Guide to College Majors in Law

The law is the last result of human wisdom acting upon human experience for the benefit of the public
--Samuel Johnson

With so many television programs devoted to the portrayal of lawyers, it would seem that everyone should understand what a lawyer does. But televisions shows tend to focus on only one aspect of law--trials--and provide a somewhat exaggerated version of the profession. The legal system affects nearly every aspect of American society--because laws affect nearly every aspect of American society.

With a law degree, an individual can have an immediate and major impact on the lives of others. A law degree allows one to defend a person who has been accused of a crime, provides the chance to right wrongs, creates the opportunity to help the little guy battle the big guy, and offers the ability to defend the Constitution from attacks by individuals, corporations, and governments. But those ideals are only a small portion of the actual professional demands.

Attorneys can work in a small town, a rural area, a big city, or even in another country. A law degree qualifies graduates to start their own practices or work with larger law firms, after passing the bar exam in their state. Law is the most common profession of people who move into politics; both Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon were lawyers who became presidents of the United States.

A law degree can provide nearly unlimited career opportunities, because all professions need people who are skilled at interpreting the words and actions of individuals and organizations. With your JD, you can work as an attorney or as a consultant with a company that more closely represents your personal interests. A graduate with an interest in communications, for example, may choose to work for a media company.

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What Does a Lawyer Do?

Think about what a lawyer does and you are likely to picture someone defending a client in a trial. TV would have us believe that this is virtually the only thing a lawyer does. Certainly it is true that a lawyer does represent clients in trial, but even among trial lawyers, the time spent in court represents only a fraction of the work involved. Many lawyers perform a variety of other services that rarely place them in a courtroom.

For instance, the lawyer acts as counsel to the client. To do this, the lawyer must listen to the client and ask questions that extract as much information as possible about the situation at hand. The lawyer must be armed with complete knowledge about the client's case before the real work even begins. Once the appropriate information has been obtained, the lawyer then advises the client about his or her rights and possible courses of action.

A substantial amount of a time is spent researching the laws involved in the matter, the client's specific circumstances, and the previous judicial decisions that are likely to have an impact on a case (known as precedents). Depending upon the size of the law firm involved, the individual attorney might handle the research, or it might be conducted by law clerks or by junior partners. Regardless of who does it, the research must be thorough and accurate.

At this point, the real and often unseen "lawyering" begins. Attorneys from both sides meet to begin negotiating, based upon the information obtained during the interview and research processes. This can be the time when the skill and expertise of a lawyer comes to the fore--because the vast majority of legal cases never go to trial. They are either negotiated into a settlement or are dismissed entirely.

When a case does go to trial, a new set of legal skills is involved. Again, the size of the law firm may determine to whom the task is assigned. Trial lawyers require a special set of skills. They must be familiar with courtroom rules and be able to develop an effective strategy for presenting a case. Trial lawyers need to think quickly, speak well, and present themselves with authority.

Legal Career Outlook

Employment for lawyers is expected to continue growing for another decade as laws continue to get more complicated. Despite the growth in jobs, however, competition among lawyers is especially keen. Government reports suggest that the employment trend is shifting towards larger law firms and away from individual practices. Anyone looking to open a private practice would do better to look in smaller towns than in metropolitan areas.

Earnings for lawyers can be substantial, in part because of the high cost of attending law school. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the middle range of lawyer income at between $62,000 and $137,000, but salaries vary according to the employer. Partners in law firms typically earn more than those with a private practice, but solo practitioners enjoy the advantages of being the ultimate boss--choosing how many cases to take and which ones, enjoying a more flexible schedule and workweek, etc.

Planning for a Career in Law

Students should understand the real lifestyle and work habits of lawyers before they make the decision to pursue a career in law. Once they enter law school and are faced with the long hours of study and exhaustive case reviews and analysis, students can become disenchanted with the procedure. However, the rigorous pace of law school helps prepare the student for the lifestyle of a lawyer, which often includes long days and weekends, plus meticulous attention to detail.

In addition, careers in law are highly competitive. Simply earning a law degree will not guarantee a job as a lawyer. Along with good grades in college courses, a law student needs to build an attractive portfolio to show to prospective employers. Law school applicants should consult with advisers to determine what opportunities are available through the school. Among the criteria law schools use to determine a law school applicant's admission eligibility are:

  • high grades
  • Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) results
  • a personal statement about why you want to pursue a career in law
  • in-depth letters of recommendation from people who know your ability to succeed in law school
  • extracurricular activities and work experience that demonstrate leadership qualities

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Preparing for a Degree in Law

Few degrees require more consideration and preparation for the potential student than does the Juris Doctor (J.D.), because most law schools are very selective in accepting students. Acceptance to a law school not only requires a bachelor's degree and a high score on an entrance exam, but also requires the demonstration of a set of skills that will be useful to the successful lawyer.

Although undergraduate majors such as political science, history, economics, communication/journalism, and philosophy are traditionally associated with law school, the truth is that no single major qualifies or disqualifies a student. Students who major in computer science, music, education, business and other majors are equally welcome in law school if they meet rigorous requirements. The most important assets in law school are being able to think critically and speak articulately.

Law school often builds on and refines skills a student already possesses. Students should consider the following set of skills when considering a degree in law. Students who do not feel particularly strong in one or more of these areas should consider using high school, college, and the workplace to develop them.

  • Oral communication
    Lawyers must speak clearly and persuasively. The ability to listen to others is a fundamental asset for lawyers. Students should consider joining a debate team or a local Toastmasters group to develop these abilities. Students should also pay particular attention when making in-class presentations.
  • Written communication
    Lawyers communicate through writing as much as or more than they do orally. They prepare case studies, briefs, letters, summaries, and much, much more. Although an education in law refines these skills, it is helpful when the student enters the program with a healthy understanding of language and an appreciation for the precision of words. Online degree programs have become particularly helpful in this regard, as they force students to clearly communicate in writing on a regular basis.
  • Analytical and problem-solving skills
    The most beneficial courses for college students hoping to attend law school are those that train them to "think like a lawyer." These are classes like philosophy and literary criticism, which teach critical thinking and provide experience in creating and evaluating arguments on both sides of an issue.
  • General research skills
    Many classes can be useful for developing this skill, but the best are courses that require well-documented research papers that necessitate the use of a library's resources. Students should be able to research, analyze, organize, and present the research material in a persuasive manner.
  • Critical reading ability
    Almost any class is useful for improving critical reading abilities, as long as the student carefully and thoroughly reads the material. However, classes that require the reading and understanding of particularly complex materials can be even better, because practicing law requires reading and quickly assimilating large amounts of information.
  • Organizational and management skills
    Lawyers accumulate large and varied amounts of information that must be digested and recalled for later use. Lawyers are often called upon to react quickly; therefore, the ability to organize material for efficient recall is essential. Online business courses can be helpful here.
  • General knowledge
    As with nearly all professions, more knowledge is better. Any number of influences can play a direct role in legal cases. A good working knowledge of topics such as history, economics, psychology, and different cultures can help lawyers be even more effective. A broad perspective in these and other topics can help a student get the maximum benefit from a law degree. 

Preparing for the LSAT

Acceptance into most law schools starts with two important factors: an intelligent, articulate essay and a high score on the LSAT. The LSAT measures skills in reading comprehension, the ability to comprehend complex information, and the ability to analyze the reasoning of others. Therefore, it is vital that you approach the test very seriously and begins preparing for it as early as possible. Various books and courses are available to help you study for the LSAT.

Types of Law Degrees

A law degree is an advanced degree; only students who hold bachelor's degrees are accepted into law school programs. A Juris Doctor (JD) degree--and a passing score on a state bar exam--is required to practice law throughout the United States. Other advanced degrees in law are available but are not required. Those who seek to specialize in a particular area of law may choose to pursue a master's degree. These are the degrees available in law:

The Juris Doctor, or Doctor of Law, is the law degree awarded by accredited law schools after three years of post-graduate law study. A bachelor's degree is required to be eligible for a J.D. program. In some countries the degree is known as the bachelor of laws (LL.B.) degree.

The Master of Laws degree (LL.M.) allows someone to specialize in a particular area of law after having obtained a J.D., but lawyers generally are not required to hold an LL.M degree. A wide range of LL.M. programs are available, but most individual universities offer a limited number of programs. Some of the most common programs are in tax law, environmental law, human rights law, commercial law, and intellectual property law. These programs usually last a year and vary in graduation requirements. Some require students to write a thesis, others are research oriented with little classroom time, and others require students to take a set number of classes.

The doctor of juridical science (J.S.D.) is awarded instead of the LL.D. for research that includes a dissertation, and is seen as equal to a Ph.D. The LL.D. is typically an honorary degree. In Canada and the United Kingdom, the LL.D. is usually awarded for significant and original contributions to the science or study of law.

Joint programs

Because the legal field intersects with virtually every aspect of society, many law schools collaborate with other graduate departments to offer joint degree programs. Students usually must apply for admission to both programs. Each department then accepts transfer credits from the corresponding program to allow students to earn both degrees.

Online Law Degrees

Online law degrees are a recent entrant to this highly traditional and status-oriented field, but they are available. Some programs offer actual JDs, preparing students to take the bar exam in a variety of states; others offer comprehensive legal education to boost a law-related career. Some online universities offer distance learning LL.Ms or related master's degree programs.

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What Can You Do With a College Degree in Law?

The field of law cuts across a broad range of areas that often overlap. Lawyers who work in private practices are most often involved in criminal or civil litigation. Criminal law focuses on individuals charged with crimes, while civil law deals more with wills, mortgages, leases, and other contract matters. Here is a brief breakdown of some common areas of specialty:

  • Criminal law. This is the area of law most people envision when thinking about lawyers, because it is what television and movies most often focus on. People who are accused of crimes need lawyers to represent them, just as lawyers are needed by the government to prosecute them. Lawyers even serve as judges and magistrates in such cases. Defense lawyers generally work in private practice or as public defenders. Public defenders are lawyers paid by the government to defend those who cannot afford a lawyer.
  • Environmental law. Lawyers who have special knowledge of federal and state regulations are needed on both sides of environmental issues. Environmental lawyers can work for organizations that are trying to protect natural resources and for companies who might be charged with abusing natural resources or violating laws that protect them. Both sides also have interests in affecting the laws that govern the use of natural resources.
  • International law. Lawyers in this specialty must have knowledge and skills in areas that involve international relations, trade and commerce, and governments. A lawyer who works in international law must have a thorough understanding of the laws of other countries. Many of these lawyers are employed by multinational companies that have business relations with other countries.
  • Underprivileged legal services. Not all lawyers enter the profession for the comfortable income. Many are interested in protecting those in society who cannot afford legal representation or may be otherwise disadvantaged. Many special-interest organizations have been established to help these citizens in need. Some lawyers may work for a specific organization, while others may be employed full-time and donate their time to worthy causes. Often this work is done pro bono (for free). Many major law firms encourage or require their employees to spend a certain amount of their billable hours doing pro bono work.
  • Patent law. Attorneys who specialize in patent law seek to prevent people from profiting from the ideas and products that have been developed by others. It is a complicated specialty that requires some educational background in the natural sciences, mathematics, or engineering. Large corporations might retain patent lawyers to protect their investments in new products. Constant technological innovations and questions of intellectual property laws are driving this field to expand rapidly.
  • Corporate/labor law. Corporations have a variety of problems that require them to have an attorney or a team of attorneys on staff. These attorneys might specialize in labor negotiations, tax law, investment, or other areas. When a corporation decides to make a major business decision, such as merging with another company, the corporation has its team of lawyers check out all the legal implications before proceeding.
  • Tax law. This is one specialty that often calls for an advanced degree, such as a master's degree in tax law. The growing complexity of tax laws means that a corporation needs more than just accountants handling the financial numbers. Tax lawyers must make certain that the company is operating legally before making a tax decision. Many tax lawyers own private practices that serve a variety of clients.

Certification and Licensure

The practice of law is regulated at the state level. To practice law in a particular state, one must become a member of the bar of that state. Admission to a state's bar is not automatic after passing the bar exam. Most states require that the applicant submit to that state's procedures for verifying character and fitness. An individual might pass the bar exam and still be denied membership due to a past action such as committing a crime. State requirements vary, so students should check with their state bar association for information. For more information on law schools and careers in law, the LSAT, the law school application process, and financial aid information:

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