So you think you want to be a lawyer



What do you want to be when you grow up? A rock ‘n’ roll star? A writer? An architect? A teacher? A lawyer?

Really? A lawyer? Has “Law and Order,” “Boston Legal,” “The Good Wife” or “Matlock” stirred your passion to pursue this profession? Or did military lawyer Tom Cruise grilling colonel and prosecution witness Jack Nicholson in the courtroom drama “A Few Good Men” do the trick?

If you’ve got your heart set on a career in the courtroom, the first thing you have to do is get serious: about your education, your goals and your commitment. Plan on at least a seven-year journey before you print your business card or take your first case.

First, you’ll spend four years earning your undergraduate degree. There is no required field of study; anything goes, though many colleges offer a pre-law concentration. You’ll then need to pass the Law School Admission Test, or the LSAT, to demonstrate your skills and abilities in areas like critical thinking, reasoning and argumentation, which will be crucial to your future legal work. Score high enough and you can spend three or more years earning your juris doctor degree from one of the 205 accredited American Bar Association (ABA) institutions around the United States — have you considered attending the Charleston School of Law or the University of South Carolina School of Law?

"Law schools prefer students who can think, read and write well, and who have some understanding of what shapes human experience,” the ABA wrote in 1997. Also significant in terms of students’ personality traits? According to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, 11 percent of “thinkers” and 20 percent of “feelers” dropped out of law school by the end of their second year.

Coursework in the second and third years usually are electives, thus enabling students to specialize in areas such as legislation and regulation, administrative law, criminal law, family law, corporate law or tax law. Additionally, law schools also offer the opportunity to study public law, advocacy, business law, appellate law or international law.

Now that you’ve completed your academic studies, take a deep breath and spend at least three months studying for your state bar examination. Roughly 10 percent to 40 percent of first-time test-takers fail, although 30 percent to 70 percent pass on their second go-round. Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and President Franklin Roosevelt are notable names who swung and missed on the exam their first time; John F. Kennedy Jr. failed the exam twice before passing.

In South Carolina, 69 percent of law school grads pass the state bar on their first attempt, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners. Of the 681 Palmetto State candidates who took the exam in 2015, 467 aced it.

South Carolina ranked second to last by state in the country based on lawyers per capita in 2015, with only 20.5 active and resident lawyers per 10,000 residents, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overall, there are 10,031 active lawyers in the state.

Experience, location and specialization determine earning power. Nationally in 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual wage for lawyers was about $114,970, with the top 10 percent of professionals taking home more than $187,199. In South Carolina, the earnings top out at $134,000, with the 90th percentile earning $83,000, according to Those working in state and local government tend to earn less than lawyers in the top bracket who specialize in financial and insurance law.

Attorneys often practice and represent clients in legal issues and disputes in a variety of areas, not just one. The most common practices are:

  • CRIMINAL: These lawyers guide accused clients through the arrest, bail, arraignment, pleas and trial.
  • PERSONAL INJURY: Injuries and accidents of any nature usually involve insurance companies and financial settlements.
  • ESTATE PLANNING: These attorneys work to ensure your life’s savings and assets are safe from beneficiaries’ creditors upon your death by drafting wills and trusts and directives for health care.
  • BANKRUPTCY: There are several types of bankruptcy proceedings, and criteria for eligibility to help you get out of debt if mired with financial difficulties.
  • INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY: Anything involving copyrights, trademarks, patents, industrial design and trade secrets fall under the purview of these lawyers.
  • IMMIGRATION: This type of lawyer assists bringing individuals, family members and workers into this country via visas, citizenship, refugee status, asylum and green cards.
  • EMPLOYMENT AND LABOR: Issues involving employer/employee relationships and contracts, and compliance with state and federal laws are handled by this type of lawyer.
  • CORPORATE: Anything having to do with corporation start-ups, mergers and acquisitions, corporate governance and tax compliance issues are covered by this type of legal specialist.
  • REAL ESTATE: Issues related to commercial or residential real estate and property fall under this job description, including transactions and drafting documents.
  • TAX: This lawyer helps individuals and businesses filing their tax returns to comply with state and federal laws.
  • FAMILY: Direct family issues regarding prenuptial agreements, divorce proceedings, child custody and spousal support are covered by this type of lawyer.
  • WORKER’S COMPENSATION: This legal expertise handles injuries on the job, workplace accidents or occupational disease to determine the extent of employer fault and rightful benefits owed.
  • SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY: Complexities abound when it comes to eligibility for insurance benefits for mental or physical impairments and claims representation on appeals or reduced benefits.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL: You need legal help if you are faced with enforcement action or need to make sure your business is complying with state and federal regulations.
  • CIVIL LITIGATION: If you have been sued or are planning to sue and the issue isn’t criminal, then call this jack-of-all-trades attorney.
  • GENERAL PRACTICE: This generalist can represent you in court, assist in the drafting and reviewing of documents, and perform as an advocate in negotiations.

All practicing attorneys should be adept at separating their emotions and prejudices from an objective evaluation of their client’s situation. They must be able to garner respect, trust and confidence through demonstrable interpersonal skills. Who wants to spend hours with someone they really don’t like?

Top lawyers also need to demonstrate analytical and problem-solving skills, separating the relevant and irrelevant facts of the case, and clearly stating what the case is and what the best defense is. Their disposition should be calm, self-assured, confident, articulate and comforting. 

The checklist for doing your due diligence on hiring an attorney should include credentials, experience, education, cost, accessibility, company size, referrals, specialization and reputation in the business community.

Fast facts about the legal field

  • There are 10,031 active lawyers in South Carolina.
  • Cost can be contingency fees, which are an agreed-upon percentage of a recovery, typically 33 percent to 40 percent; flat fees for the total amount of services performed; hourly fees; or a retainer fee based on anticipated time spent on the case.
  • Typically, lawyers charge $300 per hour for partners, $200 per hour for associates and $95 per hour for paralegal. Billing usually is based on 6- or 15-minute intervals.
  • University of South Carolina School of Law ranked 93rd among 205 ABA-accredited law schools in the country; Charleston School of Law ranked 178th.
  • At USC School of Law, full-time tuition and fees for state residents is $25,994; at Charleston School of Law, the cost is $40,116.
  • USC School of Law was accredited by the ABA in 1925 and today has 615 students enrolled; Charleston School of Law was accredited in 2011 and has 417 students.
  • Law firms continue to be largest employers of lawyers, but many large corporations are increasing their in-house legal departments to cut costs.
  • Court cases are filed every 30 seconds in the United States; most involve automobiles.
  • Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi and rock keyboardist Ray Manzarek of The Doors are law school graduates.

Sources: 2017 CollegeGrad LLC, Bureau of Labor Statistics,, patriotblog, Graphiq Inc.

6 Questions for a Future Lawyer

By Dean Rowland

Palmetto Dunes resident Jacob Hunt will be earning his law degree next month from Savannah Law School. The 27-year-old then will take the South Carolina bar exam. When the Ohio native isn’t in class, he’s studying or working part time as a law clerk at Hilton Head Island’s Jolley Law Group. Here, he answers six questions about his future as a lawyer.

Q: Why do you want to become a lawyer?

A: To help people achieve their goals, that’s the biggest thing. To help people out with major problems they’re having and help them overcome their obstacles.

Q: What specialty do you want to practice?

A: Mostly business and health care law. I have a lot of family in the medical field. My step-dad is a cardiologist, my mom was an RN, and my grandma was an RN. Being involved with the blood, guts and gore didn’t interest me that much, but I wanted to find a way to work in that industry in a different capacity. Health care law is a way to do that. It’s a very, very broad field, and a lot of it is very interesting.

Q: Do you have a mentor or role model who inspired you?

A: It’s not easy for me to name one person. I’m very close to my step-dad and my mom. They were my guiding figures and huge influences on me. They help me to make bigger and tougher decisions. I rely on them a lot.

Q: What qualities do you think make for a good lawyer?

A: I think integrity and honesty. When people come to you with their problems or their needs, just being straight with them and being a good communicator. I think being up front is the best way to achieve what they’re trying to get done, and to keep your reputation positive. One of the first things they tell you in law school is to not only get along with other attorneys, but to treat the other people in the industry well — other attorneys’ clerks, clerks of the court. Act and compose yourself with a lot of integrity.

Q: Why do you think your personality suits being a lawyer?

A: If you had asked me that a few years ago, I probably would have said it doesn’t suit me that well. But it’s changed. I’ve done several internships over the years and it’s helped me to come out of my shell and be more outgoing. I get along with people well, and communicate with people well. Communication is a huge part of what an effective attorney does.

Q: What do you find most interesting about law and the legal system?

A: There are constantly changes being made. It’s not like you learn the federal law, then the state law and you’re done. You have to constantly be learning.