Whether your dream is to fight the good fight in a court of law as a criminal defense attorney or you are leaning more toward protecting people’s civil rights as a civil rights attorney, you will have to take the same steps to become an attorney. The legal profession has a long rich history that beckons thousands of people a year to join its membership.
The steps to become an attorney are competitive. Everyone that is on the path to becoming an attorney has to take the same steps to become an attorney and compete with other people that have the same dream. Learning more about the rich history of this profession and the tips for making yourself a stand out candidate can help you to beat out the competition.
Attorney Vs Lawyer Vs Esquire
The terms lawyer, attorney, and esquire are often used interchangeably in the US. In other countries, an attorney can be referred to as a barrister, counselor, and other monikers. The fact is a rose by any other name is still a rose, and this is true of attorneys. Technically in the United States “attorney” is short for “attorney at law” which means a lawyer (anyone who graduated from law school) has passed the BAR examination and can practice law.
Ultimately there is no real difference between an attorney and a lawyer in the US. It really just depends on how the lawyer self identifies, and what you call them. Esquire is an old English term that some attorneys use to indicate that they are lawyers.
It all sounds rather confusing. Think of it this way. If you live in the Northeast you call a sub sandwich a “hero” unless you live in Pennsylvania where the same sandwich is called a “grinder”. Soda in Ohio is called “pop”. You get the idea; different people call things by different names, but it does not change the item itself. The same applies when it comes to those people that have gone through law school received their JD. Sometimes they are referred to as lawyers, some times they are referred to as attorneys, and sometimes they self identify as barristers (no one calls an attorney a barrister except an attorney).
What Do Attorneys Do?
Attorneys practice law. They can specialize in a wide range of law. For example, a bankruptcy law firm will be chock-full of attorneys that focus on consumer law and commercial bankruptcy law. They help people reboot their finances by using the federal bankruptcy laws.
Bankruptcy lawyers do not prosecute people but they do defend their clients often against creditors. They work in federal courts, which is where all bankruptcy cases are heard. Sometimes they are referred to as Chapter 13 bankruptcy attorneys (named after the Chapter 13 section of the bankruptcy law).They have a specialized skill set that other attorneys do not have because they have focused heavily on learning the ins and outs of the extensive and complex bankruptcy laws.
There are attorneys that specialize in a wide range of areas of the law. For example, a custody lawyer will specialize in custody cases and family law cases. This type of attorney is the attorney that you see when you are going through a divorce or you have another family court matter.
In all, there are about 25 different law specialties. Each of the specialty sections of the law requires the same initial steps to become an attorney, then a focus on the specialty. For example, you have your eye on becoming a personal injury law attorney. You will have to take the same steps to become an attorney that a bankruptcy attorney took, but after law school, you will get the rest of your specialty training on the job.
Becoming an attorney is not easy. There is a lot to learn, and a lot of pressure along the way, however in 2012 according to the Department of Labor, there were over 1 million attorneys in the United States. Those numbers tell you that it can be done.
History of the Attorney
Since ancient Roman times there have been attorneys around to defend their clients, help determine policy, and ensure that the laws are upheld. There is evidence that in both Greece and Rome there were people that would represent other people before a court.
While it was “illegal” for these early attorneys to take payment from their clients, the law was largely ignored and defendants often did pay the representatives. Early attorneys during this era were called “orators” or “canonists”. They would speak out, sometimes delivering long-winded manifestos, defend their clients against accusations of theft, adultery, immoral character, and more.
During the middle ages, attorneys were barely used, but that did not put an end to the profession. By 1231 the profession was back in the upswing stage, and French law dictated that there had to be a sworn oath to practice law. Oddly enough, in England around the same period, bail bond agent service got its start.
Over the years the steps to become an attorney has changed but since 1231 the steps to become an attorney have ended with taking an oath to uphold the law. Attorneys have played pivotal roles throughout history in shaping democracy, community laws, politics, and other parts of society.
Today, attorneys are charged with helping people navigate the laws. For example, an injury attorney has a special understanding of the injuries laws that are in place to help protect people after they have been injured through negligence. Attorneys are still very much involved with upholding the law, whether they are prosecutors for the state or they are defenders of the accused.
Your Very First Steps to Become an Attorney
If all that you read so far has you more excited than ever about taking the steps to become an attorney, then you will need to take the first steps to become an attorney. In every state, except for four states, require that you get your JD (Juris Doctorate) from an accredited law school.
In California, Virginia, Washington, and Vermont, you can skip out on law school, but you have to be in an apprenticeship program at a law firm, and you still have to take and pass the BAR in that state. It may sound like a dreamy opportunity to skip some of the steps to become an attorney and pass over law school, but it may leave you ill-equipped to pass the BAR.
In every other state you must attend law school. Before you can get to law school you will need to study for and receive a bachelor’s degree. Many people that are interested in becoming wrongful death lawyers or even just a general practice lawyer are under the impression that your bachelor’s degree should be in Criminal Science or another “pre-law” subject. The fact is your undergraduate degree could be in any subject.
An undergraduate criminal law degree does not guarantee admittance in a law school. Read that again to ensure that you understand. Here are some other degree fields that can actually help your application stand out from the rest:
- An undergraduate degree in a social science. Consider sociology or psychology for your undergraduate work. Understanding the human condition can help you to be a better attorney, at least from the purview of the law schools.
- An undergraduate degree in English. Attorneys write a lot. An undergraduate degree in English can promote the idea that your legal briefs are going to be exceptional.
- An undergraduate degree in political science, accounting, and business can all get the attention of the admittance team.
Ultimately when you are considering your undergraduate studies your goal should not be only to take the first steps to become an attorney, they should be to educate yourself in a field that you are interested in. Why? What if you do not get into law school? You still want to be able to make use of your degree.
One of the best ways to ensure that your application is not put to the side is to keep your grades up. The field your undergraduate degree is in matters a lot less than the grades you received. Keep your grades up.
The Competition is Stiff
You will be competing with people not only from the United States but with students from around the world that want to attend law school in the United States. To get into law school you have to take a test. The LSAT (Law School Admission Test) is a rigorous test that every student that wants to go to law school has to take.
Your LSAT scores and your undergraduate degree grades will weigh heavily on your application. You will also have to write an essay as to why you are a good candidate for law school. To give yourself an advantage, you should heavily research at least three law schools you would like to attend to learn what they look for.
Prerequisites may also be required. Each law school has a different set of rules for admittance. Typically those rules include:
- Reference letters. Law schools want to know a little about your study habits and character. You may have to provide reference letters from two or more of your undergraduate professors.
- Character references may be required as well. Letters from former teachers may not be the only thing you have to provide. You may need to provide community-based letters from people that you have worked with or come in contact with through volunteering.
- A criminal background check and a credit check. You may have to provide a criminal background check and a credit check. Having a conviction does not necessarily exclude you from law school, nor does having bad credit, you will usually have to explain the situation surrounding either.
It can be a daunting process applying to law school but in the end, it will be worth it. It is important that you follow all the criteria that are put forth by the application process information. Read the instructions for applying, then reread them. Make special note of deadlines. If you do not have your application material together in time, unfortunately, you will have to wait another year to apply.
Law school usually has a short window for applications. It is important that you apply early. Classes for law school always start in the fall. That means just about a year before you should have all your ducks in a row and be ready to submit your application.
One of the steps to become an attorney may include a law school interview. Not every school does in-person interviews but some do. This may require that you travel out of state, if you applied to an out of state school, be sure that you earmark money and put it on the side to be able to travel if you must.
When students are thinking about becoming an attorney they do not consider that they may not get into their local law school. You may have to relocate to an out of state law school if that is where you are accepted.
The Early Bird Catches the Worm
The key steps to become an attorney are all reliant on you not procrastinating. It can be hard to get everything done that you need to get done for your law school application your senior year of college, but if you do not move with purpose and stay on top of things you may not make the cut.
The steps to become an attorney are full of hustle and bustle which actually prepares you for the stress and strife of being an attorney. Whether you become a corporate attorney that spends their days fighting to have storage tank inspections required for big oil companies or you are a community-based attorney that is fighting to help people keep their apartments, it is going to be a fast-paced career. The steps to become an attorney are also fast-paced, as is law school. Keep up!
Good luck on making your dream of becoming an attorney a reality.