Hi Sanaii. Great question.
I would echo what Lucas and Jenna suggested. However, I would also add this advice.
It is nearly impossible to tell from law school classes what the actual practice of law is going to be like. There are other options for you besides working in a firm or starting your own firm. Without any experience, you really won't know if you want to work for an existing firm, start your own firm, work for a corporation or for a government agency. So I suggest you get as much experience in as many practice areas while in law school as you possible can.
While in law school you have a lot of options to work for firms and courts. Try these options to maximize your experiences:
- Work for a Prosecutor's Office - You have an interest in criminal law. So did I when I was in law school. Most states have a summer program in which you can actually work as a prosecuting attorney under the supervision of a real prosecutor while you're still in law school. I did this when I was a law student in Michigan. For the summer between my 2nd and 3rd years, I got to work as a district court prosecutor in a county prosecutor's office. I got a HUGE amount of experience in that summer. I had my own case load and came to work every day and went to court. I wrote and argued motions, conducted preliminary felony exams, tried a ton of bench trials, interviewed witnesses, brokered plea deals, and even got to do a couple first chair jury trials on my own in district court (drunk driving cases). I also got to second chair a few felony trials in circuit court (attempted murder--the best man stabbed the groom at the wedding--it was awesome). The judges, prosecutors, police and court staff were all wonderful to me and the other interns (there were three of us and we actually got paid for our work). I had a lot of fun and learned an amazing amount. I also found out I didn't want to be a prosecutor or do criminal law for a living. Check with your law school and with some local county prosecutor/district attorney offices to see if they offer these programs and how you can qualify and be selected.
- Clerk for a Firm That Does Criminal Work - Lots of firms, large and small, have criminal practices. Get a clerkship with one of these firms. Ideally, find one that also has other areas of practice so you can get experience beyond just criminal law (family law, estate planning, corporate law, tax, etc.). Try to get paid for it but do it for free if you have to. You can do this during the school year, but don't work too many hours. Focus on studies too. Get exposure to other areas of their practice. Even if it's just following lawyers to court and watching them or sitting in on client meetings. Here in Michigan, a lot of smaller cities don't have the budget to have their own city attorney office. So what they do is hire private firms to do prosecution and other city legal work. You can find these firms and work for them to get a feel for what it's like to do criminal law. Frequently a clerkship at a law firm will lead to a job offer upon graduation, or, if not an offer, a bunch of leads to other jobs that your mentor and his/her partners know at other firms. Hint: Find a great mentor--see below.
- Get a Judicial Clerkship - To really see how the sausage is made, you may also want to try to get a judicial clerkship. Most court systems have student clerkships available. You'll see up close and personal what judges do, how a trial lawyer spends his time and how everything works behind the scenes. Though not directly relevant to whether you should open your own firm or work at one, this will really show you a lot of what you need to know to have a successful firm. If you want to be a criminal attorney--and a good one--knowing how the court system actually works (court clerks, judges, probation, prosecutors, police, jails) is absolutely vital. You don't learn this in law school. You will also make some crucial connections with prosecutors, judges, clerks (who are the most important people in the building), and attorneys. These connections can lead to mentors, criminal appointments to get your practice started, job leads, and other networking opportunities.
- Take a Law Clinic Class - My senior year of law school I participated in a class called the Urban Law Clinic. In that class, we basically got our own clients, mainly criminal defendants who had no money to pay a lawyer. We represented them under the supervision of our professor and the judge. I got do a bunch of bench trials, file and argue motions, do a jury trial, and negotiate a bunch of plea bargains with real prosecutors. This is the flipside of the internship at the prosecutor's office. Great experience and lots of it in a hurry,
And lastly, get the best grades you possibly can. If your grades are just mediocre, you'll have fewer options once you get out than if you had great grades. If you want do high-end white collar defense, you'll probably need to get a job a bigger firm to learn the ropes. That will take great grades.
Do what you can to participate in extra curricular activities. Try to get on law review or another publication. Since it looks like you have an interest in criminal law, that probably means you are interested in court room and trial work. Enter moot court competitions. Your school probably has internal competitions open to any one and regional or national competitions to which your school will send a team. You'll have to try out for those, so you have to be really good. I got my first job as a trial attorney with an insurance company because I won a moot court competition at the school and the guy who hired me saw me argue in the final round.
It's a good idea to work for a firm for a few years before you start your own firm. Find a firm that has a good mentorship program. You need to find mentors throughout your career at every stage. Find an experienced attorney who does the kind of law you are interested in, who will really take you under his or her wing and show you the ropes. There are just too many ways to commit malpractice if you don't find a mentor to show you the ropes before you start representing real clients.
Get good at networking. Start going to bar association events and meeting lawyers. It doesn't matter if you're just a student. Most bar association have student memberships that are cheap. Networking is the best way to get to the people who can give you a job or connect you with someone they know who can.
If you are entrepreneurial and do decide to start your own firm, I also highly recommend that you learn something about business first. Lawyers, as a rule, are terrible business people. They don't know how to actually run a business when they start a firm. Knowing the law is not the same as running a business. Use your time at a firm to learn how a business runs. Learn how to read a balance sheet and a cash flow statement. Take an accounting class or two. Learn marketing and sales. The actual practice of law is only about 20% of the job. The other 80% is getting clients in the door every month, getting them to pay on time, managing staff, dealing with vendors, and managing the money. If you can't do this stuff at least moderately well, no matter how good a lawyer you are your practice will not survive. Or if it does survive, it will be an emotional roller coaster where you are always sweating payroll and where your next client is coming from.
You may have gone to law school (like me) because you don't like numbers. You don't have to love numbers, but if you want to start your own practice it's important to at least get comfortable with them. Business is numbers. Good luck!