Consumer Pamphlet: So You Want to be a Lawyer
Note: This pamphlet is available online only.
What Is Law?
The Lawyer’s Role
Choosing A Career
Areas Of Law
Lawyer’s Job Description
Law Schools And Costs
Bar Admission Through The Florida Board Of Bar Examiners
The Florida Bar
Other Law-Related Careers
Today, more than ever before, the legal profession offers a unique opportunity for the dedicated individual to make a significant contribution to society. Opportunities exist in the legal profession for service that helps individuals and society. This pamphlet is intended to help those of you who are considering law as your career. It should give you a better idea of what to expect on your educational path and the career opportunities open to you once you obtain your law degree.
Assigning one universally accepted definition of law is impossible. Even experts’ interpretations and implications of the law are virtually infinite. However, the main functions of modern law include: maintaining peace; influencing and enforcing standards of conduct; maintaining the status quo; facilitating orderly change; providing for maximum individual self-assertion; promoting justice; and providing solutions to conflicts and problems.
The lawyer’s responsibility in our American society is twofold: serving as an officer of the court and serving as a public servant. The lawyer’s function is to provide legal assistance in resolving conflicts and ensuring access to justice.
As an officer of the court, the lawyer is charged with working within the framework of and upholding the American law, which is based on the United States Constitution and written laws.
As a public servant, the lawyer is a counselor who advises clients and who represents their positions in order to help them enforce their rights in accordance with the American law.
Before choosing a career, you should evaluate your personal goals, strengths and abilities, and your areas of interest in the legal arena. A career in law requires intelligence, diligence and perseverance. It is no small task to earn a law degree, to pass the Bar exam and to be admitted to the Bar, allowing you to practice law.
To complete law school requires dedication and stamina. You must be driven to work as many hours a week as are needed to complete your law school studies, typically a three-year degree program beyond your undergraduate studies. Later, as a lawyer, you may have to work nights and weekends on cases and function under extreme pressure and stringent deadlines with the professional grace and courtesy required of members of the Bar.
As for personal goals, while it is true that a law career may provide opportunities to earn a substantial income, often the legal profession is geared toward providing a service. Whether it be to the general public, as in government positions, or in the private sector, a lawyer’s duty is to serve. While your individual career path may lead to a position of authority and influence, it is important to recognize and embrace a focus on practicing with professionalism and uplifting the reputation of the profession. Lawyers are in a unique position to help see that laws are upheld, that personal rights are protected and that our system of justice continues to equally serve and protect the citizens of this country. It is important to approach your legal career with reasonable expectations and identifiable goals as to what you want your legal career to be.
More than half of all lawyers go into private practice, setting up a solo office or joining a law firm of two or more partners. Private practitioners usually handle a variety of cases, although they often earn a reputation for concentrating in a particular area. This reputation leads to client referrals. For example, a lawyer might gain a reputation as a divorce lawyer, handling enough cases in this area that they make up most or all of the practice.
Many lawyers are employed by departments and agencies of federal, state and municipal governments. Many work for private businesses, large corporations or industrial firms. Some lawyers become judges, politicians, mediators or teachers. Others apply their legal education in areas such as banking, insurance and real estate, where legal knowledge may be a part of the job activities.
Because the profession of law is so diverse and complicated, law school provides a general legal background, after which there are many options as to the specific area of law or career to be pursued.
The lawyer’s role most familiar to the public is that of a trial lawyer. Trials sometimes receive news coverage because they involve people in dramatic and crisis situations. However, many people who practice law seldom appear in the courtroom. Many lawyers never present before a jury or a presiding judge. A trial is costly and time-consuming, and it often benefits both parties to settle out of court.
Activities of those in the legal profession vary according to the individual lawyer’s personality and area of practice. A lawyer may spend one day in conference listening to a client’s problem. The next day may be spent in the library or at a computer doing research to find prevailing laws and current case law specific to the issue. A lawyer may spend the morning in the court and the afternoon visiting the scene of a client’s accident. But almost every lawyer spends hours researching and writing legal pleadings, reports or documents.
It is of utmost importance that you take the high-school courses required for admission to the college you wish to attend. See your school counselor to make sure you are maximizing your high-school education potential. Courses that develop your ability to read and write more precisely are important.
No law school requires a formal pre-law course of study for admission. While no specific courses are required, a strong liberal arts background is beneficial. Specific useful subjects include English, political science, economics, philosophy, logic, business management, a foreign language and other courses that enhance your reading, reasoning, writing and communication abilities. Language is the tool of the lawyer, whether it is in oral arguments in court or in letters, legal briefs and drafting pleadings. Therefore, any course that develops this skill is valuable.
LAW SCHOOL ADMISSIONS TEST (LSAT)
The Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) administers the LSAT. The LSAT is an integral part of the law school admission process in the United States, Canada and a growing number of other countries. The LSAT is designed to measure skills that are considered essential for success in law school by measuring acquired reading and verbal reasoning skills for law schools to use as one of several factors in assessing applicants.
The test consists of five 35-minute sections of multiple-choice questions. Four of the five sections contribute to the test taker’s score. These sections include one Reading Comprehension section, one Analytical Reasoning section, and two Logical Reasoning sections. A 35-minute, unscored writing sample is administered at the end of the test. Copies of your writing sample are sent to all law schools to which you apply.
Your LSAT score is based on the number of questions answered correctly (the raw score). There is no deduction for incorrect answers, nor are individual questions on the various test sections weighted differently. Raw scores are converted to an LSAT scale that ranges from 120 to 180, with 120 being the lowest possible score and 180 the highest possible score.
There is no “passing score” for the LSAT. However, many law school admissions committees prefer a minimum LSAT score for an applicant to be considered for admission. The June 2015 Report of the ABA Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education found that law schools allocate more scholarships and grants for students with exceptional LSAT scores than for demonstrated financial need. Therefore, an impressive LSAT score may determine which law school you are admitted to, and how much you pay for your law school education.
In addition to the LSAT test, many law schools also review your undergraduate school grade-point average, and most also strongly consider an applicant’s community, employment and extracurricular involvement in determining your acceptance and eligibility for a scholarship.
Law school costs vary greatly, from the modest tuition of state-supported schools to the much higher tuition of the private law schools. The average yearly tuition for 2013 was $23,879 for public schools and $41,985 for private schools, according to the American Bar Association (ABA). Most students finance their law school education through scholarships and government-backed student loans. The ABA found that the average student debt in 2014 was in excess of $127,000 for private school students and in excess of $88,000 for public school students. Many public and private law schools offer merit and need-based scholarships and grants as tuition discounts. On top of tuition costs, you must add the cost of books, room and board.
Many law schools and other legal organizations provide merit and need-based scholarships for students and also sponsor student loan programs. Although law schools typically prohibit students from being employed during their first year, many students also help finance their legal education by part-time employment. You should obtain information as to specific programs from the law school you wish to attend. Women made up 47 percent of all law students in 2012-2013. Minorities made up 28 percent of all law students for the 2012-2013 school year.
The first year of law school (designated as a “1L”) is often considered the most difficult year; it also may be the most significant. A law student’s first-year grades typically determine whether the law student will secure a summer position in a law firm or an agency as a law clerk after the first year. Typically, if a law student makes a favorable impression during the initial summer clerkship, the student will be invited back the following summer and may be offered a position at the same law firm or agency as an attorney following law school.
There are 204 American Bar Association-accredited law schools in the United States, 12 of them in Florida. Florida’s law schools are: Ave Maria School of Law, Naples; Barry University, Orlando; Florida A&M University College of Law, Orlando, Florida Coastal School of Law, Jacksonville; Florida International University College of Law, Miami; Florida State University College of Law, Tallahassee; Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad law Center, Fort Lauderdale; Stetson University College of Law, St. Petersburg; St. Thomas University School of Law, Miami; Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Riverview; University of Florida Levin College of Law, Gainesville; and University of Miami School of Law, Coral Gables.
Law school graduates receive a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree. Because law school fosters an environment of creative thinking and problem solving, some law school graduates are offered employment in positions that do not require additional credentials. In Florida, in order to represent clients, a law school graduate must also pass the Florida Bar Examination, and the Florida Board of Bar Examiners’ character and fitness investigation.
The Florida Board of Bar Examiners is an administrative agency of the Supreme Court of Florida. The Board consists of 12 members of The Florida Bar and three nonlawyer members of the general public. The Florida Board of Bar Examiners is responsible for making recommendations to the Supreme Court of Florida regarding whether each applicant seeking admission to The Florida Bar should be admitted. The Board must ensure that each applicant meets the requirements with regard to character and fitness, education and technical competence before recommending an applicant for admission.
In making a determination as to your character and fitness to be an attorney, the Board conducts a thorough background investigation regarding your honesty, fairness and respect for the rights of others and for the laws of this country. This investigation includes an analysis of each applicant’s ability to comply with deadlines and court rules; communicate candidly and civilly with clients, attorneys, courts and others; conduct financial dealings in a responsible, honest and trustworthy manner; and avoid acts that are illegal, dishonest, fraudulent or deceitful. The primary purposes of the character and fitness investigation are to protect the public and safeguard the judicial system. Since this review process is very thorough, students are encouraged to begin this process while in law school. In addition, The Florida Bar also requires law students to pass a Professional Ethics exam, which is administered several times a year. This exam can be taken by a student while still in law school. Understanding the ethical rules of The Florida Bar is also important in helping to know what limits and barriers may be placed on a lawyer’s practice in a specific area of law.
The Board also administers the Florida Bar Examination, administered twice a year, in February and July. All law school graduates must pass this examination to obtain a license to practice law in Florida and be a member of The Florida Bar. Once you pass the Bar examination and meet the character and fitness requirements established by the Supreme Court of Florida, you will be recommended to the Supreme Court for admission to the practice of law in this state. The Florida Bar exam is typically a two-day event that includes a full day devoted to Florida-specific law on multiple areas (i.e. family law, torts, criminal law, constitutional law, property, etc.). The Florida part of the test includes the writing of essays and answering multiple-choice questions. The next exam day covers many of the same subjects but relates to the multi-state, or national laws, and is mostly tested by multiple-choice questions. Unlike other professions such as management, accounting or engineering, one cannot practice law without having met all of the requirements of The Florida Bar. Accordingly, law students need to begin preparations for the Bar exam while in law school. This can involve taking Florida-specific law subjects or taking special research courses focusing on areas of Florida law. In addition, most graduating law school students take a Bar exam preparation course immediately after they complete their law school education and right before the exam. This course could take up to eight weeks to complete and covers all areas of Florida and multi-state laws. With Bar exam pass rates averaging about 70 percent, pre-exam preparation for the exam is imperative to ensure passing the exam.
Finally, developing data show a correlation between how well a student does in law school (GPA) and the chances of passing the Florida Bar Exam.
Induction ceremonies for new lawyers are held twice annually, usually in May and October.
The Board recommends that you file a student registration application in the first year of law school. By registering with the Board as a law student, you will pay a lower fee, and you will obtain a preliminary decision from the Board as to your character and fitness. Certified legal internships (CLIs) are available to law school students. In order to participate in these internships, you must obtain a preliminary decision regarding your character and fitness from the Florida Board of Bar Examiners. This is an important reason to file a student registration in the first year of law school.
In addition to the character and fitness investigation and the Bar examination, applicants seeking admission to The Florida Bar are required to receive a degree from an American Bar Association-accredited law school (or, if the degree is from a nonaccredited law school, the applicant must have 10 years of practice in another state before being considered for admission).
For information on admission or to file an application for admission to The Florida Bar, visit the Board’s website at www.floridabarexam.org.
The Florida Bar is the third-largest unified Bar, meaning that all lawyers who practice in the state must be members of the Bar. There were about 106,000 members of The Florida Bar, as of the beginning of 2018.
As a member of the Bar, each lawyer is expected to devote some time to the improvement of the profession. Lawyers participate in the work of the Bar and uphold the established ethical standards and discipline procedures. The Bar helps protect the public from harm that could result in unqualified people practicing law.
Bar members also are encouraged to support the public interest by providing free or low-cost services (“pro bono”) to individuals or charitable organizations in need and by working with and financially supporting organizations that provide legal services to those in need. The Bar’s aspirational goal is for each attorney to provide 20 hours of free legal service per year, or to donate $350 to a legal aid organization.
According to The Florida Bar’s 2014 Economics and Law Office Management Survey, the median salary for a starting attorney with no internship or clerking experience is $50,000. Salaries for starting attorneys with no prior clerking experience vary among the three regions of Florida. In the North Region, which includes Jacksonville, Tallahassee and Pensacola, the median salary for a beginning attorney is $40,000. The Central-Southwest Region, which includes the Orlando and Tampa areas, has a median salary of $50,000 for a beginning attorney. In the Southeast Region, which includes Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, the median salary for a beginning attorney is $55,000.
As with all compensation, there is a strong correlation between years of experience and salary. The median salary in Florida is $70,000 for an attorney with three to five years of experience, $80,000 for six to eight years of experience and $150,000 as a partner in a firm. Larger firms generally offer greater initial salaries and more employee benefits than smaller firms. Salary amounts vary according to years of experience, age, type of practice and firm size.
As the practice of law is becoming increasingly competitive, students should attempt to improve their chances of attaining the legal career they desire, whether in a law firm or by starting their own law firm, commonly referred to as “hanging up a shingle.” Law students can adequately prepare by determining the area of law they may want to pursue after they become an attorney and by doing all they can to be able to provide almost immediate contribution to their practice. Law firms are moving to hiring lawyers who can immediately add value without extensive (and costly) training. Law students can improve their hiring chances by focusing on an area or areas of law that interest them and then taking as many law school courses on these subject areas as possible as well as doing internship and summer employment in those specific areas.
A Florida Registered Paralegal is a person who has met the requirements as set forth in Chapter 20 of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar. While Florida Registered Paralegals are not members of The Florida Bar and may not provide legal advice or practice law, they are an integral part of legal practice. Paralegals often are in a unique position of being in communication with clients, attorneys, judicial assistants, court reporters, mediators and many other players in the legal arena. People skills are a must, and a strong educational background and interest in and affinity for the law can put a paralegal in a position to earn a very comfortable salary without attending law school.
The average starting salary for a paralegal in Florida is $30,000, according to the 2014 Economics and Law Office Management Survey; however, educated and experienced Florida Registered Paralegals can earn salaries in the private sector commensurate with some public sector attorney salaries.
For those who have an interest in the law but aren’t necessarily looking for a career as a lawyer or legal assistant, there are several other types of professional positions available in law firms. Job titles for such careers include director of administration, administrative manager, controller, office manager, personnel director, support services supervisor, accountant, bookkeeper, librarian, law school recruiting specialist, legal assistant coordinator, mediator and data processing supervisor.
Another interesting and important law-related profession is court reporting. Court reporters create word-for-word transcripts of trials, hearings, depositions and other legal proceedings. Without a transcript of proceedings, decisions cannot be challenged or reviewed on appeal. In 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median annual wage for court reporters was $48,160. An interest in the law and attention to detail are highly sought for this profession.
As you pursue your course of study in law, remember that the road is a long and rough one. Money is always a consideration, but it should not be your primary goal. A lawyer’s job is to provide a much-needed service in the community. The legal profession is exciting and challenging, as it deals with the vital areas of our lives.
As one judge put it, “Although more and more people are coming into the profession, we always have room for more good lawyers.” Being a lawyer is far from easy, but for the right people it can be one of the most rewarding professional experiences.
The material in this pamphlet represents general information. Because the law is continually changing, some provisions in this pamphlet may be out of date. It is always best to consult an attorney about your legal rights and responsibilities regarding your particular case.
This pamphlet is produced as a public service for consumers by The Florida Bar.
[Updated August 2016]