full time work. Most schools hold you hostage for those three years; classes and mandatory events will be held any day of the week, day and evening. If you want to graduate competitively, you will find it takes every day, all day long, to do law school. Holidays and vacations are spent reading, writing, and taking extra classes.
Law schools do not allow students to be absent or late for class. And by late, they mean one second late. In the first year, all the classes are prescribed and everyone takes the same courses. The second year, you will have be able to choose a few electives. In the third year, there will be more choices still.
My law school allowed me to take film courses as part of law school, which is rare. To do this, I had to have a very high GPA and fill out a form showing that the film courses applied to what I would do with my law degree. After law school, I went directly into an M.A. program in Radio, TV, Film and Journalism.
My law school also had combined programs in JD/MD for those who wanted to be lawyer/ doctors and JD/MBA for those headed to business.
If you want a special program at law school, that should be a factor in what schools you apply to. I found law school to be deadly boring and I do not think I would have made it through, except that I was able to escape over to the Radio/TV/Film Building and do some music mixing. I was also writing and doing interviews for a news weekly while in law and graduate school. This also helped keep my mind from getting bogged into the law school black hole.
During law school, if you plan to graduate competitively, you will need to think in those terms. Every law school is competitive at the top of the class. The students who graduate at the top are doing all the reading, working extra hard on papers, turning everything in on time, and getting high test scores. Ideally, the aim should be to graduate in the top 10% of your class. Obviously, 90% of the class will not do that. At the other end of the spectrum, a high proportion of people flunk out of law school. Most law schools routinely dismiss the bottom 10 - 30 % of the first year class, and an additional few people after the second year of law school.
7) Character and Fitness. To be a lawyer, you must be considered to have a good character and to be mentally fit to practice law. The different State Bars work their character and fitness applications differently. Some State bars use a service, others handle it themselves. Most states begin this process while the student is law school; some states begin the process as early as the first year of law school. In the Character and Fitness process, you must reveal all sorts of information about yourself – financial, legal, personal. Some things may prevent a person from becoming a lawyer in a particular state. If an applicant is denied in one state, often that denial will be applied by other states, even if the other states would not have denied the applicant on the basis of the impediment.
There is no exact formula for what will keep a person from becoming a lawyer. Sometimes a bar will put an applicant on a sort of probation, where they are assigned to a bar member and must report to them to assure they are overcoming their difficulty. Things that usually affect the ability to become a lawyer include having a DUI, being arrested or convicted of almost any sort of charges, abusing drugs, being litigious, or having mental or personality issues that affect good judgment. Domestic violence arrests or charges and any sexual-related arrests or charges will be big issues that may keep a person from becoming a lawyer.
Morality issues that have affected bar admissions include posing for nude photos, performing as sexual dance or sex fantasy worker. In the very recent past, a divorced person could not become a lawyer, and even still, divorces must be revealed and will be questioned. Failure to pay child support or reports of child abuse or neglect are likely to keep one from being admitted as a lawyer. In some states, living with a partner while not married has been an issue in the recent past and may still be an issue in conservative areas. Bar admission has been denied on the basis that the applicant was a racist or was prejudiced on the basis of religion.
8) MPRE Exam. This is the MultiState Professional Responsibility Exam. Almost every State requires a bar applicant to pass this exam. Most people take the MPRE while still in law school. This exam is a multiple choice exam that tests knowledge of a lawyer’s professional ethical responsibilities. The test is multiple choice. Test prep is mandatory because the professional rules do not always follow what might seem like common sense.
9) Bar Exam. A lawyer must be licensed in each state in which they plan to practice regularly. Some states have reciprocity with other states. Each state gets to make up its own rules about reciprocity. Wisconsin does not require graduates of University of Wisconsin Law School to take a bar exam.
Most state bar exams are two or three days long, from about 8 am to about 5 pm, with a long lunch break. Most states run their exams twice a year, in July and February. If an applicant does not pass the first time, some states allow a retest six months later, if the applicant can show they are doing something differently that makes them likely to pass on the second try.
Most bar exams include three basic segments: multiple choice, essay questions, and practical tasks. To pass the bar exam, you have to complete each section and do fairly well on each section. Many state bar exams include the MBE, the Multistate Bar Exam. These are multiple choice questions. Many states also use MEE, which is a Multistate Essay Exam. Other states have their own essay portions, specific to their own states. A typical format is to have 6 essay questions. Some states use the MPT, Multistate Performance Test, which sets out several legal tasks that must be accomplished in a limited time frame of a few hours. Other states have their own performance tasks.
Bar Prep: Most people take expensive Bar Prep courses in the summer after they graduate from law school. I preferred to study on my own using bar prep books from several companies. I took my Illinois bar in the summer after law school and the California bar exam the following February. I found both tests to be very basic and thought the bar exam hype was greatly overblown. It may be that the hype is scaring people so they cannot think and function during the exam. I think this hype may come from the companies that sell the outlandishly high-priced bar review courses. I avoided the fear sellers, the group nervousness, etc., stayed at home and did test prep on the areas I thought I needed to work on, and breezed on through my exams. If you are a self-starter and a good test taker, I recommend this.
I was also in graduate school while preparing for and taking my bar exams. The only real problem this posed was that I had to take a few days off my graduate school classes to go take my bar exams. Before you plan to be in a graduate program while taking bar exams, you should ask to be sure you will be allowed to be absent for about a week for each state bar you plan to take. The exams are about 3 days long, and there is travel. Being in graduate school kept me from getting hooked into the hype about Bar Exam fear. I just did not have time for it.
10) Oath. Once you pass the Character and Fitness, the MPRE, and a Bar Exam, you have to go to a ceremony, take an oath, and be admitted to the State Bar. To practice in Federal Courts, you have to apply for the specific districts where you want to practice, according to the rules of each court. It feels really good to be sworn in to uphold the Constitutions of the U.S. and of your States. I take that oath really seriously.
11) CLE, Pro Bono, Fees. Once you are a Bar Member, there are annual dues and fees. Some states have pro bono requirements where each lawyer must provide some free legal service each year. Many lawyers provide many more than the minimum hours required. Many States also have Continuing Legal Education Requirements. For example, in each of my states, I have to complete 25 or 30 hours of Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credits in each reporting period. I love doing CLE because it gives me the chance to keep learning new things. Good new CLE companies offer affordable courses in interesting topics. I have studied music law, sports agent law, computer forensics, internet law, social media law, computer forensics, etc.
12) Whew. It is a long, expensive, difficult path to become a lawyer. If you really want to do it, it is worth it. I am glad I did it. I love being a lawyer. I love sharing my knowledge with others. I love helping people. I merge my knowledge and experience in film, music and events, with my legal expertise.
I also use being a lawyer to advance human rights in the fields of freedom of assembly and freedom of association. In the U.S., these often involve the rights to protest and to free media. These things are of great importance to me. I am glad I am a lawyer so I can advance positive changes in these areas.
I work on being a lawyer about 70 or 80 hours per week. A great deal of that time is not paid. I am often working in the middle of the night. I work on weekends and on most holidays, at least for a few hours. Lawyers don’t ever really have any “off” time, because the world does not stand still. However, the work we do is incredibly fulfilling and enriching.
If you want to be a lawyer, I say: Go for it!