By David Lee Miller, M.A., J.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies at American Public University
I knew I wanted to be a lawyer since my sophomore year in high school when I read The Defense Never Rests, about F. Lee Bailey’s defense of the Boston Strangler. For those of you who share this dream, let me share five steps to making the dream a reality.
1. WAIT! According to the American Bar Association (ABA), only 56.2 percent of 2012 grads had a full-time job as an attorney. Many of you will need student loans to complete law school and, if you can’t earn a good full-time salary, you may not be able to afford to pay them back. Make sure you check your law school’s employment rates.
2. MAJOR? I had law school classmates with majors in P.E. and music, so it’s clear that you can choose a major that will give you a rewarding fallback job if law school doesn’t work out. Whatever undergraduate major you select, I definitely advise taking legal writing courses. You’ll have to take it your first semester in law school, but that will be too late to help you with your other first semester classes.
3. LSAT: Most law schools base admission on some combination of your GPA and LSAT scores. Higher scores increase your chances of being admitted to better schools. Here are some tips:
- Take the LSAT early–during the fall of your junior year. It’s only offered four times a year. If you wait for the last test before the admission deadline, you won’t have a chance to take it again if you don’t do well on it.
- Take a practice test. Here’s one from LSAC, the company that does the testing.
- If you don’t do well, take a prep course. You can buy books to learn test strategies or take classes–online or in person.
- LSAC allows you to retake the test, but they report all scores to the law schools. LSAC reports only slight gains for most retakes, but if you bomb the first one and then take a prep course, it might raise your score enough to get you in or into a better school.
4. CHOOSING A LAW SCHOOL. You need to balance four factors: cost (debt), employment prospects, reputation, and location:
- Cost (debt): Tuition can run anywhere from less than $20K to more than $50k at big name private schools. Don’t forget to add in the very expensive books, miscellaneous expenses, and living costs. It may be beneficial to sit out a year and establish residency in the state for public schools. My alma mater, the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney Law School in Indianapolis, runs about $23,552 in yearly tuition for in-state residents, but $42,690 for out-of-state students. That’s almost $60k in extra cost.
- Post-graduation employment: All schools must publish their graduate employment statistics.
- Prestige: U.S. News has a good rating for law schools, but there are others. Generally speaking, you want to go to the best school you can afford. A school’s ranking can improve your odds of employment with some firms and in some fields. Better schools also usually have better post-graduate employment rates.
- Location: This isn’t a requirement, but my advice is to go to school in the state in which you wish to practice. To me, it’s all about networking. Many of my law school classmates (I already had a job) were able to get part-time jobs working for law firms in Indianapolis, which helped with their expenses and subsequently led to jobs. You don’t get this benefit if you go to school in Florida but want to work in New York after graduation.
5. DON’T CHOOSE AN ONLINE LAW SCHOOL. They are not accredited by the ABA, and only California will allow you to sit for the bar. Most online schools report bar pass rates of 30 percent or less. I’ve heard that some will tell you that you can practice for a few years in California then transfer your license to another state. That’s not always true. Many states only grant reciprocity if the attorney graduated from an accredited law school.
I hope my advice is a good start for you. I wish you luck in your future endeavors, and in finding your ideal profession.
About the Author:
Prof. Miller is a former Army JAG officer. He has more than 25 years of teaching experience, five with APUS. David’s military service included time as a trial counsel (prosecutor), military magistrate, defense attorney, and instructor at the U.S. Army Military Police School.