October 6th 2017 | Updated December 21st 2017

Lawyer: A Definitive Guide Every Pre-Law Student Must Read (2017 Update)

Lawyer: A Definitive Guide Table of Contents

Lawyers are so much more than merely the butt of disparaging occupational jokes, even if it must be said that some lawyer jokes like the following classic told by Arizona Sen. John McCain are quite memorable: What's the difference between a catfish and a lawyer? One is a scum-sucking bottom dweller, and the other one is a fish.

Incidentally, the joke being told by Senator McCain is quite appropriate, as there is a long history of lawyers who were elected to Congress and even elected president. Indeed, more than half of the US presidents — 25 in total — have been lawyers, with the most recent lawyer-turned-president being Barack Obama.

Whether lawyers serve the capacity of classic joke material, important legal advocates or respected former presidents, it is clear that lawyers are an essential part of our society. What follows is a fun and informative guide that will provide you with everything you need to know about lawyers, starting with defining precisely what a lawyer is and does.


What Is a Lawyer, Anyway?

Chapter 1

Attorney, esquire, ambulance chaser (a derogatory term for personal injury lawyers, for reference), counselor, barrister, legal eagle... the titles and terms referring to lawyers are long indeed. Much of the terminology is rooted in a long and rich history. In the United Kingdom, for example, barristers and solicitors both receive legal training, but they are considered different professions. As such, there is no singular definition that can aptly describe what a lawyer is in a global context.

In the United States, however, much of these distinctions are eschewed in favor of a broader, arguably more useful definition. The American Bar Association — an organization of lawyers founded in 1878 that has guided law's evolution in the United States — defines a lawyer as "a licensed professional who advises and represents others in legal matters."

Attorney vs. Lawyer

We already mentioned some of the names that get thrown around when referring to lawyers. Arguably, the most common one mentioned is attorney. Take a quick glance at lawyer websites and they frequently even refer to themselves as attorneys and lawyers in the same paragraph. What gives? And, more importantly, what is the difference between an attorney and a lawyer?

Some authors have made the distinction that lawyers are people who graduate law school but have yet to pass the bar exam (more on this exam later) to become a licensed professional who can advise clients on legal matters. To legal experts, however, the terms are synonyms, and attorney vs. lawyer is a distinction with no difference. Simply, there is no meaningful difference between an attorney and a lawyer.

As such, feel free to use whichever term strikes you as preferable. For the sake of this guide's simplicity, however, expect to read about lawyers.

Definitions Are Well and Good, But What Do Lawyers Do?

Simply put, lawyer is a broad term that simply means someone who can help you with legal matters. Under this broad umbrella, lawyers will have specialized experience (referred to as practice areas) that will showcase their unique qualifications to help clients resolve a legal issue. Examples of common practice areas include:

  • Family Law
  • Personal Injury Law
  • Criminal Defense
  • Constitutional Law
  • Property Law
  • Estate Planning

These are just a few of many areas of practice that lawyers can pursue as career options, but lawyers don't have these career options without completing the educational, exam and occupational requirements needed to become a lawyer.


How to Become a Lawyer

Chapter 2

Before becoming a lawyer, an individual must enter into a Faustian bargain to take advantage of their clients and fleece them for monetary gain, at least based on some people's misconception. Lawyer jokes aside, if society put its figurative pitchfork down, there would be much to praise about lawyers (in spite of the fact lawyers are the most despised American profession).

Indeed, much of the spite and disdain for lawyers is rooted in misconceptions about so much of what society enjoys. Desegregation, concealed-carry permits and many other constitutional rights are protected and preserved by lawyers. Some of our greatest literary heroes such as To Kill a Mockingbird's Atticus Finch or A Tale of Two Cities' Sydney Carton were conscientious lawyers who fought for justice and the dignity of their fellow man, sometimes sacrificially.

What does this have to do about the process of becoming a lawyer? Well, before delving into the lengthy requirements needed to become a lawyer, it is worth noting that many lawyers go through years of law school with the intention of taking on low salaries as a public defender, legal aid attorney or immigration lawyer because they believe in the work they do and the clients they help.

Keeping this in mind, there are four steps — broadly speaking — a person completes to become a lawyer, which are as follows:

  • Obtain a Bachelor's Degree
  • Take a Law School Admission Test (LSAT)
  • Complete a Law Degree (Known As a Juris Doctor)
  • Pass the State Bar Examination to Become a Licensed Lawyer

Earning a Bachelor's Degree

Yes, it can be hard to imagine that lawyers were likely partying and having a great time just like you during undergraduate studies. The reality is that many lawyers did precisely that while completing their undergraduate degree. You may be wondering whether lawyers go into specific fields of study or pursue specific majors for law school.

While there are no required courses or majors for attending law school, it is true that law students tend to gravitate to a few majors before attending law school. Political Science is frequently cited as the best major for a future lawyer since plenty of learned concepts translate to law school. The same is also true of philosophy, as research suggests that logic and similar philosophical toolsets prepare Philosophy majors for law school success. Research from the American Philosophical Association shows that Philosophy majors have the highest average LSAT score (tied with Economics majors).

So, even though no specific majors or courses are required, aspiring lawyers should consider areas of study that prioritize writing, logic, reading and research skills.

Taking the LSAT

Entire volumes could be written about the existential dread lawyers have regarding law school exams and the final exam hurdle that is the bar exam. Much of the lawyerly angst associated with exams, however, begins with the LSAT.

This is the required test for admission into law school that must be submitted with any law school application. The first time a student takes a practice exam or stares at practice questions, the LSAT appears to be a monstrous chimera of reading comprehension. logical puzzles and critical reasoning conundrums.

The multiple choice exam offered by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) is divided into five separate sections. Two logical reasoning sections, one reading comprehension section and one analytical reasoning section are what makes up your "score", which is judged on a scale of 120 (lowest) to 180 (highest). If you are paying close attention, you may have gathered that there are five sections, but only four count towards your test score.

Well, the fun people over at LSAC use test takers as guinea pigs of sorts, with a fifth "experimental" section that is used to experiment with new test items and questions. Better still, aspiring lawyers have no way of knowing which of the five sections is the experimental one. And, as the cherry on top, each section is timed.

Although the test is daunting and is most certainly lacking where personal enjoyment is concerned, the LSAT is not all doom and gloom. Score well (say, 170 and above), and the law school applicant is likely well on their way toward an elite law school that offers improved employment and perhaps even prestigious internship/clerkship opportunities.

And, the test can be retaken, which is why plenty of students use study courses and materials to take the LSAT and retake the test if they don't receive their desired score. If the LSAT sounds miserable, it's merely an appetizer for the exhaustion referred to as law school.

Who could have guessed that the salaries of high-priced lawyers just might be deserved and that their reputation has been unfairly maligned?

Earning the Juris Doctor (J.D.) Degree

Once a student takes the LSAT and applies to law schools, the end result in all likelihood is that one or more law schools will accept the applicant. The applicant must then weigh scholarship offers, cost of attendance and the usual sort of factors that compel an individual to attend a specific graduate school.

Then comes a nice student orientation day where you get to meet your fellow law students before a trying three-year gauntlet of legal education begins. What makes law school difficult? Copious amounts of reading for each class, dense inquiry into legal subjects as varied as torts and contracts and the stressful nature of the Socratic Method (read: cold calls) all contribute to the learning curve. But speaking of curves, it is the fact that law school is graded on a curve that makes the education unique (and, uniquely stressful).

If you have yet to hear of this grading format, just ask a law student or a lawyer to talk about it with you. Fast forward hours later, and you will have learned that law school students are graded on a bell curve. Simply put, this means a student's final grade is not judged on its own merits, but instead that a final exam is graded based on performance relative to your peers.

So, yeah, the classmates a law student enjoys meeting at orientation week are the competition. Amazingly, plenty of law students make this unusual dynamic work, with plenty of students studying together during the crunch time before exams. That said, it is stressful to know that your friends are the competition for jobs.

Things get better, however, as the grade-related stress is primarily a phenomenon of the first year (known as 1L) of law school. After the first year, people with the top grades tend to land top summer jobs and the school's most prestigious law school journal. The rest of the student body networks their way into other positions that are less focused on "top of the class" grades.

Three years later, the law student graduates and faces one final exam to become a fully licensed lawyer, a final hurdle as the cherry on top of law school requirements.

Passing the State Bar Examination

Graduating law school, under a strict reading of the ABA definition, does not make the graduate a lawyer. A key part of the ABA's definition is that a lawyer is a "licensed professional" who advises and represents individuals in legal matters.

Passing a state bar examination is the path toward earning the license to practice law. The majority of states require law school graduates to pass both a written bar exam and a separate ethics exam that ensures graduates understand both the practice of law and the ethical responsibilities needed to practice it responsibly.

As a general rule, law school graduates must successfully pass a bar exam in each state where they aspire to practice law. There is an exception to this rule, however, known as reciprocity. To address this concept concisely, reciprocity is the process by which some states allow attorneys from other states to use the bar admission from their home state to "waive into" the bar of their new home state.

These considerations show just how important passing the bar exam is. While the LSAT and law exams get the bulk of the exam attention, it is the bar exam that is the final hurdle to clear before beginning a new career as an attorney. That said, some employers are quite understanding if they hire a law school graduate who fails the bar exam.

Plenty of employers give newly hired lawyers the chance to take the exam again if the test was not passed. Why would employers do this? Well, some of the world's brightest legal minds — such as a former Stanford Law School Dean Kathleen Sullivan, John F. Kennedy and Hillary Clinton — all failed the bar exam.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Lawyer

Chapter 3

Once a law school graduate passes the bar exam and starts a promising career as a lawyer, a look back at the timeline to arrive at that juncture shows that the event was years in the making.

Assuming the standard four-year undergraduate degree and standard three-year law school timeline, the path to becoming a lawyer takes more than seven years of higher education, with all the studying and exams that entails.

Narrowed down solely to the law school experience, the timeline from law school matriculation to passing the bar is a 3-4 year ordeal. Of course, merely becoming a lawyer after all those years of study ought to be a decision made with some degree of foresight.

Namely, aspiring lawyers should want to know what type of lawyer they wish to be.

Different Types of Lawyers

Chapter 4

If you watch a lot of television and movies, you could be left convinced that all lawyers are either criminal defense lawyers or prosecutors tasked with proving a defendant's guilt. The reality of legal practice is that there are many different types of lawyers, and the litigation/defense dichotomy are merely two legal career paths out of many.

To be overly broad, however, one could divide the different kinds of lawyers into two different categories of law. First, there is criminal law, which employs the aforementioned prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers.

The Lawyers of Criminal Law

Prosecutors work for the government at the federal, state and local levels. These lawyers are assigned cases where they are tasked with prosecuting defendants who are charged with committing certain crimes. The prosecutor will research cases, work with law enforcement officials and will either take a case to trial or offer plea bargains to a defendant. If you are familiar with Law and Order's Jack McCoy, then you have a basic (if sensationalized) understanding of what prosecutors do.

On the other side of the criminal law equation is the criminal defense lawyer. There are two types of defense lawyers to keep in mind. Public defense lawyers (also known as public defenders) are government lawyers as well, but they are tasked with representing criminal defendants who cannot afford a criminal defense lawyer from the private sector.

Public defenders negotiate the best terms for their clients to either get the defendant's charges reduced or dismissed. When necessary, the public defender will argue for the client's innocence at trial. Private defense lawyers do the same work as public defenders, albeit for higher salaries since they represent clients who can afford to pay for legal representation. As a general rule, this also translates into private defense lawyers having fewer cases than public defenders.

One might be surprised to learn that despite the fact public defenders are some of the lowest paid and most overworked lawyers, they report more happiness than peers with higher salaries. So, the next time you hear a bad (or really good) lawyer joke, remember that there are plenty of conscientious lawyers taking on low-paying salaries because they believe in the work they do.

Kinds of Lawyers in Civil Law

Unlike criminal law, the types of lawyers and practice areas in civil law are numerous. Here is a closer look at some of the most popular career paths and practice areas on the civil law side.

Corporate Lawyers

If you've ever watched Suits or have a stereotypical image of the high-priced lawyer in a fancy suit walking the streets of Manhattan, you are probably imagining a corporate lawyer.

In the legal community the elite law firms where these corporate lawyers work tend to be referred to as "Biglaw" firms. This reference indicates both that the firms are prestigious and that the salaries are high to boot. Plenty of legal graduates at the top law school set their sights on corporate law and employment at Biglaw firms if they are after the highest paying job.

Given that the term corporate lawyer is so broad, it is common for these lawyers to work in several different practice areas related to corporate/business law. Intellectual property, mergers and acquisitions, tax law and bankruptcy law are just a few of the practice areas that are related to corporate law.

And, it ought to be said that plenty of corporate lawyers are not employed at Biglaw firms, instead working at smaller firms that are focused on the business law needs of small businesses and startups instead of huge corporate clients.

Whether the corporate/business lawyer works for large firms or starts their own solo practice, these lawyers help companies with critical business tasks such as forming a business and handling complex issues related to compliance, taxes and employment-related issues.

Employment Lawyers

Businesses tend to have problems with employees from time to time or may need help updating an employee handbook. Similarly, employees may have suffered from harassment or discrimination. For the former issues, a transactional employment lawyer will fit the bill nicely. For issues related to discrimination and harassment, that translates into lawsuits, which will require a litigation employment lawyer.

Either way, these lawyers serve important roles when it comes to protecting both sides of the employer-employee dynamic.

Finance/ Securities Lawyers

Of the many different kinds of lawyers, finance and securities lawyers are arguably some of the most specialized. These lawyers deal with issues pertaining to the issuance of money and stock sales, meaning these lawyers are frequently found within corporate law or representing banks and clients who are dealing with IRS/SEC legal issues.

If you enjoy watching films about white collar crime or SEC investigations a la Bernie Madoff, then you are acutely aware of the type of financial savvy such lawyers need to succeed on the job.

Immigration Lawyers

These lawyers help clients dealing with immigration issues, which means refugee/asylum issues, green cards and help with the legalities of citizenship. In other words, business is great for immigration lawyers in the era of Donald Trump's presidency.

Political jokes aside, these lawyers play an influential role in protecting the legal rights of immigrants. In America, this tends to mean immigration lawyers are bilingual to ensure they can effectively communicate with clients. Whether the lawyer is fluent in Spanish, Russian or Chinese depends in large part on the client base the lawyer tends to represent.

Estate Planning Lawyers

Estate planning lawyers take on the cheery legal subject matter that is helping clients plan for death and how assets will be passed to heirs. While the subject matter may not be glamorous, the service is essential.

Estate planning lawyers help clients devise wills and create trusts that help clients ideally plan their estate while factoring in all relevant circumstances, needs and preferences of the client.

Personal Injury Lawyer

The personal injury lawyer is arguably the top reason for mean lawyer jokes. The derogatory term of ambulance chaser, after all, refers to this type of lawyer.

Despite the bum rap, there are plenty of good, ethical personal injury lawyers who fight for the rights of an injured client to receive deserved compensation. Whether their clients are injured by drunk drivers, medical malpractice or something as obscure as a dog bite, clients receive the legal representation and compensation they deserve by reaching out to a lawyer who ensures injured victims receive the legal compensation to which they are entitled by law.

Family Lawyers

Even after American divorce rates dropped to a near 40-year low in 2016, divorce is still an unavoidable aspect of life for millions of Americans. Family lawyers help spouses navigate a divorce amicably when possible, but they will also represent their client in court should the divorce turn hostile.

Family lawyers help their clients with issues related to child support, spousal support and similarly important issues. That said, divorce is not all a family lawyer does. These lawyers also help families grow by helping parents file adoption paperwork and go through the legal channels needed to adopt a child. In total, family lawyers are generally able to help clients with just about any legal issue pertaining to the family unit.

Civil Litigation Lawyers

As the term litigation implies, these lawyers help clients sue defendants over civil (in other words, not criminal) matters or respond to a civil lawsuit that has been filed against them.

It should be mentioned that civil litigation lawyers bleed into other practice areas. For example, corporate litigation attorneys can help with business lawsuits whereas a real estate litigation lawyer will handle property-related lawsuits.

If someone needs to sue over a civil issue, the best course of action is to find a civil litigation lawyer in a practice area that can address your specific issue.

General Practice Lawyers

The key takeaway from the kinds of lawyer career options is that law is quite specialized. Despite this, there are still attorneys who handle a broad variety of legal issues, and these attorneys are known as general practice lawyers.

As a "general" rule, bad puns notwithstanding, these lawyers are most often found as solo practitioners who start their own firms or lawyers in smaller law firms. Large and midsized firms tend to have lawyers who specialize in particular areas of legal practice.

And, even for general practice lawyers, they will have certain "bread and butter" practice areas that they are most experienced with handling. Clients who reach out to a general practice lawyer, then, should always be sure to ask the lawyer how familiar they are with handling the precise legal issue that needs addressing.

Keeping these types of lawyers in mind will prove fruitful when it comes to addressing an essential question: How much do lawyers make, anyway?

The Typical Lawyer Salary? It Depends

Chapter 5

You know that stereotype about lawyers who are rolling in money? Well, it turns out that the stereotype is largely unfounded, especially in recent years. Not only have salaries fallen in recent years, but studies also show that half of lawyers start out at a salary of less than $62,000 per year.

Now, for many people that sounds like a lot of money, but it helps to consider this figure in context. First, location matters. A lawyer making $60,000 or so in New York City is going to be much worse off than a lawyer making $50,000 in an area with a low cost of living. Second, remember how lawyers need at least seven years of higher education before they become a lawyer? Well, that reality tends to translate into an awful lot of student loan debt.

According to the most recent debt figures, the average law school graduate borrowed approximately $112,776 to finance the law degree alone. Once you factor in the borrowing needed to finance an undergraduate degree as well, and it is clear that plenty of lawyer are far from living lives of luxury with copious amounts of caviar and yachting.

For many law students, then, the path to paying off these loans is to land the highest paying job possible for a new lawyer. The most lucrative starting position for a new lawyer is certainly employment as a Biglaw associate. Associates at the nation's largest and most prestigious law firms had made $160,000 in their first year for more than a decade until recent associate salary raises at the elite firms in 2016.

Cravath Swaine & Moore is a law firm that has long been known to set the standard for Biglaw associate salary, and in the summer of 2016 Cravath raised associate salaries to $180,000. Once again, other prominent Biglaw firms followed the trend to compete for the best legal talent coming out of law schools.

This may sound like great news, but interestingly plenty informed legal analysts worried that managing partners following Cravath's standard will be a bad move for the industry. Some worry that Biglaw firms are not prepared for another recession, which is a fancy way of saying plenty of firms can't afford these salary increases.

Additionally, it is no secret that these associates work tirelessly, billing far more hours than peers who start out in small or midsized firms. Typical Biglaw associates bill at least 2,000 hours per year at a bare minimum. Ambitious associates who are aiming for Biglaw partner may bill 2,300 or 2,400 hours per year. Do the math, and it is immediately clear that Biglaw associates work insane hours.

Stepping down to take a look at midsized firms, and there is less of a hard and set pay standard like there is in Biglaw. Internet Legal Research Group's data reveals that the average salary for a first year associate at a midsize law firm in 2016 ranged from $81,250 to $112,750. Small firm associates in their first year of legal practice have a starting salary ranging from $55,250 to $79,500.

For law firm employment, then, the general trend is that the highest salaries are available at the largest firms, and the lowest salaries are found at small firms.

For public sector lawyers — public defenders and prosecutors — first year salaries tend to be far less than the private sector's. The most recent NALP salary data for public defenders shows that the entry-level median salary for 2014 public defenders was just above $50,000. Local prosecutors enjoyed a similar starting salary of $51,000 based on the 2014 data.

In other words, most lawyers aren't out there striking it rich immediately after graduating law school. Like most professions, however, lawyers can expect to earn more as their careers progress.

Aside from earning a decent salary, why would anyone want to be a lawyer? A closer look at the history of lawyers may shed more light on why so many find life as a lawyer to be an intriguing career option.

A Brief History of Lawyers

Chapter 6

A modest library could be centered around the history of law, from its philosophical origins in jurisprudence to modern applications of law around the globe. Still, a brief look at the history of lawyers reveals a tradition rooted in the pursuit of justice and the betterment of society.

It may come as a surprise to learn that systems of law have been in place since 18th century B.C.E. at the height of the Babylonian empire. Even so, we have come a long way since the Code of Hammurabi, unless a death sentence for theft is someone's idea of justice. The point remains that the concepts of law and justice have been a part of human history for thousands of years. While a code of law was a great start, no occupation from ancient Babylon could be said to serve as a precursor to today's lawyers.

The sophists, ancient orators from the Greek city-state of Athens, are viewed by some to be the earliest people who could reasonably be described as lawyers. Orators, however, were never able to offer services as legal experts or professionals, in part because orators could not take a fee to plead someone's case under Athenian law. Even though these rules were circumvented behind the scenes, publicly an orator had to present themselves as ordinary citizens who were helping their friend free of charge. Since orators of Athens could not practice the profession with true transparency and openness, some historians believe ancient Rome was the origin of the lawyer when adhering to strict definitions of what a lawyer is and does.

Emperor Claudius of Rome did away with the ban on fees, letting legal advocacy for pay become a recognized profession. Romans who engaged in such advocacy are considered the first lawyers, even though they were trained in the oratory skillset of rhetoric, not law. Now, rhetoric is certainly one of the skills needed to be a lawyer in the courtroom, but legal training had yet to grace the world stage. In ancient Rome, even wealthy individuals engaged in law merely as an intellectual hobby of sorts.

Centuries later, the next real advancement for the evolution of law came during the Middle Ages during the Roman Empire's collapse, which led to law's disappearance. Individuals within the Catholic church kept the study of canonical law alive, but their was no law practiced in a civil context during this period. Fast forward to the 1200s, and England's Magna Carta created a seismic shift in the power balance between governments and the governed.

By the late 1200s, civil courts in England and across Europe had arisen, and by 1280 London had created regulations that outlined admission procedures for the profession of law. The rest is, as they say, history. Speaking of history, it's worth taking a look at some of the most famous lawyers in history.

Famous Lawyers of American History

Chapter 7
  • Abraham Lincoln: "Honest Abe" is perhaps best known as an iconic American president who emancipated America's slaves, playing a crucial role in righting America's greatest historical injustice. Avoid watching movies that portray this icon as a vampire slayer and instead embrace the fact that Lincoln was a capable lawyer who helped a client who was charged with murder receive an acquittal.