The lawyer’s role
Today, more than ever before, the legal profession offers a unique opportunity for the dedicated individual to make a significant contribution to society. This brochure is intended to help you evaluate law as a career. It should give you a better idea of what to expect on an educational path to a law degree and the very significant financial costs associated with obtaining a law degree.
The lawyer in our society is both a professional and an officer of the court, charged with the responsibility of working within the framework of American law, which is based upon federal and state constitutions, written legislation and case decisions issued by the courts.
In the United States, a lawyer has a dual role as advocate and as advisor. As an advocate, a lawyer assists in the administration of justice. American courts operate under the adversary system in which parties to a disagreement in a civil matter, or the prosecution and defense in a criminal case, present their different points of view to an impartial judge and jury. Lawyers, who are licensed by the Alabama State Bar, are qualified to present other people’s cases through written and oral arguments and application of appropriate laws, procedures and rules of evidence.
As an advisor, the lawyer helps clients comply with the law by counseling them regarding the legal consequences of proposed actions, by drafting legal arrangements that comply with the law and by advising them concerning their rights and obligations in dealing with other people.
In addition to their normal professional duties, lawyers are expected to devote time to improvement of the profession and to public service activities such as providing free legal services to those who cannot afford to pay.
What qualities are necessary to become a lawyer?
Before choosing law as a career you must evaluate your abilities, work inclinations and personal goals. The qualities most desirable to be a good lawyer are dedication, motivation and the willingness to work long hours. Other important qualities center on self-discipline, the ability to communicate well, including a good and thorough knowledge of the English language and the ability to write clearly and concisely.
Temperament is also vital because often it is necessary to work under pressure of tight deadlines, to have the patience to spend numerous hours researching a single point of law and to carefully analyze facts and marshal them to create a persuasive argument. Patience and understanding in listening to adversaries as well as to clients and witnesses is equally important.
Not all lawyers spend time in a courtroom. Some lawyers write letters and memoranda; others research legal issues and draft contracts, deeds, wills, corporate bylaws and legislation; and others counsel, mediate, negotiate, etc. If you think you would be interested in a career as a trial lawyer, you will need the ability to think quickly on your feet, to speak extemporaneously and with authority in public, to be detail-oriented and to understand courtroom strategy.
A law career may provide an opportunity to earn substantial income and can lead to a position of influence and authority. Frequently, a lawyer’s greatest satisfaction comes through the genuine desire to help people in trouble by giving them the assurance that their legal rights will he protected.
What type of education is required?
In Alabama, access to practicing law begins with graduation from high school followed by receipt of a degree from a four-year college (although it is possible to be accepted to law school after only three years of college). This may be in the form of either a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts degree. There is no required or suggested course of study for prelaw students.
Many law schools suggest that the broadest possible undergraduate education will be the most helpful. Courses which develop skills utilized in law school and legal work, such as an ability to think in an organized fashion, a command of the English language and the ability to work well with others, should be considered.
The PreLaw Handbook, published by the Law School Admission Council (see Resources), recommends rigorous courses that help develop critical thinking, as well as analytical, writing and verbal skills. Language is the tool of the lawyer whether it is oral argument, for example, in court or talking to clients, or, is in written form in letters, legal briefs or court pleadings. Therefore, any course that develops this skill is valuable.
A legal education is different enough from everything which precedes it in that no one course (such as business law) will prepare you for it; but any course (for example, philosophy and logic) which stimulates your thinking or gives you insights into some types of legal questions that lawyers face will surely be beneficial. The self-discipline and study habits required in law school should be developed in high school and carried through college.
Among the individual courses that can be considered are analytical writing, English language and literature, political science, government, economics, accounting, history, philosophy, logic, scientific method and public speaking. In your final year of college you will be required to take a standardized test called the “Law School Admissions Test,” also referred to as the LSAT. This is a nationwide examination given several times annually that tests a student’s analytical skills in such areas as logic, reading comprehension, etc. By obtaining information on law school programs, entrance standards and costs well in advance of application deadlines, you will have time to review the curriculum and talk to lawyers in your community about those schools.
Realize that competition to enter law school is stringent. It may be wise to have more than one school in mind when you apply. There are five law schools in Alabama and three of them are accredited by the American Bar Association (refer to the last section of this brochure for the names and addresses of these schools).
Note: Applying to law school and taking the LSAT should be completed at least six months and up to one year, before enrollment. Registration information, materials and a full-length sample of the LSAT is available from Law School Admission Services, Box 2000, Newtown, Pennsylvania 18940. http://www.lsac.org.
How do I choose a law school?
You should base the selection on your individual needs. Location is a factor, especially if you prefer attending school in a city or state where you are interested in setting up your practice. Cost considerations will determine your choice of an out-of-state public school or a private school where tuition will be higher than in-state schools. If you are accepted by more than one school, consider the comparative public reputations of the schools, since reputation may affect demand for graduates with employers.
How do I get into law school?
Competition for law school admission is keen. Your grade point average in college and scores on the LSAT are the two major determining factors for admission to most law schools. Many schools have other considerations that may include quality and relative rank in the graduating class of the particular college you attended; course of study and difficulty of curriculum followed; college activities; moral character; and motivation and personality of applicant, as revealed in a letter of application. The point is, law schools seek to have a diverse student body, well-qualified to stand the rigor of the study of law.
What is law school like?
The normal law school course of study is usually completed in three years (full-time) or four years (part-time). While the teaching approaches may differ among Alabama law schools, the first year of study generally is filled with required courses in such subject areas as contracts, constitutional law, torts, criminal law, legal writing, civil procedure, remedies and property.
Most law school classes use the case-method of teaching, which involves detailed examination of a number of related, sometimes contradictory judicial opinions and which relies heavily on student-faculty interchange.
The purpose of such regimentation is to familiarize the new law student with various aspects of legal theory and method. In the remaining two years, students may choose a particular area of interest. Options may include corporate law, labor law, bankruptcy law, family law, juvenile law, trusts and estates law, administrative law, environmental law, litigation technique, tax law and negotiation. Many law schools now have clinical programs which offer students direct experience in actual legal practice, sometimes appearing in court or before administrative agencies representing actual clients.
Participation in extracurricular activities can help a student prepare for a career in law. Moot court and trial/appellate advocacy competitions help sharpen writing and oral advocacy skills; client counseling competitions build problem-solving abilities; and a position on a law review publication can help a student develop analytical research and writing skills. Joining a special-interest club, such as an international law club, can bring the student into contact with current problems in the law and practitioners in the field.
What kind of debt will I have after law school?
The total cost of a JD degree can easily top $150,000 at the most expensive schools, once you factor in living expenses. (And that's not counting lost income, since you won't be working full-time while you're in school.)
Like other graduate-school education, the cost of a legal education is substantial. The amount varies from school to school and whether the law school is a public or private institution. Before embarking on a legal education, you should carefully plan how you will pay for it.
What should I consider when selecting a law school?
According to the National Association for Law Placement, obtaining a degree from an ABA-accredited law school is not cheap. Over the last twenty-five years, law school tuition has consistently risen twice as fast as inflation.
The average tuition at private law schools in 2008 was $34,298; the average in-state tuition for public law schools was $16,836. Add in books and living expenses to tuition, and the average public law school student borrows $71,436, while the average private law school student borrows $91,506. Many students borrow far more than $100,000, and these numbers do not even include debt that students may still carry from their undergraduate years.
In 2011, 58 percent of those persons taking the July bar exam in Alabama had outstanding loans that averaged $101,400. A number of those taking the bar exam had education loans in excess of $200,000.
Admission to the bar
After graduating from law school, you must gain admission to the Alabama State Bar in order to practice law. In addition to a law degree, applicants for admission are required to possess good moral character and fitness (i.e., law abiding, free from alcohol or drug dependency) and successfully complete a written examination. NOTE: Before taking the bar exam a Committee on Character and Fitness will review your application and determine whether or not you will need to be interviewed. Once your application has been approved, you will be allowed to take the bar examination.
The written exam is administered by the Board of Bar Examiners and is given twice each year in February and July. This exam is taken over a 2 1/2-day period. The first day is a half day exam consisting of Alabama essay questions which require application of state law to a series of complex fact patterns. The second day consists of the Multistate Essays (MEE) and Multistate Practice Tests (MPT) and the third day is the Multistate Bar Examination which is a multiple-choice test that covers subjects applicable in all states. While it is not a part of the bar exam, you must take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) which deals with law ethics issues. Upon successful completion of the bar examination you will be admitted to the practice of law before the Alabama Bar.
Ethical obligations of attorneys
Lawyers are governed by codes of professional conduct. In Alabama, the Alabama Supreme Court has adopted the Rules of Professional Conduct as the minimum standard of conduct for lawyers. A violation of the disciplinary rules may result in a disciplinary proceeding against the lawyer, which could result in censure, suspension or disbarment.
Opportunities for women and minorities
The number of women and minority group members attending law school has grown in recent decades. According to a study conducted by the American Bar Association, in comparing enrollment for Fall 2007-2008, the number of women entering law school increased to 23,165, which represented 46 percent of total first year students. That same study found more than 30,598 JD enrollment for minority students. This constituted 21.6 percent of total minority JD student enrollment. The recent downturn in the economy means that opportunities for careers in law fell dramatically, as recruiters for government, law firms and corporations cut back.
The Council on Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO) sponsors a program designed to increase the number of economically and educationally disadvantaged persons in law school. Financial aid for this program comes primarily from government sources. Further information can be obtained by writing CLEO at 1800 M Street N.W., Washington, DC 20036.
What kind of careers are available?
Private practice ranges from practicing law alone to associating with a firm with as many as 100 or more attorneys. The private practitioner may be a trial lawyer, or may be engaged in an office practice which might include the preparation of contracts, deeds, wills and other legal documents and preparing written opinions and advice for the client. An attorney in a small firm often must be a “jack-of-all-trades” in order to handle a variety of cases, attorneys in larger firms often concentrate in limited areas of practice such as tax law or trusts and estates.
Corporate staff law usually means employment in the legal department of a large business, performing legal work as varied as the activities of the company. If the house counsel staff is large and the activities of the enterprise diverse, the members of the staff may concentrate just as in a large law firm.
Many corporations, especially smaller ones, without a legal staff, rely on private practitioners to draft corporate documents and contracts, litigate for them and the like.
Government employment at the federal, state or local level involves such activities as appearing at hearings conducted by a regulatory agency, prosecuting criminal defendants, representing a government agency in court, drafting regulations or ordinances and evaluating and formulating the legal aspects of policy and other decisions made by a governing body or its chief administrator.
Public interest law is the name that has been given to efforts to provide representation to interests of people who historically have been unrepresented or underrepresented in the legal process. These include interests of the poor and disadvantaged who have lacked access to courts, administrative agencies and other forums in which basic policy decisions affecting them are made. Public interest lawyers try to provide systematic representation to these individuals and groups to assure that their positions are understood by decision-makers. The most frequently encountered “public interest” law office in Alabama is the local legal aid program. Many lawyers volunteer time without compensation for such activities, which is called “pro bono.”
Academic positions can include teaching in law schools and positions at universities and colleges offering law-related courses such as law enforcement, business law and real property law. Other academic positions include law librarians, editors and administrators.
Military service in the legal offices of the armed services may provide a wide variety of legal experiences and the chance to live in many places. Military legal offices may be small or large and may offer the opportunity to gain valuable experience in specialty areas.
Legal clinics have been established, either as individual operations or part of a national network. As a rule, clinics offer basic legal services to individuals for set fees.
Major urban areas offer a wide variety of jobs but competition is great. Suburban law practices have also grown rapidly. In addition, lawyers are often needed in rural communities. For information about rural practice, write the Rural Education Association, Colorado State University, Ft. Collins, CO 80523.
Other opportunities include use of a law degree in fields such as journalism, law enforcement, industry, advertising, banking, politics, public administration and accounting. Some graduates will choose to start out in one of these areas with a goal of eventually practicing law, while others will move into these areas after an initial period of law practice.
What are my chances of getting hired after graduation?
Job hunting is always competitive because approximately 650 new lawyers are licensed in Alabama each year. Opportunities vary from area to area, with the most attractive openings having many applicants. The strongest competition for job openings is in large cities, while smaller towns tend to offer more opportunity. Graduates should consider a full range of employment options to be successful in their job search.
Nonlawyer careers in the law
Legal assistants, also known as paralegals, are assistants to lawyers. They interview clients, conduct legal research and draft legal documents under the supervision of lawyers. There are about 100,000 legal assistants in the U.S. Many colleges, as well as for-profit private schools, offer paralegal training. The Web site for the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Assistants has helpful information (http://www.abanet.org/legalservices/paralegals).
Mediators help people resolve disputes without going to court. They meet with the people involved, listen to the problem, discuss options and help the parties come to agreement. Mediation is a rapidly growing field. Mediators are often lawyers, social workers or mental health professionals who have participated in a mediation training program.
Court reporters are court workers who record everything said as part of the formal trial (There are nearly 50,000 court reporters in the U.S.). Court reporting is taught at about 250 colleges and private business schools. Training programs generally take two to four years, a high school diploma and strong English skills are a must. For a listing of schools approved by the National Court Reporters Association see their website http://www.ncraonline.org).
Law-related job areas that do not require a license include trust work at banks, public administration, law enforcement and criminal justice and judicial administration.
Can I be involved in law-related work without a license to practice law?
Without a license to practice law in Alabama, a person cannot give legal advice, represent persons in court, or handle many other legal matters.
About the Alabama State Bar
With more than 17,000 members, the Alabama State Bar is the official statewide organization of lawyers in Alabama. Since 1923, when the Alabama State Bar was created by an act of the legislature, ASB programs and activities have continuously served the public and improved the justice system for more than 80 years.
The Alabama State Bar is dedicated to promoting the professional responsibility and competence of its members, improving the administration of justice and increasing the public understanding of and respect for the law. The values that guide the state bar are: trust, integrity and service. The ASB has long served a dual role as an advocate for the profession and for the public. Often it is difficult to separate these two responsibilities, but during the last few decades with the growing complexity of society and our legal system, the ASB's public role has gained both emphasis and breadth.
Since its creation as an integrated bar association, the ASB has initiated programs addressing a wide range of public concerns; from merit selection of judges to securing adequate funding for representing indigent defendants; from ensuring that non-lawyers sit on disciplinary panels to encouraging the use of mediation as an alternative method of dispute resolution.
State Bar positions play an influential role in determining public and social policy in state and national forums. The Alabama State Bar is composed principally of practicing attorneys, judges, law teachers and non-practicing lawyers who are business executives, government officials, court administrators and so forth. It represents practitioners in specialized areas of law, as well as affiliated, law-related organizations and groups with special interests or needs. The state bar serves as the voice of the legal practitioner in Alabama. It proposes model rules of professional responsibility (which govern the daily business and ethical practice of lawyers) for adoption by the Alabama Supreme Court.
How can I learn more about the legal profession?
You can learn firsthand about a lawyer's duties by observing trials at your local courthouse or by discussing with a lawyer his or her daily activities. Your high school also may have law-related education courses or activities. Consider volunteer work involving counseling and assisting people to test your abilities to deal with other people's problems.
Positions Practicing Law:
contract (temporary or freelance) lawyer
partnership track associate
public, pro bono or public service counsel
Areas of Practice:
alternative dispute resolution
disciplinary action by licensing boards
mergers & acquisitions
client services manager
director of business development
director of client relations
director of management and legal information services
director of practice development
director of professional development
director of training (clerical/paralegal)
in-house corporate communications
law firm administrator
legal assistant manager
professional development training officer
public relations director
recruiting administrator director
Source: Deborah Arron, What Can You Do With A Law Degree? Page 342
Online services for those contemplating a law career include American Bar Association, Alabama State Bar and Law School Admissions Council.
Check your local library for these and other helpful books on the legal profession:
Arron, Deborah. What Can You Do With a Law Degree? A Lawyer's Guide to Career Alternatives Inside, Outside & Around the Law, Niche Press, 1999.
Hegland, Kenney F. Introduction to the Study and Practice of Law in a Nutshell, West Publishing Co., 2000.
Cassidy, Carol-June and Goldfarb, Sally F. Inside the Law Schools: A Guide by Students, for Students, New York, Dutton, 1997.
The Lure of the Law: Why People Become Lawyers and What the Profession Does to Them. New York, Penguin USA, (paper): Reprint edition (August, 1991), Moll, Richard W.
Preparing for a Legal Career:
A Life in the Law. You can download a copy of this pamphlet - http://www.abanet.org/publiced/1999.pdf
You can find more about legal careers in this ABA booklet. To order, call 800-285-2221.
Becoming a Lawyer: A Humanistic Perspective on Legal Education and Professionalism. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co., 1991. Dvorkin, Elizabeth.
Lawyers in the Making. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT., Greenwood Press Reprint, 2003. Warkov, Seymour.
Prelaw Handbook. Law School Admission Services, Box 2000, Newtown, PA,, 18940. Revised annually. A discussion of prelaw and law study. Also contains a list of law schools, giving a two-page summary of each.
The African American Pre-Law Advice Guide: Things You Really Need to Know Before Applying. Hope’s Promise Publishing (2002). Mitchell, Evangeline.
The Princeton Review’s Cracking The LSAT 2002 Edition, Barrons Educational Series (2002), Robinson, Adam and Tallia, Rob.
Thinking About Law School: A Minority Guide. Newtown, PA, Law School Admission Council. To order contact the Council at 215/968-1001.
Barron‘s Guide to Law Schools. (14th Edition), Woodbury, New York, Barron’s Educational Series.
Going to Law School? Everything You Need to Know to Choose & Pursue a Degree in Law. 09/97. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Castelman, Harry and Niewoehner, Christopher.
Inside the Law Schools. Cassidy and Goldfarb. 7th Edition.
One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School. 08/98. Turow, Scott.
Slaying the Law School Dragon: How to Survive - and Thrive - in First Year Law School, 2nd edition. New York, Dodd, Mead, 1991. Roth, George.
The Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools, 2004 edition. American Bar Association and Law School Admission Council. Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements. Online edition (http://officialguide.lsac.org).
Books About Lawyering:
A Civil Action. New York, Random House, 1996. A riveting true-life story of a nine-year-long liability lawsuit brought by eight Massachusetts families against two multibillion dollar corporations. Harr, Jonathan.
A Women’s Guide to Law School: Everything You Need to Know to Survive and Succeed in Law School. (1999). Hirshmann, Linda R.
Gideon’s Trumpet. New York: Vintage Books, 1964. The true story of how one man’s case changed the laws of the United States regarding the rights of the poor to be represented by an attorney. Lewis, Anthony.
In Search of Atticus Finch: Seville Publishing. (1996). Papantonio, Mike.
Law 101: Everything You Need to Know About the American Legal System. Oxford University Press (2000). Feinman, Jay M.
Letters From Law School: The Life of a Second Year Law Student. Writers Club Press, Lincoln NE, 2000, 259 pages. Dieker, Lawrence Jr.
Take the Bar and Beat Me: An Irreverent Look at Law School and Career Choices for Pre-Laws, Law Students, Paralegals —And the People Who Once Loved Them. Hawthorne, NJ, Career Press, 1991. Woodcock, Raymond L.
The Courage of Their Convictions. New York, Free Press, 1990. An account of various Supreme Court cases regarding civil rights and liberties and their participants. Irons, Peter.
For specific information regarding those law schools in Alabama which you may be interested in attending, contact the Admissions Office at the address listed below:
University of Alabama School of Law
Law School Admissions Office
P.O. Box 870382
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0382
Birmingham School of Law
205 20th Street North
823 Frank Nelson Bldg.
Birmingham, AL 35203
Cumberland School of Law, Samford University
800 Lakeshore Drive
Birmingham, AL 35229
Miles Law School
P.O. Box 39150
Birmingham, AL 35208
Faulkner University, Thomas Goode Jones School of Law
5345 Atlanta Highway
Montgomery, AL 36109
Information contained in this brochure was prepared by the ASB Department of Communications.
Some of the information and statistics contained in this booklet originally appeared in the Careers in the Law publication and has been reprinted with permission from the American Bar Association and the Division for Public Education (http://www.abanet.org/publiced), as well as the booklet Becoming a Lawyer, a publication of the State Bar of Texas.