So, after Meghan Markle married Prince Harry, you started binge-watching Suits. And now you’ve got more than a passing interest in becoming an attorney. But what is it going to take to become a lawyer? And what exactly does an attorney do in the real, non-Suits world?
The role of a lawyer is to uphold the law while also protecting the rights of their client. At some point in your journey to become an attorney, you’ll decide which area of the law you want to specialize in. You could become a trial attorney, a public defender, or work as in-house counsel, just to name a few.
Here’s what you need to know about being an attorney
There’s a lot to know. Let’s get into it, shall we?
There are so many different areas of law—from personal injury to criminal law to family law—that an attorney can specialize in. Your duties will vary widely depending on your area. But let’s discuss some of the most basic, universal duties.
One of your main tasks will be to liaise with and advise your clients throughout the course of a case. In the early stages of a case, you’ll ask questions and get an outline of what you’re dealing with. Your role is then to advise the client on likely outcomes and pursue the appropriate path to that outcome.
As you deal with each case, you might need to gather evidence that will help you pursue your desired outcome. You’ll evaluate your findings along the way and develop strategies accordingly. Some attorneys will adjust their strategy or pursue a different outcome as new evidence becomes available.
If a case goes to court, your role might require you to select jurors ahead of the trial. You’ll meet with judges, question witnesses, and argue the case during the trial.
In all areas of the law, you have a responsibility to protect the rights of your client, but your ultimate responsibility is to seek justice and uphold the law.
Iona Sjahadi, an associate lawyer at HBA Legal in Australia, says there are a few key personality traits that will help you excel as an attorney.
The first is resilience and the ability to handle criticism. “Being a lawyer is no walk in the park,” says Sjahadi, especially in the early stages of your career. You’ll be working long hours under the supervision of lawyers who are “busy people with high expectations.” You’ll need to be able to accept constructive criticism and learn from it very quickly.
It’s also important you develop good communication and social skills. You need to be able to communicate succinctly with “clients, colleagues, opponents, and judges,” notes Sjahadi.
Both Sjahadi and Katie Richards, a lawyer and the founder of Australia’s Virtual Legal, agree that you need to be resilient. You’ll keep long hours and the job “can be quite thankless,” says Richards.
“A good lawyer needs to schedule in downtime so [as not to] suffer mental burnout,” says Sjahadi.
In the US, most attorneys specialize in a particular field of law. Here are some of the types of lawyers, most of which are self-explanatory.
Depending on your area of interest, you may also find that there are certain other lines drawn.
For example, if you work in personal injury, you may work as a plaintiff attorney or defense attorney. Generally, you won’t do both. In a personal injury case, the plaintiff attorney would work for the injured party and a defense attorney might work for the insurance company.
Another line that can be drawn is that between outside counsel and in-house counsel. Outside counsel works at a law firm and takes on various clients. An in-house counsel would work in the legal department of an organization and represent that organization (and only that organization) in legal matters.
To become an attorney, you’ll need to start by earning a bachelor’s degree from an accredited four-year university. The next step is to sit for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT).
If you pass the LSAT, you’ll be eligible to apply to law school, where you’ll study to obtain the juris doctorate degree (J.D.). You can expect to spend a minimum of three years in law school.
Once you graduate from law school, you’ll have to sit for the bar exam in your state. If you pass the bar, you’ll be eligible for employment as an attorney.
If it isn’t obvious, becoming an attorney is a long and hard process. It will require a true passion for the law and plenty of determination.
While PayScale reports the average salary for a lawyer is $82K per year, you’ll find that your compensation package will vary widely depending on your experience and the company you’re working for. For example, a corporate lawyer’s average salary is reported as $103K per year, while the average salary of a lawyer at a non-profit is around $59K per year.