How to Become a Lawyer (And Why You Might Want to, or Not)

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Everything you need to know about going to law school.

As a lawyer in Chicago, IL, I am often asked by people interested in the legal process what you have to do to get into law school. The next question that is often asked is whether they should go.

This article is going to answer many frequently asked questions about how to get into law school, and what grades and test scores are required. We’ll also discuss what it’s like to pursue a legal career and land a job as an attorney, and whether it is a good idea to become a lawyer. The answer to some of these questions depends on you and your particular circumstances. However, some answers are cut and dry.

Admission Requirements for Accredited Law Schools in the United States

Admission requirements vary significantly from school to school. Top tier law schools only admit elite students. But let’s be honest, not every lawyer was an elite student who graduated first in their class.

Moreover, top scores and GPAs are not necessarily a guarantee of success in the legal profession. But keep in mind, it is how law schools filter their applicants. You have to sharpen your applications to meet the criteria law schools frequently use to measure applicants.

The application process may differ slightly from school to school, however, there are several core requirements for admission to an ABA accredited law school in the United States.

How to Quality for Law School

Here is what you will need to do to qualify for law school:

  1. Complete a Bachelor’s Degree
  2. Complete the LSAT exam
  3. Obtain several letters of recommendation
  4. Prepare a personal statement
  5. Apply to a law school and pay the fees

How Easy or Hard is it to Qualify for Law School?

This process sounds easy enough, but it takes time, perseverance and resolve to pursue further education beyond a Bachelor’s degree. The process can feel like a marathon, designed to test your endurance. Sometimes the application process seems like a filter constructed to weed out candidates who are not serious about becoming lawyers.

You have to first complete your undergraduate studies with a respectable GPA. Then study and take the LSAT exam. Hopefully, your LSAT score is above average. Then complete your personal statement and secure several letters of recommendation. Finally, you need to complete the necessary applications, pay the fees, and provide all the needed materials.

Law schools will review your GPA, LSAT scores, letter of recommendations, work history, personal background, goals, undergraduate field of study, and take into account the college or university you attended.

What GPA is Required to Attend Law School?

There is not a “required” GPA, but as you can imagine, the higher your GPA, the better. You do not need straight A’s, but having an above average GPA will help your chances of getting accepted to the school of your choice to continue your education.

Your GPA is one of several factors that law schools evaluate during the admissions process. Schools also look at work experience, LSAT scores, undergraduate studies, what school you earned your undergraduate degree at, personal statements, recommendations and more.

If your LSAT scores are lower than you would like, having a high GPA may help offset a lower than desired test score. The highest ranked law schools report an average GPA of 3.93 for newly admitted students. Whereas, lower tier law schools have an average GPA as low as 2.53.

As you can imagine, admission to law schools is very competitive. Admission requirements vary school to school, but you will likely need at least a 3.4 GPA for the top 50 nationally ranked law schools. Again, there is not a “required” GPA, but having at least a 3.0 GPA will increase your odds of admission.

What LSAT Scores are Required to Get a Law Degree?

Accredited law schools require applicants to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). The test is graded on a scale of 120-180.

The LSAT has five parts:

  • two parts covering logical reasoning,
  • one part covering analytical reasoning,
  • one part covering reading comprehension and
  • a writing portion.

If you are taking the LSAT, you should consider practicing using available sample tests, online courses, or additional resources to study. Don’t assume you can show up and score well without preparation. Even if you are one of those fortunate people that can always ace tests, why would you risk it? Moreover, if you are a good test taker, imagine how much higher you could score with just a little study time.

If you are disappointed in your score, you can retake the exam. Admission requirements vary from school to school. It is important to remember that admission to law school is not based on just one factor.

Having a high LSAT score does improve your likelihood of admission. However, your LSAT score is just one factor that will be evaluated. Other factors include your undergraduate degree, the university you attended, GPA, work experience, and more.

National Average LSAT Scores

The average LSAT score is about 150. If your score is below the national average it will be more difficult to get accepted to study law. A score of 160 will open the door to a number of highly ranked law schools.

The top 50 law schools have an average LSAT score ranging from 173 to 160. These are averages reported by the school. That means the school did admit students with lower scores. If your score is lower that you would like, you may consider retaking the exam.

How Much Does It Cost to Go to Law School?

Going to Law School Infographic

In recent years, the value of a law degree has been called into question. Especially when comparing the rising cost of tuition versus the average starting salaries for lawyers just out of school. This is one of the key points which may help you make up your mind about whether or not you really want to become a lawyer.

The American Bar Association found that average cost of law school tuition in 2019 was about $44,600. That means the average student will spend over $130,000 for tuition over three years. This does not include living expenses.

The cost of law school also depends on a number of variables including the cost of housing, whether the school offers scholarships, and whether the school is public or private. The difference between a public and private school is dramatic, especially if you qualify for in-state tuition

Average Yearly Cost of US Law Schools

  • Average cost for public law school for an in-state resident: $28,186
  • Average cost for public law school for a nonresident: $41,628
  • Average cost at a private law school: $49,312

As expensive as this may seem, the top tier elite schools come with an even higher price tag. Attending a top law school has its advantages, but on average it will cost you more.

Top US Law Schools Tuition

Here’s a sample of how much tuition will run at some of America’s top schools for the 2020-21 academic year:

Law school Tuition costs (2020-21 academic year)

  • Columbia Law School $72,352
  • University of Chicago Law School $68,652
  • New York University School of Law $68,348
  • Harvard Law School $65,875
  • Yale Law School $65,792
  • Stanford Law School $64,350
  • University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School $63,610

What is the Average Lawyer Salary After Graduation?

Lawyers, like other professionals, tend to make more as they gain job experience and lawyer salaries in the United States reflect this. Most lawyers will begin their career at a firm, working under the direction of a more experienced attorney.

Lawyers who work as prosecutors, public defenders, or for other governmental agencies often do the same. As a lawyer gains more experience and demonstrates expertise in a specific area of law, their salary tends to rise commensurate with that expertise.

Other things that will impact your salary after you graduate that should be kept in mind during your job search include:

  • Where you went to school
  • What city or state you plan to work in
  • If you were in the top half or bottom half of your graduating class
  • The type of law you are practicing
  • If you want a job at a big firm or small firm
  • If you work for a private firm or public organization

In 2019, the median annual wage for lawyers was about $123,000. The best-paid 25 percent with the highest salary made an average $186,350 that year, while the lowest-paid 25 percent made an average salary of $80,950.

The lowest 10 percent earned an average salary of about $57,000 per year. Realistically, young lawyers just out of school and starting their career should expect earnings on the low end of the lawyer salary spectrum. It’s no different for lawyers than for other young professionals in their first job out of school.

Another factor to consider when figuring out what you might expect as a lawyer salary is your geography and sector of law. It matters where you are practicing law and in what sector you are working. Lawyers who work on criminal cases will have a different salary than lawyers who practice real estate law, for example.

Larger cities like Chicago, IL, tend to have higher starting salaries and bigger law firms tend to have a higher starting average salary for recent graduates. Similar jobs in different locals can have completely different salaries.

Best Paying Jobs for Lawyers

Lawyers have the potential to make a good living after graduation and passing the bar. As you consider whether or not you want a career as an attorney, you will also want to consider the legal services job market where you’d like to live and work. There are number of factors that influence lawyer salaries.

Where You Went to Law School

Admission to the top 25 law schools is highly competitive because a degree from one of these schools generally translates into a higher starting salary after graduation. Especially if you are recruited for a job at a large law firm that has a national or international footprint.

What City or State You Plan to Work In

Where you live and work certainly influences how much you can expect to earn when you practice law. Bigger cities have a bigger legal job market and tend to have higher paying positions. Here are the states with the highest salaries for attorneys looking to find jobs:

  1. District of Columbia — $192,530
  2. California — $171,550
  3. New York — $167,110
  4. Massachusetts — $165,610
  5. Connecticut — $153,640

The Type of Law You Are Practicing

As lawyers gain experience, they tend to develop an area of concentration or specialization. Here is a list of practice areas where a lawyer earns the most.

  • Patent attorney: $180,000
  • Intellectual property (IP) lawyer: $162,000
  • Trial lawyer: $134,000
  • Tax attorney: $122,000
  • Corporate lawyer: $115,000
  • Employment lawyer: $87,000
  • Real Estate attorney: $86,000
  • Divorce lawyer: $84,000
  • Immigration attorney: $84,000
  • Estate attorney: $83,000
  • Public Defender: $63,000

The Size of the Law Firm You Work For

Bigger firms, or “Biglaw,” generally equals bigger starting salaries. These firms have the resources to hire top legal talent and to employ large numbers of employees. Bigger firms are often competing for graduates from top law schools who have graduated at, or near the top of their class. Because of this, they are employers with lawyer salaries at the top end of the pay scale.

Some bigger firms start new lawyers at salaries in excess of $200,000 per year. The tradeoff for this kind of income is probably quality of life. Young lawyers in their first year and beyond are expected to earn their generous lawyer salaries by working long hours. And lawyers work long hours.

Top Locations for a Legal Career

It probably comes as no surprise that the biggest legal markets are centered in major cities throughout the country, like the location of The Kryder Law Group, in Chicago, IL. Not only do these cities serve as the home for many national law firms, these cities are home to hundred of medium and small sized firms. Therefore, there are more legal job listings available.

Larger legal markets provide a broader range of practice areas for a new lawyer to choose from and a broader list of firms within the legal community. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, here is a list of the top legal markets in the United States based on the number of jobs available and where you may consider staring your career after completing your education.

  • New York
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Chicago, IL
  • Los Angeles
  • Boston
  • San Francisco
  • Atlanta
  • Philadelphia
  • Houston
  • Dallas

The type of law you want to ultimately practice may influence where you end up when you start your career as a lawyer, so keep this in mind when setting up your job alerts. Practicing Maritime law in landlocked Dallas, Texas may not be practical. However, doing legal work for the oil and gas industry probably fits. San Francisco and Los Angeles may have more jobs where you can practice law for tech companies and Washington, DC, may have more jobs related to lobbying.

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