Introduction to law and legal studies
In the U.S., the study of law is a professional academic field. Unlike many other countries, where a law degree can be completed immediately after high school, aspiring U.S. lawyers need complete a bachelor’s degree before attending law school. Students graduate law school with a juris doctor (J.D.) degree, which is technically a professional doctorate, although many of its elements are unique and cannot be directly compared to other types of graduate degrees.
For instance, a J.D. holder is not referred to as “Doctor” even though the degree is technically a doctorate. The J.D. is thought of as the terminal degree for lawyers, though additional degrees can be, but are rarely sought.
Some J.D. holders pursue a Master of Laws (LLM), which is more advanced than the J.D., although technically a master’s degree. The LLM is most popular among international students who completed a law degree outside the U.S. It provides them with a quicker route to practice law in the U.S. than completing a J.D.
The most advanced degree available for lawyers is the Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD or JSD). These programs are often offered by invitation only and pursued by those wishing to become scholars of law, requiring many years of research and writing.
Fun fact: The first U.S. law degree was a bachelor of law granted in 1793 by the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
How are laws made?
The primary sources of law in the U.S. are constitutions, federal and state statutes, administrative regulations, treaties, and cases. All 3 branches of government–the executive, legislative, and judicial–participate in the lawmaking process.
The executive branch creates administrative law in the form of regulations or executive orders and directives. The legislative branch create statutes. The judicial branch deals in cases and common law. Decisions made by judges at the judicial level act as precedents that shape future decisions, applying the principle of stare decisis, Latin for “to stand by things decided.” Government attorneys are employed at all levels of government, and participate in the lawmaking process.
Fun fact: Of the 56 signees of the United States Declaration of Independence, 25 were attorneys.
What kind of people make good lawyers?
The legal profession emphasizes communication, both verbal and written. Lawyers typically excel at active listening, critical thinking, and complex problem solving. They are also usually enterprising, investigative, extremely detail-oriented, and have a high degree of stress tolerance. They are able to retain, comprehend, and apply vast amounts of information.
What type of law should you study?
You are not expected to know what type of law you want to practice when first applying for law school. The J.D. is a generalist degree, meaning it provides a foundation for whichever area you choose to focus on later. Some law students complete dual or joint degrees, combining a traditional J.D. program with a graduate degree in another discipline: for instance, business, public policy, or psychology.
Although you don’t have to choose your practice area before completing law school, it’s useful to learn about the different types of careers you can have as a lawyer. This will help you choose courses, and may direct the type of program you attend (e.g., a dual degree), or even which school you choose (as some schools are known for having strong programs in specific areas of law).
What do different types of lawyers do?
- A corporate lawyer may spend their morning discussing governance issues with a client, and the afternoon reviewing and commenting on draft documents for a business deal.
- An intellectual property lawyer’s day may be occupied by sifting through highly complex technical paperwork in a patent application they are assessing.
- Life as a criminal defense attorney often appears similar to the stereotypical image depicted on television–hours in the courtroom, meetings with defendants, interviewing witnesses, and negotiating plea bargains.
- A complex litigation lawyer can spend months or even years working on a class action lawsuit against a leading pharmaceutical firm.
- Human rights lawyers can be employed with a nonprofit organization fighting for prison system reform.
There are almost as many domains a lawyer can work in as there are spheres of human activity. Your choice of law career will likely depend on your interests, personality type, aspirations, and opportunities that come your way.
A J.D. degree prepares students for all types of law careers, but practicing lawyers often specialize in a specific type, which is referred to as their practice area. Although there is considerable overlap between practice areas, most can be divided into the following categories.
Business and finance law
Business law comes into play wherever the business and legal worlds interact. The activities of corporations in the U.S. are highly regulated to ensure safety and fairness. Businesses hire lawyers to ensure they are complying with those regulations, and to represent them in any lawsuits filed against them. Lawyers also draft business contracts and assist the legal proceedings involved in mergers and acquisitions and other business transactions. Business and finance law do have some similarities, although finance lawyers are more likely to focus on taxation, banking, trade regulations, consumer law, bankruptcy law, and other domains in which finance and the legal system interact.
Administrative and regulatory law
Administrative and regulatory law deals with the interactions between law and government. Administrative lawyers are usually employed by government agencies. They may also work for law firms or as in-house counsel within corporations, representing the interests of their clients in interactions with regulatory bodies. They can write regulations, adjudicate, prosecute regulatory violations, or even act as political aides. Some administrative lawyers work for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or as lobbyists, advocating for special-interest groups or working to amend or improve certain regulations.
Criminal law is perhaps what most people think of when they hear the word “lawyer”. Criminal law is deeply tied to the American system of criminal justice, and violations of criminal law tend to be the most harshly punished–with fines, incarceration, or even capital punishment, which is still practiced in 27 states.
One of the hallmarks of American criminal justice is that those accused of a crime are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Criminal lawyers tend to be either prosecuting attorneys or defense lawyers.
The U.S. has 2 main criminal court systems: state and federal, with both 3 levels in both systems. Under the state system are state trial courts, intermediate courts of appeal, and state supreme courts. At the federal level are the U.S. Supreme Court, the circuit courts of appeals, and district courts.
Civil and human rights law
Human rights are considered essential, universal, and applicable to all humans regardless of nationality or place of residence. Although international agreements such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights are usually not legally binding, they set the standards that countries strive to model in their local laws. Examples of human rights are the right to education, the right to work, and freedom of thought, religion, opinion, and expression.
Civil rights are thought of as an agreement between a specific nation and its citizens. In the U.S., civil rights are constitutional, outlined in the Bill of Rights. International organizations are less likely to intervene or take action when a country fails to uphold their own civil rights, but they do intervene when human rights are violated. Thus, human rights lawyers may be employed at home or abroad, counseling and representing individuals whose human rights have been violated. Civil rights lawyers tend to focus on justice for a particular group of people in their country of residence.
How to become a lawyer
Becoming a lawyer can take approximately 7 years of full-time education after high school: 4 years of undergraduate studies and 3 years to complete the J.D. Receiving bar exam results can take an addition 6 months, after which you can apply for a state license. Most states also require the completion of a professional responsibility exam for licensure. The specific steps are as follows:
- complete a bachelor’s degree
- pass the LSAT
- complete a J.D. at an ABA-approved law school
- pass the bar exam
- pass the multistate professional responsibility examination (MPRE) and any additional exams required by your state’s licensing authority
- receive state license
Getting into law school
Most law schools focus on your grade point average (GPA) and Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores when deciding on your application, so these will be essential components to focus on. Although the profession is glamorized, the reality of being a law student and a lawyer involves a lot of diligent study, which means many hours of reading, writing, and sifting through complex documents. This is why academic achievement is so highly emphasized in the law school admission process.
While it’s possible to get into law school with a bachelor’s in virtually any discipline, choosing an undergraduate program or specific courses that make sense for an aspiring lawyer can strengthen your application. For example, if you are interested in financial law, finance courses or even a degree in finance can booster your application. Courses in political science, economics, history, philosophy, and public speaking may also benefit your law school application.
What to expect at law school
Most full-time law school programs last 3 years, which are commonly referred to as 1L, 2L, and 3L (first year, second year, and third year of law school). The curriculum in 1L tends to be rigid, meaning you typically don’t get to choose courses. Rather, students take a prescribed set of courses, often including contracts, torts, civil procedure, constitutional law, criminal law, and legal methods.
After first year, students tend to discover that 2L and 3L are more flexible as students electives according to their own interest area. During the second and third years, students are generally required to earn experiential credits by participating in activities such as law clinics, policy labs, moot court, or externships. Most law degrees also require a certain number of pro bono (“for the public good”) service hours, which means offering your legal counsel to individuals in need, free of charge.
Teaching methods at law schools are unique and may take some getting used to. Many law school professors use the Socratic method, which involves cold calling on students and asking them a series of probing questions to find the limits of their knowledge and the logical reasoning behind their arguments.
Fun fact: The American Bar Association (ABA) requires students at ABA-accredited schools to take an ethics course in professional responsibility, usually in 2L. This requirement was added in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, which damaged the public image of lawyers, as President Nixon and most of his alleged co-conspirators were lawyers.
The cost of a law degree
The average cost of tuition for law school in the U.S. is $45,844 per year, with living expenses for law students costing an additional $22,737 per year. Until 2014, the ABA forbade law students from working more than 20 hours per week. Although this regulation has been eliminated, certain schools have maintained their own rules limiting student employment. Be sure to find out the regulations at the schools of your interest, to make sure they’re compatible with your plans and financial circumstances.
The bar exam
If you’re interested in law, you’ve undoubtedly heard the expression “passing the bar.” The term has its origins in the 14th century English legal system, when an actual physical railing was used to separate courtroom spectators from the legal professionals and the accused. Those who “passed the bar” were the barristers (attorneys/lawyers), who were permitted to pass through to the front of the courtroom.
Today that barrier is symbolic, and passing the bar means taking an exam following law school graduation that gives you the credentials needed to become a licensed, practicing lawyer. Passing the bar is required for practicing law in all states except Wisconsin. The exact bar exam process varies slightly by state, but the overall structure is as follows:
- the bar exam usually lasts 2 days
- on the first day, the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) is usually administered
- the MBE covers these 6 areas: constitutional law, contracts, criminal law, evidence, property, and torts)
- the second day usually involves essay writing across a range of topics
- an increasing number of states are including the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE) and the Multistate Performance Test (MPT) in the bar exam
Becoming a licensed attorney
Once you’ve completed a J.D. and passed the bar, you’ll need to follow your state or jurisdiction’s licensing procedure to become a fully-fledged, licensed attorney. You cannot legally practice law in the U.S. without a license. The process will usually involve passing a professional responsibility examination, undergoing character and fitness certification, and paying required fees. Usually your license to practice law will pertain only to your state or jurisdiction, but some states have reciprocal agreements that may allow a lawyer licensed in one state to practice in another without retaking the bar exam.
Can you practice in the U.S. with a foreign law degree?
If you completed a law degree anywhere else except the U.S. and Canada but want to practice law in the U.S., here are some key points to be aware of:
- you will likely be required to pass the U.S. bar exam
- California and New York have the most flexible rules
- in all other states, they will review your foreign degree and make a decision on a case-by-case basis, which may take up to a year
- in most cases, you will have to complete an LLM, and in some cases, an entire J.D.; there are accelerated J.D. programs for foreign-trained law students
- Canadian law degrees are valid in the U.S., although typically you need to pass the U.S. bar exam (which may mean studying U.S. law on your own to be able to pass it)
American Bar Association (ABA)
The ABA is the nation’s largest nonprofit representative of the legal profession. They offer countless resources for law students and lawyers. The ABA is also the accrediting body for law schools.
Law School Admission Council (LSAC)
LSAC is a nonprofit organization whose members are all the ABA-accredited schools in the U.S. Students register for LSAT testing and apply to law schools through the LSAC website.
National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE)
The NCBE offers a variety of informational and educational resources and programs for aspiring lawyers preparing for the bar exam or seeking licensure.