How to Become a Lawyer is the latest installment of College Transitions’ College-to-Career series. Designed to help career-minded high school students think intelligently about their postsecondary journeys, these blogs will look at the financial, academic, and personal factors one should consider when exploring various professions. This article thoroughly examines the topic of how to become a lawyer. We’ll begin with guidance on how to choose a college major if you are considering law school down the road.

Should I Be a Pre-Law Major?

The American Bar Association does not recommend a Pre-Law course of study for future barristers in college. In fact, they have decreed publicly that there is no “right” major. A look at law school admissions data reveals that History, Economics, Math, Science, and Philosophy majors all have far superior rates of admission into law school than those with a Pre-law or Criminal Justice background. Essentially, if law school is your desired next step, then you have a license to pursue whatever subject you find intellectually stimulating as an undergraduate. The operative phrase there is intellectually stimulating. To be adequately prepared to ace the LSAT and handle the rigor of law school, you’ll want to steer clear of Phys Ed, Advanced Crocheting, or Bowling Industry Management.

Make Sure You Actually Want to Be a Lawyer

To picture the day-to-day experience of most attorneys, start by imagining your favorite oozingly earnest Sam Watterson closing statement from Law & Order…Okay, ready? Now subtract all of the glamour, drama, and high-minded ideals. Substitute in 90-hour workweeks, endless mountains of paperwork, and a cutthroat and highly stressful work environment.

Okay, maybe that was a bit harsh but if you examine surveys of those presently in the field, a less-than-rosy picture of the job emerges. Less than half of those practicing law today say that they would still choose to attend law school if they could do it all over again. Equally bleak is the fact that depression, substance abuse, and even suicide are more prevalent in the legal field than in any other profession. We’re not saying there aren’t lawyers who have wonderful and fulfilling careers. However, you’ll want to do your research to make sure there is an area in the field that genuinely excites you.

Gain Experience in the Field

Jumping straight from your college graduation into law school might make you feel like the star of your five-year high school reunion (“Man, that guy/gal has got direction!”), but it could cost you the chance to do your due diligence. We recommend spending some time working in a legal setting before cutting that first hefty law school tuition check. Whether it’s in the summer or after graduation, there is no better method of career counseling than actually seeing the real deal up-close.

Does Going to a Prestigious Undergraduate School Help?

Getting into a reputable law school, where job opportunities are plentiful, is first and foremost a numbers game. In general, so-called tier-one law schools are looking for students with outstanding GPAs and LSAT scores. These are, after all, the primary metrics used by U.S. News to rank the top law programs. The prestige of one’s undergraduate institution is less of a factor, but still appears to play an important role.

Using LinkedIn data, we were able to identify the undergraduate backgrounds of a large sample of all students enrolled in law schools that are ranked among the top 14 by U.S. News. Although degree holders from elite colleges are not as pervasive as they are at the nation’s top medical schools, their numbers still far exceed their representation among four-year college graduates. Of students currently enrolled at a top-14 law school and for whom we were able to collect education data, the greatest (per capita) number of students hailed from the Ivies, Duke, the University of Chicago, Pomona, Stanford, Amherst, and a number of other schools with single-digit acceptance rates. Harvard, Cornell, Yale, and UC Berkeley sent the highest number of graduates to elite law schools. All are included among our other “top feeders.”

Although our analysis suggests that undergraduate prestige does matter, it also indicated that graduating from an uber-selective college was not the only way to earn entry into a top law program. According to our estimates, close to 30% of all elite law school attendees graduate from college accepting more than half of all applicants. In addition, there were a number of reputable yet slightly less competitive schools that sent a significant share of graduates to the nation’s best law schools.

This list includes:

  • American University
  • Fordham University
  • Furman University
  • George Washington University
  • Olaf College
  • University of Florida
  • University of Georgia
  • University of Maryland, College Park
  • University of Pittsburgh
  • Yeshiva University

In fact, given the overriding importance of GPA and LSAT score, it is safe to assume that there can be potential advantages associated with attending a slightly less selective institution, particularly if you are able to earn a higher GPA than you would at a more exclusive school.  For example, a student with a 3.7 from George Washington University may present as more competitive than a 3.4 student from nearby Georgetown.

Ultimately, if you are an aspiring lawyer and in the midst of choosing an undergraduate institution, perhaps it’s best to keep in mind what Michigan’s top-ranked law school wrote about the role of college prestige, which likely summarizes the stance adopted by other prestigious law programs:

“While the strength of an undergraduate institution is certainly a factor we consider in the admissions process, our commitment to maintaining the excellence of our student body does not limit the wide range of educational institutions from which our students hail. There most assuredly is no accredited school whose graduates we would be simply unwilling to admit.”

Plan the Financial End

Two key things to remember here:

  1. Law school is extremely expensive.
  2. Not every lawyer makes a ton of money.

Just about everyone that successfully works their way through medical school will go on to a lucrative career. This is simply not true of law school, where, quite frankly, there will be winners and losers. Your performance relative to the rest of your class matters, and those at the bottom 50th percentile of their class rarely, if ever, waltz into six-figure jobs. Those with a passion for less lucrative sectors of the profession such as family law, civil rights, or public interest also need to be particularly thoughtful in this area.

The average law school graduate comes out over $108k in debt. There is, of course, good debt and bad debt. Overpaying for a high-end undergraduate education and then paying big bucks for a lower-end law school is likely to leave you with bad debt. If you have a choice between attending an elite college for undergrad or an elite law school (and not both), go with the elite law school every time.

What Kind of Law School Should I Aim for?

Unlike our approach to undergraduate admissions, we do not place as large of an emphasis on “fit” when it comes to law schools. Of course fit matters to the extent that, for example, candidates interested in a career in government may find better prospects at a D.C.-area law school. Yet it is important to acknowledge the reality that law school and the legal field itself are hypercompetitive. In this arena, prestige is of paramount importance.

If you’re going to go to law school, aim for a top-shelf institution. Tier 3 and 4 law school graduates too often face a chilly job market and are saddled with burdensome debts. If, after looking over your law school prospects, you conclude, like Groucho Marx, that you wouldn’t join any club that would have you as a member, it may be time to explore other professions.

How to Become a Lawyer -Related Careers

College-bound students with interests in law, policy and/or justice should understand that “lawyer” is not their only career option. In reality, there are dozens of potentially fulfilling and financially rewarding occupations for which having a legal background is desired, if not required.

Visit the College Transitions Dataverse for a list of the best colleges at which study common pre-law majors.