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How to Become a Lawyer: The Ultimate Guide

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Are you thinking about becoming an attorney? If the answer is yes, good for you! Practicing the law and helping individuals understand how the law works can help them in difficult situations and be very rewarding.

At Murphy & Prachthauser, we have been practicing Milwaukee personal injury attorneys for more than 30 years and we have enjoyed being a part of the communities we serve, helping individuals understand the law and their legal rights. 

So what does it take to be a lawyer?

We've pulled together lawyer requirements to get you started on your path in the legal profession, including:

  • Understanding undergrad degree options
  • LSAT information and preparation tips
  • How to choose the best law school for you
  • Top attorney fields and trends in the legal industry
  • Top regional law schools you should consider
  • Understanding the Bar Exam and how to prepare for it
  • Personal legal stories from real attorneys

Ready to begin? Dive into the details below and best of luck as you pursuit an education and career in the law.

Attorney vs. Lawyer: What is The Difference?

The terms attorney and lawyer mean the same thing, don’t they? While the terms are used interchangeably today, in the past, there was a clear distinction.

  • A lawyer was considered someone who was educated and trained in law, but may not have been practicing. 
  • While historically an attorney was legally qualified (by passing the bar exam in their jurisdiction or state) to do more than just give legal advice, they were able to prosecute and defend actions in court on behalf of clients. 

In addition, some people believe that 'Lawyer' denotes a profession, while 'Attorney' denotes the relationship of a lawyer to a client.  Either way, once you successfully graduate from law school and pass the bar exam, you can decide which title best suits your legal practice and future career. 

The Four Steps To Becoming A Lawyer

Becoming an attorney is a challenging yet rewarding process. Here are the four steps that our team of personal injury attorneys in Wisconsin had to complete in order to be able to help you and members of the community.

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Step One: Completing An Undergraduate Degree

If you want to be an attorney, you first need to complete an undergraduate degree from  a regionally or nationally accredited college or university. The accreditation agency of the school you choose must be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.You don’t have to have a degree in a specific subject - a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS) in any major subject will make you eligible for admission to an ABA-approved law school.

Understanding Undergraduate Degree Options

If you are interested in becoming an attorney, the first think you need to consider is choosing the right undergraduate degree to give you the analytical tools and logical skills to prepare you for the profession. While there is no data to support choosing one degree-type over another, consider these top choices.

Here are some recommended undergrad options:

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Classics: 
A recent research study cited that students who majored in classics scored highest on the LSAT exams. A classics major focuses on the study of classical antiquity. The major studies Greek and Roman history including languages, archaeology, philosophy and literature.

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History:
A degree is history will give you the base knowledge of how the legal system developed globally and provide you with a general understand of the application of law over time. The direct effect law has had on society and government can help you understand how the legal system is founded.

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English:
It is essential that young students interested in the law develop excellent writing, comprehension and verbal communication skills. Critical thinking skills are very important. A degree in English can help young students learn to complete research, put together a persuasive argument and present and defend that argument clearly.

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Philosophy:
A degree in philosophy provides students with a framework to analyze a variety of viewpoints and think critically about evidence and theory.  Understanding complex theories and breaking down arguments can help prepare students for the legal profession.

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Political Science:
Political science is one of the most popular pre-law degree options. Most programs provide students with a great understanding of judicial system and how the law is applied in the United States. This major also demands that students think critically, form arguments and attain excellent presentation and public speaking skills — an important part of being a litigator. 

become-lawyer-icon-business-02.jpgBusiness Administration / Economics: Understanding how to interpret data and break down complicated economic issues can help prepare pre-law students for a successful legal career. Understanding things like contracts, corporate structure and negotiation standards can help students formulate effective solutions, think critically and present arguments.


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Step Two: Taking the LSAT

Every ABA-approved law school requires students to pass the LSAT, or Law School Admission Test, which is offered four times each year, all over the United States.

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The LSAT is made up of five 35-minute timed  sections of multiple-choice questions. These sections include:

  • One Reading Comprehension section.
  • One Analytical Reasoning section.
  • Two Logical Reasoning sections.
  • Four of the five sections contribute to your score, and the fifth section is unscored. This unscored, or variable section, is used to test new questions or forms for the LSAT.

You will also need to complete a 35-minute, unscored writing sample at the end of the test. Even though it is unscored, it’s important - copies of this writing sample are given to all law schools you apply to.

Are you an aspiring law student, or just want to get an idea of what the LSAT test is actually like? Here are two top LSAT study resources:

  • The LSAC offers free official LSAT prep materials, including sample questions, a complete sample test, and valuable test prep videos.
  • Powerscore offers LSAT self-study plans that are conveniently based on the time you have remaining before you take the test, from 1 month to 12 month versions.

MP_3.pngStep Three: Selecting a Top Law School

After taking the LSAT, you need to choose and apply to law school. In law school you will earn a graduate degree known as a JD, or Juris Doctor. This degree is required to practice law, and typically takes three years of full-time attendance to complete. In your first year, you will take general law courses on topics like contracts, criminal law, and legal writing. In the last two years, law students usually pick and focus a specialty, such as corporate, sports, criminal, or labor law.

Where you choose to go to law school will be influenced by many factors, including cost, location, and the type of law that you hope to practice.

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According to the U.S. News Report, here are the 2017 best law schools in the United States:

Here are five of the best law schools in the upper Midwest:

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Gavel-book.jpgTop Associations to Join to Prepare for Your Legal Future

Phi Alpha Delta.The largest legal fraternity in the world, offering pre-law chapters, as well as law school and alumni chapters.

American Mock Trial Association. This organization holds competitions through the year that more than 350 universities participate in to develop critical thinking and trial skills

Debate Team. Form arguments, think critically and familiarize yourself with what it is like to be a litigator.

Student Government. Get a leg-up on leadership and develop valuable public speaking, negotiating and problem solving skills.

 

MP_4.pngStep Four: Taking The Bar Exam

Now that you have completed your JD degree, you must pass the Bar Exam in order to practice law in your state.You can take the exam while you are still in school, but you must receive your JD degree within 60 days of taking the bar examination. This exam requires an application, and the test takes 2 days to complete.

What is the bar exam actually like? The Wisconsin bar exam has recently consisted of eight essay questions, one 90-minute Multistate Performance Test (MPT) question, and the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), a 200-question, multiple-choice exam.

The content of the Wisconsin Bar Exam may be designed to incorporate more than one subject area, and can include:

  • Business Organizations (Corporations, Partnerships, Associations and Sole Proprietorships)
  • Civil Procedure (Pleading and Practice, and Jurisdiction of Courts)
  • Commercial Law (includes Sales, Secured Transactions, and Negotiable Instruments)
  • Constitutional Law (Federal)
  • Contracts
  • Criminal Law and Procedure
  • Evidence
  • Family Law (Domestic Relations)
  • Professional Responsibility
  • Property
  • Taxation (Federal)
  • Torts
  • Trusts and Estates

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  Average number of people who pass the bar exam each year 55,200
  Total number of licensed lawyers / attorneys nationwide 1,268,011
  Average price fee for taking the Bar Exam $300
  Average pass rate of the Bar Exam 76.5 %
  National average Bar Exam score 138.0
  Median Lawyer / Attorney salary nationwide $113,530
  Average lowest paid attorney salary $54,310

Source: Board of Law Examiners, American Bar Association

Wisconsin Bar Exam - Additional Information

As each state offers their own bar exam (Wisconsin has not adopted the Uniform Bar Exam), going to law school in the state that you wish to practice in can be helpful for passing the bar exam. Law schools want their students to pass the bar exam ( they are graded in part on this pass rate), so it is in their best interest to prepare you well for the test.

The State of Wisconsin offers two opportunities to take the bar exam in 2017:
  1. February 23rd and 24th
  2. July 26th and 27th
If you want to study for the Wisconsin bar exam, or just see what it is really like, check out these top resources:

'Diploma Privilege' in Wisconsin

Attend a Wisconsin Law School and Skip the Bar Exam

If you graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School or Marquette Law School you may seek admission to the State Bar of Wisconsin without having to sit for a bar examination. Simply put, you are admitted without taking the test, based on your successful graduation. They call this the 'Diploma Privilege.' While many other states offered this incentive to attend school and work in a given state, Wisconsin is currently the only state that offers a broad diploma privilege for admission to the state bar.

Marquette University:
A Unique Approach for Graduating High School Seniors Who Wish to Pursue A Legal Career

For high school students who know they are interested in attending law school in the future, Marquette University offers an amazing opportunity. While the University does not offer a pre-law major, they do offer a Pre-Law Scholars program to 25 students in each undergraduate class.

The Pre-Law Scholars program is specifically designed to help students earn an undergraduate
degree and a law degree at Marquette University in six years instead of seven years.


Through a separate application process, high school seniors with the following qualifications are eligible to apply for this opportunity:

  1. Admitted into Marquette University College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business Administration, or College of Communication
  2. ACT Score of 28
  3. Top 10% of the high school class

The 25 students chosen receive conditional admission to Marquette Law School after their junior year of undergraduate studies. During the first semester of the freshman year, the Pre-Law Scholars take a 1 credit course called “Lawyers in American Society,” which in the past has been taught by esteemed Marquette Law School Professor Dan Blinka. By the time the student completes his or her junior year, all required courses toward a major must be completed and no more than 29 credits must be remaining to complete the major.

Pre-Law Scholars are awarded their undergraduate degree after completing their first year of law school. Further, the student must maintain a 3.300 GPA or the median GPA score of the preceding year’s law school entering class during the course of the undergraduate studies to be admitted. Moreover, students must earn a 155 on the LSAT or the median score from the preceding year’s law school entering class to be admitted. Lastly, the Pre-Law Scholars must also complete the general law school application and maintain the requisite care and fitness standards at the Law School.

Students who complete the Pre-Law Scholars Program are not required to attend Marquette Law School after three years. Students may elect to complete their fourth year of undergraduate study before going to law school and can receive the same conditional acceptance.

Michelle Hockers at Murphy & Prachthauser took advantage of this program. She applied to be a Pre-Law Scholar program as a senior in high school, completed the requisite work toward her undergraduate degree of Spanish Language and Literature in the first three years of undergraduate studies. She completed her first year of law school before earning her undergraduate degree in the summer of 2013. Michelle then finished law school in May of 2015 graduating Magna Cum Laude and finished 12th in her class.

Top Attorney Fields to Consider

The top attorney fields constantly change, but there are a few legal professions that are consistently hiring, looking for bright, young minds to help in the courtroom, in the corporate world and in the community. 

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Litigation
- Litigation attorneys often referred to as“litigators” or “trial lawyers,” represent plaintiffs and defendants in civil and business cases. Litigators are responsible for all phases of the legal process, from initial investigation, pleadings, discovery, mediation, pre-trial, trial and settlement.


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Commercial Law - Commercial law, often termed business law pertains to the rights, regulations, relations, and conduct of individuals and businesses engaged in sales, commerce, merchandising and trade. Commercial law encompasses both public and private law and sectors.  

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Personal Injury Law - Personal injury law is an important branch of civil law that relates to negligence and wrongful conduct. This branch of law deals with torts and in many instances, everyday people who are seeking legal assistance to help cover expenses, like missed wages and medical bills, after an accident or injury.

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Health Care Law
- Health care law is a growing area of the legal profession. It focuses on the legislative, executive and judicial rules and regulations that govern the health care industry. This area of law increased following the passing of the Affordable Care Act and with the aging population and growing health care organizations nationwide.

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Intellectual Property
- Intellectual property law focuses on the rules to secure and enforce legal rights to inventions, designs and artistic works.

 

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Real Estate Law - Real estate law is a branch of civil law that governs the right to use and possess land and the permanent buildings and attachments associated with land. This branch of law deals with homeowners, renters, home buyers and home sellers. 

 

Looking for more information on becoming an attorney? Take a look at our other helpful resources that can help you understand the application of law in everyday life.

Advice and Tips from Real Attorneys

Take a look at some expert advice and information from top attorneys.

What advice do you have for college freshman considering the law?

A career in the law is a wonderful opportunity to help others and make a difference in your local community. But I always say, only pursuit this field if it is really something you want to do for the rest of your life. Really consider if the job scope, schedule and challenges are things you'd like to be involved in on a daily basis and don't base your decision on whether your parent or grandparent were lawyers. Becoming a lawyer is a major investment of time and money.  If you love the law and are interested in the pursuit of justice then becoming a lawyer may just be the right option for you. 

What advice do you have for law students about their studies? Looking back, what advice would you give your student-self?

It is very important to get an internship or summer job in one of the fields that you are interested in. I have worked with about 80 interns over the past 34 years, and I think that they learn more about law in this particular field than they will learn in their entire three-year law school stint. Law school does not necessarily teach you how to practice the law, it teaches you how to learn to do so. You need to work in the business in a reputable firm to develop proper skills. I know that some law firms hire law students to just summarize medical records, a task that would otherwise go to a higher paid paralegal. Avoid those jobs. Work somewhere that they will expose you to a wide variety of tasks in your given area.

What was the best advice you received in law school to prepare you for a career in the law?

I remember as a first year law student working for a criminal defense lawyer doing public defender work. It was told that it would be very important to try to get a job or internship because it could offer you both experience and networking opportunities for a future career. It was in this role as a first year student where I was first introduced to a member of the law firm Gillick, Murphy, Gillick & Wicht, the predecessor to Murphy & Prachthauser. The friend encouraged me to apply at the Gillick firm, and I did and was hired for the summer. This was a pivotal piece of advice and a also a pivotal point in my law school stint.

 

What is your favorite thing about being an attorney?

I take a lot of new phone calls from people looking for help. A lot of the time, they do not need an attorney, they just don’t understand the process and need a bit of an explanation on what is going on and I try to explain that to them. It is clear to me that they just need a little bit of an explanation, and if I can provide that over the phone in a 20 minute call, I am going to do that. It doesn’t take a lot on my end, and it makes a huge difference in their life. I have been told on many occasions that a person has called other firms and they could not make it past the initial caller, that they never got to talk to an attorney. I don’t think that is right. I’m going to take those calls and help out if I can.

Questions? Our team of attorneys would be happy to to talk to you about your future career as an attorney. Our personal injury law firm believes in giving back to the community, whether it is hiring young students to assist in the office or taking on summer interns. Reach out today and see how you can learn, first-hand, what it's like to be a Milwaukee attorney.