Law school is a commitment of several years for students who already completed their undergraduate program, and there’s no easing into coursework.
In a traditional full-time law school program, students graduate with a juris doctor, or J.D., in three years. In the third year, students often have one foot out the door, are ready to graduate and typically have a job set, says Justin Hansford, a law professor at Howard University’s School of Law and executive director of the school’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center.
“You really only have one year, the second year, to choose your core identity in terms of what it is you’re going to be taking, finding and demonstrating what your passions are,” he says, “so I encourage students to really try to take courses that they have deep passion in and that they think will really be meaningful for them the second year.”
Core Courses in First Year
“Most law schools have a number of mandatory courses that you have to take during your first year,” Hansford says. “So even though it seems like it’s a three-year program, you only really have two years to plan out what courses you want to take.”
Those required first-year classes are fairly consistent across all law schools and set the foundation for a lawyer’s future, says John Pierre, chancellor at Southern University Law Center.
Some of the core classes are torts, contracts, procedures, legal writing, criminal law, legal research and constitutional law.
“Those are what I call the bread and butter of your first-year curriculum,” Pierre says, adding that every law school might require a different number of credits for each of those foundational areas. For example, students at Southern typically take two semesters of torts and two semesters of contracts their first year.
Law schools usually have some sort of study abroad option, typically in the summer, notes Antony Page, dean of Florida International University’s College of Law.
Learning Critical Thinking
Law school, especially the foundational courses, are designed to teach students how to think like a lawyer, experts say. That means thinking critically and objectively, being able to assess an issue from more than one perspective.
“Lawyers are able to apply their skill set to many different fields,” Hansford says. “A good attorney will know how to argue in court and about anybody. They could argue about somebody’s criminal case, they could argue about somebody’s small business loan, they could argue about somebody’s traffic ticket.”
How to argue in court is a particular skill set that makes being a lawyer a versatile profession, he says.
He contrasts law with the field of medicine, noting that doctors specialize and are somewhat pigeonholed into one area.
“You may know how to be a doctor, but of course we don’t want a dentist to perform on your broken leg,” he says. “In law, it’s a little bit more of an opportunity for people to learn how to bone up on a certain area and have the ability to be flexible.”
Part-Time Law School
FIU’s part-time law program takes eight semesters, or about four years, which is consistent with most part-time law school programs in the U.S.
“Part-time students will often have some kind of employment already,” Page says. “Our part-time program runs in the evening, and there’s some people who work during the day and take classes at night. Occasionally, you have people that have other kinds of commitments, like family commitments – for example, child care.”
About a third of Southern’s law students are part time, he says.
“Many times you’ll find more part-time students in urban areas because you have a lot more working professionals, so there’s a need to accommodate those working professionals,” he says. “Especially in cities where you have a large contingency of government employees, which is a big feeder of part-time programs.”
Mothers, people taking care of elderly family, people looking to transition into law as a second career and business owners are the top categories of folks who enroll in part-time law programs, Page observes.
Preparing for Law School
A U.S. law school can easily cost more than $150,000, so it’s important to plan how to pay for it, experts say.
“We don’t want people taking on too much debt because that’s going to create another stress point,” Pierre says. “So you definitely have to make sure you understand how you’re going to finance your law school experience.”
Part of that financial assessment is realizing it might not be necessary for your long-term law goals to attend a top law school, since those tend to be much more expensive, he says.
“From an academic standpoint, students need to understand just how rigorous law school is,” he says. “It’s very challenging and it’s going to require some changes and sacrifices in what you do in order to get through the process.”
A lot of the academic rigor is rooted in reading, Page says.
“Be prepared to do a lot of reading and work hard,” Page says. “Don’t worry about having fixed plans or a fixed area of interest, because most students who have those change their minds at some point during law school.”
Succeeding in Law School
Page points out that the American Bar Association requires students at ABA-approved law schools to complete all their required coursework and earn their degree within 84 months, or seven years.
“The language is unless you can demonstrate extraordinary circumstances or exceptional circumstances, then you will not get your degree if it takes more than 84 months,” he says.
Pierre recommends that students understand workforce needs when picking a specific type of law to practice. For example, he’s noticed more students choosing to practice in cybersecurity-related law positions in recent years.
Many students feel pressured in law school to just follow the herd, Hansford says, and there’s a false belief that everybody hopes to go into corporate law or a big firm to make a lot of money.
“If you’re really interested in juvenile justice and helping defend kids, or really interested in immigration, or if you’re really interested in health care, pursue that,” he says. “I really encourage students to focus on finding their passion, whether it’s through clubs and classes, to get the most meaningful experience.”
A common law school experience is mock trials. For example, Stanford University Law School in California has an intensive law and trial program where students step into the roles of prosecution and defense legal teams to try a case in the courtroom.
In mock trials, students simulate a courtroom experience by preparing and taking their case to court, which includes grappling with ethical issues, crafting oral arguments, questioning witnesses and more. Schools often compete against one another, with actual judges giving participants feedback on how to improve their courtroom performance.
Another aspect of law school is how professors use the Socratic Method to develop students’ ability to use critical thinking skills to analyze cases. This teaching style involves giving an initial opinion or definition, asking questions and cross-examining it with counter arguments, then refining it based on the discussion.
Law schools also typically help students get internships to gain experience in a professional setting, like working for a district attorney’s office or as a court clerk.
Following passion rather than money will likely make a person happier long term, and money will usually follow, Hansford says.
“You can be an individual lawyer who gets one big case, you know, a lawyer gets about 33% of settlement, which is an average attorney’s fees for a case,” he says. “Let’s say you just come out of law school, and you open up a shop and you find someone with a police brutality case and they have a settlement for $3 million. Well, that means you’re now a millionaire. So you didn’t have to spend 10 years of your life working to represent insurance companies that you aren’t passionate about.”
It’s crucial for students to take ownership of their law career and think creatively about how they can advance it rather than following the pack, Hansford says.
“It’s incredibly intellectually rewarding to study law,” Page says. “What you learn in law school is useful, and useful not just to practice as a lawyer, but for many, many occupations, and just in many aspects of life.”