Lawyers occupy a very strange position: on one hand, lawyers who work for big corporations or the X industry or as defense lawyers for (allegedly) corrupt politicians are almost-always universally despised, especially when you see how much they’re getting paid. But on the other hand, you have those honest, salt-of-the-earth Atticus-Finch types who take on cases pro bono. Of course, everyone praises the latter, but, I think, everyone secretly wants to be the former. Because, hey, money, am I right?
Fortunately, the American Bar Association still considers legal ethics as one of the most important aspects of being a lawyer, echoing that old adage that it’s the only subject from law school that ‘every lawyer will encounter in practice’. And this application of ethics is seen most clearly with trial lawyers, those nigh-mythical figures of supreme sophistry and moral backbone, defending the weak and the innocent from the grasp of the evil and corrupt. And trial lawyers make good money, because good ethics is always justly and generously rewarded by the system.
If that sounds way too good to be true, that’s because it is. Not all trial lawyers will be ethical, and not all of them will be well paid for it. But, of course, some of them will be good guys, and some of them do get paid well. Here are some things you should know about being a trial lawyer before you get up on the stand:
What Do Trial Lawyers Need In Order to Practice Law?
As with every lawyer in the United States, trial lawyers need to finish the same requirements: 4 years of undergraduate studies, 3 years of law school, and of course, the bar exam in your state. Most law schools will usually provide a set of compulsory classes (some of them require legal ethics) which will help you build a strong foundation for your future law career.
Most of the required coursework will be in the study of:
- Criminal law
- Courtroom law
- Property law
- Contract negotiation
- Constitutional law
- Ethics and Lawyers
- Civil and criminal procedures
In your second and third years, law schools will start offering electives (alongside your required classes, of course) that pique your interest. These will usually range from real estate law, entertainment law (yes, that exists), digital law (a growing field of study), among others. It’s in these 2 years that future lawyers can decide on the field of law they want to specialize in, and is, ideally, the start of their training as highly competent trial lawyers (ideally).
If you’re lucky, your law school will offer specialized certification courses for various types of law studies. While these aren’t actually required, they do provide the law student with more advanced education and credentials for that particular field of study. This is useful for future lawyers who want to practice in more specialized fields like environmental law or digital law, and can be useful in applying to law firms as a specialist in that particular study.
Once you graduate law school, the only thing you need now is to pass your state’s bar exam. Each state will have different bar exams covering both federal and state laws. During your exam, you’ll also be required to fulfill your state’s particular requirements that will allow you to practice law in your state. Most bar exam results will take around 3 months, and during the interim, prospective lawyers must pass several other requirements like an ethics exam and a background check. As soon as you pass the bar, you’ll be allowed to practice law in your state, and you can be one step closer to your trial lawyer dreams (invest in a good suit!).
But remember: law isn’t exactly a static thing, with new laws and new precedents being passed every year or so. With this in mind, always remember that the study of law is a lifelong endeavor, and if you want to be the best trial lawyer out there, you’re going to need to keep yourself updated.
What Exactly Do Trial Lawyers Do in Court?
For people enamored with the idea of being a trial lawyer, they usually have this glamorized idea of what it’s all about: intense courtroom drama, superfluous speeches, last minute evidence being presented that will turn the tides of the case, and for the most part, this is all true. But, like all things, that’s not the only thing trial lawyers do, and in fact, in most situations, that Law-and-Order type of courtroom drama makes up a very small fraction of a trial lawyer’s job.
Despite what Hollywood sells us, a majority of a trial lawyer’s job lies outside the courtroom, with most of their days being filled with a whole lot of reading and reviewing case files (you will most likely be handling more than one case, after all), speaking to witnesses, and generally conducting research into the cases you’re handling. Trial lawyers must also fill out, submit, and wait for various documents from the court house, with these documents usually pertaining to one step or another in courtroom proceedings. There’s a big chance that each document will also take days, weeks, even months to clear, and that’s for just one case.
During this time, however, a trial lawyer will be prepping for that big, TV-style courtroom action. But it’s not like what you think: most of that ‘prep’ involves various court meetings and court conferences, wherein the judge in charge of the case will meet with the opposing parties lawyers to go over procedural matters. In these private meetings, opposing lawyers will argue motions, discuss evidence, select jurors, and of course, schedule the actual trial.
And, sorry to burst your bubble here, Phoenix Wright, but because of how expensive trials are, a lot of cases, both civil and criminal, never make it to the courtroom, with a majority of cases usually being settled out of court.
How Much Do Trial Lawyers Make?
And herein lies one of the most important questions you can ask: how much do trial lawyers make an hour? According the U.S. Labor Department, the average lawyer earns around $38 an hour. Doesn’t seem like much, but remember that you’re pretty much on the clock more than 10 hours a day, so that measly less-than-40 bucks an hour translates to around $1,523 a week, $6,600 a month, and a little less than $80,000 a year. And that’s just for one case, and those hourly rates get higher depending on your experience level, the law firm you work for, the kind of case you’re working, the state you’re working in, and many other factors.
So, you want to be a trial lawyer? Yes, there’s a lot of money to be made, but it’s also a job that requires an ironclad ethical code and a complete mastery of your field of expertise. It’s a huge investment in time, money, morals, and aptitude in law.