The first thing we do is, let’s kill all the lawyers.

(Shakespearean line from Henry VI, Part II)

While lawyers are reviled in some circles, they are tolerated as a necessary evil by those same people who happen to live in litigious societies. Lawyers can help people in some of their worst times of need. Often, at least in the United States, where I practice, one letter from an attorney can solve a multitude of citizens’ problems.

Even training to think like a lawyer is useful today. Law students learn how to dissect problems and anticipate consequences. Good attorneys can bring clarity to their clients on complicated issues and enable those clients to make good decisions for themselves, both personally and from a business standpoint.

I chose law as a career because my mother, who immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in the 1960s, wanted me to become a doctor or a lawyer. I fainted the first time I saw blood, so she let go of the dream of having a daughter who was a physician.

My career choice has served me well. Lawyers are generally well paid, and they solve people’s important and challenging problems. A law degree bestows a certain amount of credibility as well, even if one does not practice law. I am able to garner more speaking engagements, for example, when I present myself as a lawyer, regardless of what the topic is on which I am speaking.

One important consideration in deciding whether to go to law school is the debt one might incur in pursuit of a law degree. Government and other programs, even within law schools, sometimes forgive law school debt if one pursues a career in public interest law. Sometimes employers will pay for their employees to obtain advanced degrees as well.

According to U.S. News and World Report, the median salary for attorneys in 2021 was $127,990 per year. It can far exceed that amount if one practices in a large city at a big firm. The high salary I earned after I graduated from a top-ten law school in the U.S. enabled me to pay off my student loan within the first year after graduation. The starting average salary for first-year attorneys in the U.S. is $81,000, but that amount varies widely, depending on the job location and firm size. The major metropolitan areas pay the highest salaries, with San Jose, California; San Francisco, California; Washington, D.C.; New York City; and Los Angeles topping the list. And people will continue to need lawyers’ services. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects ten percent growth in the next ten years for law jobs, which is above the average for all occupations.

Law schools require applicants to have bachelor’s degrees to qualify for admission and, in the U.S., to take the LSAT admissions test. Law school typically involves three-year programs. Some schools offer night classes, like Georgetown University Law School, but evening programs usually require more than three years to complete. Online juris doctor programs exist, but they are not as well-regarded in the workplace.

The University of Virginia School of Law, my alma mater, and other state law schools are significantly less expensive than private university law schools. I knew of many students in my class who moved to Virginia to establish state residency prior to applying to UVA Law School, so that they could save tuition money by attending a state school. Other top U.S. law schools that offer discounted tuition to state residents include the University of Michigan Law School, the University of North Carolina School of Law, and the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law.

After graduation, one must pass a state bar examination to practice law in the U.S. The District of Columbia allows bar holders of other states to waive admission into the D.C. bar without having to take the D.C. bar exam, likely because attorneys can face penalties for practicing law in jurisdictions where they are not licensed, and many business interests require representation on issues in the nation’s capital. Also, after passing a bar in one state and practicing law for a number of years, one can take an abbreviated bar exam to become licensed to practice in another state. If you live near a state border or anticipate taking cases in other states, it may be necessary to be a member of more than one state’s bar. It is also possible to obtain permission from another state’s bar to practice there on a specific case via a pro hac vice application.

UVA and a handful of other state law schools have national reputations and can help graduates secure jobs all over the country and around the world at the world’s largest law firms and corporations. Other law schools have regional reputations, making it easier to get a job near the school but harder to get a job as a lawyer outside the state in which the school is located. Thus, it is important to consider where you want to live and work after graduation before enrolling in law school and to check the schools’ national rankings and alumni placements. Graduating from the top schools can open up higher-paying positions. The median salary for a UVA grad after one year of practice is $185,000.

Serving as a law clerk to a judge is a good career choice for those who want to be litigators. Law clerks are given an insider's-eye view of courtroom procedure and the judicial process. Most, if not all, U.S. Supreme Court clerks graduated from the top ten law schools. U.S. Supreme Court clerks almost always clerk for federal judges in lower courts before they are considered for prestigious Supreme Court clerkships. Supreme Court clerks are able to write their own tickets to success following their terms as clerks and have a hand in history, working for the most brilliant legal minds in the country.

The largest law firms and businesses usually pay the highest salaries. Competition is fierce for these coveted positions. Starting in a large law firm involves being the lowest on the firm’s totem pole. Attorneys begin as associates and work their way up to partnership, with partnership equity positions allowing for profit sharing. And many employ an up-or-out system, i.e., if you do not make a partner after about seven years or more, you are asked to leave. If one works at a small firm, that typically means a lower salary, but the salary can scale up rapidly with experience, especially if an attorney can bring in their own business. The attorney who secures a client’s business usually gets to keep a greater percentage of that client’s payments.

Working for the government often means fewer hours but less pay. Many are motivated by a desire to engage in public service, either for a governmental entity or a non-profit. Political appointments are considered plum assignments and may serve as a step towards political candidacy.

Working for corporations can afford a more balanced lifestyle. In-house counsel positions require corporate law experience, so most counsel work in law firms first. Sometimes, a client will lure attorneys from their firms to work in-house at their company.

Before going to law school, it is helpful to get a realistic view of what legal practice entails. Many people work as legal assistants or paralegals in law firms to get a close-up view of the practice of law. This can sometimes make a law student more focused on post-graduation work or may reveal that practicing law is not really a good fit for an individual. Those that have had more life experience before law school had a greater breath of perspective, in many cases, and often had more relevant contacts to generate business or job prospects upon graduation.

It is never too late to start a new career. Age discrimination is illegal in the U.S., and law-related entities are or should be keenly aware of this fact, perhaps more so than in other industries. A law degree can open many doors and bring justice to those who may desperately need it.