by Tammy Pettinato, Adjunct Professor of Law, La Verne Law;
J.D., Harvard Law School
Anyone who enjoys a good debate with their friends and family has probably heard it at least once: “You should be a lawyer.”
Popular perception of the legal profession is that lawyers are good on their feet, argumentative, and willing to fight for almost anything if it helps their client.
While there is certainly some measure of truth to that perception for some lawyers, the reality is that there is no one “type” of person who would make a good lawyer. Rather, depending on the type of law you practice, a variety of skills and talents can assist you in enjoying a successful law career. The key is to understand both yourself and the legal profession before you invest the time and money in a legal education.
Assessing Your Skills
No matter what kind of law you decide to practice, there are a few skills that you will definitely need.
Virtually every lawyer spends a significant portion of time on legal writing and research. While you will be taught these skills in law school, you should consider how much you enjoy the act of digging into a problem and writing up your results before you take the plunge.
Lawyers must also be extremely detail-oriented without losing sight of the big picture. You must be able to see both where your client’s case fits into the law as a whole and how seemingly minor facts distinguish your case from others. As a corollary to that, lawyers need to be logical and inventive thinkers who are able to see holes in reasoning and develop arguments to fill the gaps.
And contrary to popular belief, lawyers should be able to get along well with others.
Whether you work in an area that is relatively non-adversarial such as drafting trusts and estates or you represent a client who is up against another person or the government, keen negotiation skills and a professional reputation for fairness will take you far in dealing with both clients and colleagues.
While the above skills and abilities are essential no matter what type of law you practice, others can also be helpful depending on what you decide to do with your law degree.
Public speaking skills, for example, are necessary if you choose an area such as criminal law that is likely to take you to trial on a regular basis. Some areas of practice that are particularly emotionally-charged, such as family law, require an ability to empathize.
Other areas may require special skill sets that you will likely have to develop before law school. For example, knowledge of a foreign language may be necessary when working with international clients and a science background is required for many Patent Law positions.
Is a Legal Career Right for You?
So how can you figure out if a legal career is right for you?
The first step is to assess the profession. This article has given you a small snippet of information on what it is like to be a lawyer, but you should collect much more before making this important decision.
- What practice areas are available to you and what specific skill sets do they require?
- Do you know any lawyers or law students who can tell you about what they do and can your college’s alumni or career center connect you with more?
- What can you find out about the state of the legal profession by reading newspapers, magazines, and web-sites?
Even more importantly, you must assess yourself. Think honestly about the skills, talents, and personality traits you already bring to the table and those you are willing to learn:
- Are you shy or outgoing? Practical or a dreamer?
- Are you a good writer or does the thought of sitting down to a blank computer screen make you want to crawl under your desk?
Also, think about your interests: What courses have you liked and disliked in college? What are your hobbies? What kind of books do you like to read?
Your values and principles are also important. Are you most concerned with a high standard of living, quality of life, helping others, or a combination of these? Do you have political, religious, or other beliefs that could affect the type of law or the setting in which you would like to practice?
Finally, do not forget to think about your long-term goals and obligations. Do you have or are you planning to start a family? Is there a particular geographic location in which you would like to settle? How long do you see yourself practicing law, and if you are thinking of another career down the line, will your law degree be an asset? How much time are you willing to dedicate to your career?
Going to law school may be one of the most important decisions you ever make. The more informed you are about both yourself and the profession, the more likely you are to feel confident and secure about your choice.