It was once suggested that immigrants were told the streets in America were paved in gold and were surprised to find not only unpaved roads but difficult walks ahead. A person should not seek to become a member of the legal profession to gain fame and fortune. The law provides a rewarding career to those who engage in its practice with the right motives and with a sound understanding of what to expect and how to prepare for the career.   To assist undergraduate students considering a legal career, before they engage in three years of law school, the South Carolina Bar has prepared a series of FAQs. Referenced in the FAQs are data from a 2009 report, South Carolina Lawyers: The State of the Profession (“Report”). The Report was generated from surveys taken of South Carolina lawyers licensed to practice for 15 years or less. A copy of the report may be found here.
   
How can one determine whether a legal career should be considered?

Any career will be satisfying if one has a passion for that field. A person should explore what a lawyer does by contacting lawyers in his or her community and getting a perspective on what those lawyers do and what they find rewarding. The portrayals of lawyers in movies, television shows and books are far from the realities in law practice settings. There is a wide variety of career paths that law school graduates may take, and it is important for a person considering law school to look at and keep in mind all of these options.

Which undergraduate courses and activities are useful?

There is no suggested course of study for pre-law students. Indeed, the variety of backgrounds of those who undertake legal careers is a blessing to the profession. Because of the multifaceted nature of legal education, there is no particular course that will fully prepare a person for law school, but there are courses that may be helpful. Courses which involve logic or analysis and develop oral and written communication skills will be beneficial. Lawyers need to cultivate interpersonal skills to be able to work with clients, opposing parties and the trier of fact. Lawyers need to be objective, to see both sides of an issue. They must be both succinct and persuasive in presentations. Technology is having an impact on the way law is being practiced, and computer skills will be required. A person should develop sound study habits and time management skills as lawyers must be well prepared. Also, someone considering going to law school should choose an undergraduate major with career alternatives should his or her law career plans change.

What is law school like?

Law school is rigorous. In class, professors often use the Socratic Method in which the professor asks a question and calls on a student at random to respond. The professor and the student subsequently engage in dialogue about a legal issue for which there may or may not be an answer to explore the multiple perspectives of a legal problem. Many students find the Socratic Method stressful, challenging and a vast change from their experiences in undergraduate classes. Law students may spend more than 20 hours per week reading and preparing for class. Extracurriculars such as moot court or a law journal hone particular skills that a student may want to develop and enhance his or her resume; however, extracurriculars sometimes end up requiring a time commitment of 10 or more hours per week in addition to class preparation and other obligations the student has taken on.

Grading in most classes is based entirely on a single exam given at the end of the semester. Exam grades are based on a curve, which means that a student's grade is based on the quality of his or her exam compared to the exams of classmates. Keep in mind that those who are drawn to law school often have been the smartest in their classes. Because of the curved grading system, most law students will no longer rank within the top of their class. Law school attracts the brightest students, and intelligence alone is not enough to get ahead in law school – it requires hard work and dedication.

What are the requirements to practice law in South Carolina?

A person must have received a J.D. or LL.B. degree from a law school which was approved by the Council of Legal Education of the American Bar Association at the time the degree was conferred. During law school or after graduation, a person must receive a scaled score of at least 77 on the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination and fulfill the Rule 403 Trial Experiences requirements. A law school graduate must complete and pass the South Carolina Bar Examination, be found qualified by a panel of the Committee on Character and Fitness, and complete the Bridge the Gap Program sponsored by the South Carolina Bar. For the last four bar examinations, passage rates were 76.36% for July 2010, 67.36% for February 2010, 76.28% for July 2009, and 62.39% for February 2009. Information about South Carolina Bar admissions can be found at www.sccourts.org/bar.

What do new lawyers find satisfying in the practice of law?

The top five reasons identified in the Report were compensation, intellectual stimulation, flexibility, coworkers and client appreciation. Note that although lawyers were satisfied with compensation, over 50% of those surveyed reported earning less than $75,000 per year in pre-tax earnings, so an expectation of high earnings perhaps created by reading about large firms in major cities should be tempered with the likelihood of much smaller sums.

What do new lawyers find dissatisfying in the practice of law?

The top five reasons identified in the Report were stress levels, billable hours (which can mean having to work evenings and weekends to create an expected revenue total for the law firm), money, lack of respect from all and feeling in over your head. An additional dissatisfying aspect for some lawyers in private practice is the need to run a small business while getting new clients and attending to their legal needs. Some lawyers also find the contentious nature of the law unattractive.

Do lawyers work many hours each day?

Different types of legal practice require different time commitments. In any case, a legal career can keep one away from family and friends for long periods because lawyers must ensure a matter is thoroughly and timely prepared. That effort may require significant evening and weekend work. Some lawyers trade off lower compensation for less time commitment. The Report indicated a willingness of new lawyers to do so, but their present practice environments did not appear to support that option. However, more lawyers today are using flexible hours to spend evenings with their families and work at night and on weekends through virtual offices.

Should law school debt be a concern?

Yes. A large contingency of students who attend law school believe earning a J.D. will solve their financial issues. In reality, because of large debts associated with graduate school and unrealistic salary expectations, law school can create more financial problems than solutions. One should consider the cost of tuition, books, and living for three years without any significant income. Law school websites usually provide an estimate of the overall cost of attendance per year. A person should consult with the law school admissions office about what scholarships are available. Additionally, student loans are available through both private lenders and the government. Loans obtained through the government often have better interest rates. A person considering a career in government work or public interest should note that substantial debt may make these careers impractical. However, after graduation, there are loan forgiveness options for those employed by the government or in public service for a certain amount of time. There are also income-based repayment plans and income-contingent repayment plans which may reduce a person's monthly loan payments in proportion with their salary. One should become acquainted with these repayment plans as well as the College Cost and Reduction Act and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Even with those options, debt from law school is still a considerable burden and takes years to pay off. The Report contains several graphs about debt, including the length of time needed to retire it.

Will there be a job available at the end of law school?

Job hunting has become more competitive as additional law schools have opened in the Carolinas and throughout the U.S. Approximately 500 - 570 lawyers are newly licensed in South Carolina each year. At the same time, there is an expectation that many lawyers of the Baby Boomer generation will begin to retire. Law school placement offices should provide rates of placement for the past several years, the types of those employments, and the activities undertaken on behalf of students. Keep in mind, however, that a lot of employment career statistics may be misleading. Career services offices only have the information that is provided to them by students. Students without jobs may be less likely to report unemployment to their schools. Also, career placement statistics from earlier years may not adequately convey the effect of the recession on the current job search climate. Law students should keep in mind the broad array of possible jobs for law school graduates outside traditional private practice and explore these options to maximize their ability to find a job after law school.

What salary can a recent law school graduate expect to make?

The potential for a high entry-level salary should not be a determining factor in attending law school. The average starting salary reported to law schools by their graduates tends to be distorted by a small percentage of students who earn high salaries, obscuring the larger number of students who earn less than $60,000. The Report contains several graphs about income. Also, of those reporting to the NALP in 2009, most graduates were employed in firms of 2-10 people, with the median salary at around $50,000. For all jobs reported taken in the South Atlantic region (including DE, FL, GA, MD, NC, SC, VA, and WV) the median was $62,500. The Class of 2009 National Summary Report is available here. The high cost of a legal education and realistic salary expectations mean that a law degree may not "pay off" in the traditional sense. The value of a law degree should be measured by the enjoyment one gets from the legal profession.

What are the types of legal practices?

There are a variety of career paths a law school graduate may choose to pursue. A lawyer may choose to go into private practice, government employment, public interest law, academics, judicial clerkships, or military service, join a corporate staff, or use his or her law degree in another field. The type of work done in all of these settings is varied, depending on both the size of the organization and the type of work the organization does.

What are issues common to all types of practice?

Lawyers need to be current in the law, so continuing legal education and peer networks are important. They are held to a strict set of rules of professional conduct, violation of which can result in a variety of sanctions, including suspension, or disbarment and the end of their legal careers. Lawyers are expected to be involved in their communities and provide access to the justice system for those who cannot pay for legal services through pro bono work. Lawyers are officers of the court and as such are stewards of the justice system. An issue particularly relevant to new lawyers is the transition from law school to practice. A legal education teaches the rules and issues in law, but may not adequately prepare new lawyers for practice. Finding a mentor and training in law practice is important for new lawyers to develop knowledge of practice management, writing and research, law firm economics, professionalism, and other skills that are not easily taught in a classroom.

Why is the law school decision so important?

Over 30% of the lawyers responding to the survey summarized in the Report indicated they would not have gone to law school if they had the opportunity to make that decision again. They may have found careers which did not require the loss of earnings over three years and the financial investments required of law school. One third of the responders opined they were less likely to be practicing law in five years. They may have found the demands of a legal career incompatible with the life style they are seeking, or they may change their minds about these responses as they get further into their careers.

Advancing Justice, Professionalism and Understanding of the Law