Practicing law sure looks great... on TV! Hollywood lawyers like Elle Woods, the team on Boston Legal, and any of the fantastically gorgeous and oft-rotating A.D.A.'s on Law & Order lure a lot of people to law school.
Despite what you may have heard about being able to do anything with a law degree, law school is, at the end of the day, a trade school. Sure, some of them - especially the top ones - are gussied up with an intellectual veneer, and their course listings make law school look like an advanced degree in the liberal arts ("Greek Tragedy and the Law," "Postmodern Legalisms," "Anthropology and the Law"), but you really have no business applying to law school unless you know that you want to practice law.
Does that mean that you will end up practicing law forever, or that you'll practice at all, if you go to law school? No. But chances are that you will be practicing, and given the hordes of unhappy lawyers, you owe it to yourself to find out what you'll be getting yourself into.
Here are five things you can do to educate yourself about the practice of law before you invest in a law degree:
Talk to practicing lawyers, as many as you can find. Ask your parents, your friends, your alumni office, and previous employers for contacts and introductions. If possible, talk to younger lawyers (ideally in their third to sixth years of practice), because your practice will more closely resemble their career trajectory than that of more seasoned attorneys, and they'll also have more perspective than someone who is only a year or two out of law school. Also try to talk to people who have left the law.
2. Legal temping
Law firms rarely let random people shadow their lawyers for a few days or a week. You'll have access to a variety of legal practices, however, if you sign up with a temp firm that specializes in legal placements. It's fine that you haven't been to law school yet - law firms too have phones that need answering, envelopes that need stamping, documents that need formatting, and coffee that needs making. The work won't be glamorous, but you'll get to see legal practice in action.
3. Paralegal/case clerk
Same drill as legal temping, except you'll have more responsibility as a paralegal or case clerk. These are especially good entry-level, full-time jobs for freshly minted college graduates who plan on applying to law school. Contrary to what you may have heard, plenty of firms hire college students and college graduates without specialized paralegal training.
4. Public interest law firms
There are many wonderful but cash-strapped non-profit legal organizations that provide free or low-cost services to underserved communities or advocate on behalf of the public interest. They won't have money to pay you, but spending even ten hours a week volunteering or interning there will allow you to see what public interest lawyers do all day long. You can find organizations that cater to every conceivable target community and political stripe, whether it's civil liberties, property rights, immigrant services, religious freedom, gay rights, the environment, or school choice. Whatever cause you care about, there are likely non-profit legal organizations working towards the same goal.
5. Government agencies
Intern at a court or prosecutors' office at the local, state, or federal level. Many government agencies have lawyers on staff, so include departments like zoning, revenue (tax collection), and education in your search.
6. In-house lawyers
Most large businesses and publicly traded companies employ in-house lawyers who handle their routine legal matters and interact with outside law firms. In-house counsel jobs are highly sought after by law firm lawyers, so working/temping/interning for an in-house lawyer (or in the legal department of a company) would let you see what so many law firm associates are aspiring to.
7. Get a taste of law school
And finally... Want to get a taste of law school before you commit? Sit in on a class - not the sexy topics featured on TV, like Constitutional Law or Criminal Procedure, but rather classes like Civil Procedure, Securities Law, or Wills & Estates. (The Nutshell series is also a good introduction.) Alternatively, you can sign up for one of the pre-1L boot camps, which introduce incoming first-year law students to the first-year curriculum (they are open to anyone). They cost several hundred dollars, but depending on your circumstances, it may be worth it - especially if attending the boot camp convinces you that you'd rather watch paint dry for three years than suffer through law school. Click here for my boot camp recommendation.