Earning a law degree offers a number of personal and professional benefits, not limited to expanded career opportunities and often a higher pay grade. But it also requires a three-year, full-time commitment (or four years part-time), not to mention a six-figure tuition obligation. Furthermore, the legal job market is not what it used to be, and landing an attorney position has become highly competitive, especially since the 2008 financial crisis.
Becoming an attorney is not for everyone. However, the world still needs lawyers. If you are starting down the path to become an attorney, it is critical to have a strategy in mind to make the most of your endeavor into the legal profession.
Choosing a law school
With hundreds of law schools to choose from, it can be difficult to decide which schools to apply to. The first step is to assess your credentials and home in on law schools where you have a reasonable chance of being accepted. Law schools primarily look at undergraduate GPA and LSAT score in making admissions decisions, and although there are other factors, these two numbers are by far the biggest predictors of acceptance or rejection. As with the undergraduate application process, it is a good strategy to select target schools along with “reach” and “safety” schools.
When choosing which law school to actually attend, there are several important factors to consider:
Rank: Unfortunately, the legal job market is too competitive to choose a school based on “best fit” without considering how it stacks up against its peers. The relative prestige of your law school will have a huge impact on your ability to land a quality job after graduation, so it should play a big role in your decision.
Scholarships and financial aid: Regardless of your law school’s reputation, a high-paying job after graduation is never guaranteed. So, it is prudent to attend a school that offers you a generous package of scholarships and/or financial aid, in order to minimize student loan debt and thereby reduce the pressure to start earning the big bucks right after graduation.
Location: When deciding between law schools with similar rankings and financials, schools in the city or region where you want to practice should move to the top of the list. This is because internships, networking opportunities, and your school’s local reputation will all give you a leg up in getting a job in that area. This will also avoid the necessity of a long-distance job search while you attend school.
Although the above factors are often the most important aspects in your law school decision, the decision process will vary widely from one person to another. For instance, school ranking might be less important (and scholarships more so) to someone who has already been promised a job after becoming a lawyer.
Choosing a specialty
In many (if not all) industries, a great way to build a long and lucrative career is to find a specific niche and become an expert in it. The legal field is no different: lawyers who establish themselves as experts in a narrowly defined practice area are in higher demand and have a much easier time finding jobs and commanding high salaries.
Choosing a legal specialty is a mix of finding your calling on one hand, and being practical on the other. It cannot be stressed enough that your specialty should be a subject that genuinely interests you, as it will consume countless hours of your life as you develop it into your career. The price of a law degree (in tuition and opportunity cost), however, necessitates taking into account job prospects and financial stability.
In line with a practical approach, consider legal specialties that have seen growing demand over the past few years due to the growth and legal complexity of certain industries. These areas include healthcare, employment, and intellectual property. Also, with baby-boomers entering their autumn years, the market for elder law attorneys continues to grow. Finally, attention to climate change and other environmental issues has increased legal work in the environmental sphere–just beware of the effect that political cycles can have on this area of the law.
If a high growth niche does not appeal to you, consider one of the practice areas deemed “recession-proof,” like bankruptcy, foreclosure, and family law (with a downturn in the economy comes an uptick in bankruptcies, foreclosures, and divorce). Alternatively, consider becoming an expert in the laws surrounding a new trend or technology, like artificial intelligence or cryptocurrency.
When and how to specialize
For an aspiring or current lawyer, it is never too late to specialize. It is also never too soon. Pre-law school education and professional experience can go a long way towards helping an attorney specialize. For example, former real estate brokers often have an advantage breaking into the ranks of established real estate lawyers. Similarly, a degree in biochemistry can significantly aid an attorney in getting started in patent law.
For those without a substantial educational or professional background to steer them, or those looking to make a career 180, there are additional opportunities to work on a specialty while in law school. After the first year, which is mostly made up of standardized classes in basic law subjects, law students are generally free to select the classes that interest them or that best prepare them for their future careers. This is a good time to explore subjects that are needed and may interest you, and ultimately focus your class selection requirements on a particular niche.
For example, if your aim is to become a corporate lawyer, the basic class in corporations can be complemented by courses in securities law, commercial law, intellectual property, and at least an introductory class in tax. Alternatively, if you dream of being a criminal defense attorney, you would be wise to take classes in criminal procedure, evidence, and trial practice.
Finally, the best way to develop a specialty while in law school is to get real-world legal experience through internships, part-time jobs, or law school clinics. This is especially true if you are trying to break into a highly competitive niche, like entertainment law. A reputable law firm or company is more likely to hire a law student for a temporary (perhaps unpaid) internship than to commit to hiring a fresh law graduate for a full-time position. This type of experience provides practical skills development, a great line on your resume, and valuable connections in the desired practice area.
The steps to becoming a lawyer can be a draining journey, on the aspiring attorney’s time, energy, and bank account, and the light at the end of the tunnel is uncertain. Nevertheless, there is still considerable demand for attorneys, and the legal field can be both personally and professionally rewarding. Although the commitment should not be entered into lightly, becoming a lawyer can provide a significant career boost, especially for those who go about the process strategically, with clear goals in mind.