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The path from paralegal to attorney: what you need to know

As a paralegal, you’ve got the inside track on the legal industry. After seeing the higher salaries that lawyers earn, the challenging work they perform, and the level of prestige that they seem to enjoy, it’s natural to think about becoming an attorney yourself.

But is law school the right step for you?

Over the past decade, law school enrollments have dropped to historical lows, and overall, nearly 10 percent fewer students graduated from U.S. law schools in 2015 than in 2010, according to USA TODAY. The statistics suggest that getting a law degree is not essential to finding a job, as only about two-thirds of the graduates of 2015 found jobs that actually required a law degree, down from over three-quarters in 2007.

Getting into law school

Even if you’re a working paralegal, before you can apply to law school, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree. If you’ve already earned an associate’s degree in paralegal studies, some of your credits will likely transfer, but you’ll need to complete additional courses to obtain your bachelor’s degree.

Then you’ll need to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and once you pass the test, you can start applying to law schools. According to Above the Law, the main advantage that paralegals have when applying to law school is their experience in the legal industry and their knowledge of what it is like to be an attorney.

However, your paralegal job is not guaranteed to make your application to law school any more competitive. In fact, it could put you at a slight disadvantage since there is a strong association between being a paralegal and performing primarily administrative (rather than substantive) legal duties. But if you do enter law school, your industry experience will likely help you to excel there.

Pros and cons of becoming a lawyer

The practice of law is one of the oldest professionals in the world, dating back to ancient Greece. It often symbolizes hard work, success, making a difference – and also long hours, stress, and pressure to make partner. Here are some of the pros and cons of being an attorney:

The pros

  • Because fewer people are applying to law school than ever before, competition for a spot at top-tier schools like Yale, Stanford, and Columbia is less intense than it was in years past, although their academic standards haven’t changed all that much.
  • Lawyers are highly trained professionals who must graduate from law school, pass their state bar exam, and obtain a license to be authorized to practice. As such, it is a respected position.
  • Attorneys typically get paid more than paralegals and other legal professionals, particularly at BigLaw firms.
  • Lawyers usually enjoy a great deal of variety in their work, and practicing law is often exciting and challenging, after years of hard work.
  • Lawyers have more control over the areas of law in which they work and in the clients they agree to represent.

The cons:

  • Law school is very expensive – $150,000 or more – so a chunk of the higher salary you’ll be making as an attorney might go toward paying off a huge student loan debt. This could amount to 10 percent of your discretionary income, according to the Department of Education.
  • As salaried employees, attorneys don’t get paid for the overtime they are expected to put in.
  • Lawyers are held to extremely high standards of ethics and professionalism. Violating these principles can result in a malpractice charge, suspension, or even disbarment.
  • Paralegals typically have more control over their work-life balance than attorneys do. Studies have shown that fewer people who value flexibility and personal ethics are now choosing to attend law school.
  • Running a firm, retaining malpractice insurance, and other responsibilities fall on the shoulders of an attorney in ways that a paralegal will not have to worry about.

Of course, the decision to go or not to go to law school will be a deeply personal one that factors in many more details than just these.


Do you know of some other reasons to go to law school (or choose not to)? Tell us about them in the comments!

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