Hi, I am a rising high school junior interesting in becoming a criminal prosecutor. Is there anything I can do at this time to increase my likeliness of getting accepted into law school and making a successful career for myself?
I've participated in my school's mock-trial tournaments in 6th grade which instantly sparked my liking of this career and has inspired to me to actually pursue it.
Matthew L. Tuck, J.D., M.B.A.
It's really impressive that you're exploring careers and finding fields you like while you are still in high school. It's also really good that you're already thinking about law school. That's fantastic! 99% of people your age don't have a plan for college or law school, which makes it much harder.
First things first, the most important thing you can do to make sure you get into law school (and most importantly, the law school you want to go to) is to get good grades. This starts in high school. The thing I didn't understand when I was in high school is that even your high school grades are very important to getting into law school. Here is why.
Before you go to law school, you have to go to a 4-year college or university. Only after graduating from college can you apply to law school. You will spend another 3 years in law school before you graduate. Then you must take the bar exam in whatever state you wish to practice. Because law is a "profession," (just like being a doctor, dentist or accountant), you need a license to practice law. The bar exam is a long test (takes a couple of days) which tests your knowledge in a number different legal areas (criminal law, torts, property, constitutional law, contacts, civil procedure, etc.). If you pass the bar exam, then you will receive a license to practice law.
However, getting into law school is very competitive, and it's very important what college you go to and how good your grades are. Some law top schools reject more than 80% of the people who apply. At Yale Law School, for example, only around 1 in 15 of their highly qualified applicants makes it through (that's only 6.9% of applicants). The median college GPA score of a student enrolled at Yale University is 3.92, while the median LSAT score is 173. It's very competitive, in other words. But doable. Do not be discouraged. If that's your goal, you can absolutely do it because you are starting now.
And your grades in high school directly control what college(s) you can get into. If you want to get into a good college, you must have have good grades and good ACT/SAT test scores to get into a good college or university. But, in addition to getting into a good college, you must also get good grades in college and do well on the the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) to get into a good law school, where you also have to get good grades to have the most options when you graduate.
Why are good grades in law school important? Law school grades (and extracurriculars like moot court, law review and student leadership) are how law firms will evaluate potential candidates. Generally speaking, the people with the top grades in law school are offered the most prestigious jobs with the best firms. This means the opportunity to work big firms, earn the most money, and work on the most interesting cases, potentially (some cases are really boring no matter or whom your client is).
I know firsthand how important good schools and good grades are because for about 8 years I worked at one of the biggest law firms in Detroit. There were about 250 lawyers at the firm. And because it was a top firm, every lawyer there had graduated at or near the tops of their high school, college and law school classes. They all went to great law schools (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, University of Michigan, etc.). As a result, they had much better options than 98% of the other lawyers out there. They worked really hart getting into law school and while they were there, but it really pays off in your career. That firm paid the highest salaries of any firm in Michigan.
Now for the part about prosecutors. Criminal law is very interesting. While I was still in law school at the University of Detroit Law School I was allowed to work as a junior prosecutor. It was really interesting and I worked on tons of interesting cases and got to try dozens of cases (bench trials and even a couple jury trials) mostly by myself. It was terrifying and really fun at the same time.
The mistake I made in high school, college and law school was that I didn't get nearly the kind of grades that I needed to launch a great career when I got out. As a result, I got into a good college but not a great one. My grades in college were good but not great. My LSAT score was good but not great. And I got into an average law school. And then I got average grades in law school. That meant that I had far less job opportunities when I got out of law school.
During law school, I thought I wanted to be a prosecutor too. But no prosecutor's office would hire me until later after I had some experience. At first, I couldn't get a lawyer job at all and wound up teaching paralegal school and working at a small firm as a research clerk. Then later I realized I didn't like being a prosecutor or doing criminal law at all. The big realization about my average grades came when I tried to get a job at other firms (not prosecutor's offices) and they would not even interview me because my grades were not as good as other candidates. The schools you went to and grades become less important the longer you are out of law school, but for the first five years they are VERY important.
In my professional life as a lawyer I've been a prosecutor, criminal defense lawyer, insurance defense lawyer, business lawyer and an appellate lawyer (right now I own my own firm we we do only appeals). It's important to keep in mind that just because you like the idea of being a prosecutor now, after you have worked as one you may not like it at all. And you may find other areas of law or a whole other career path in college that you love even more.
Another reason to go to good schools is because you will develop a network of friends and alumni who can open doors for you. The better the school, the better your alumni network will be.
One last thing about high school. One major key to getting into a good college is to be well-rounded. Make sure you are involved in extracurriculars. Top grades and a great ACT/SAT are really important, but they are not the only thing. College admission officers like to see other things too: sports, leadership and broad interests. Try out for school plays, join the debate and forensics team. Your school may even have a mock trial team you join. Run for student government. And do volunteer work at your church or for local charities. Start at tutoring company to tutor other students. And get a part-time job. You can probably get a part-time job in a law firm while you're still in high school answering phones, filing, running errands and greeting clients. All this shows you have broad interests.
I would also highly recommend taking a prep course for the ACT/SAT and take A LOT of practice tests. Same for the LSAT when the time comes. Test taking is an art and if you practice and get good at it, you will improve your scores by a lot. Top test scores are even more important if you don't have top grades.
And do the same thing in college. Join clubs, run for office, be in a play, join the mock trial team, play intramural sports. All this looks good to law schools too. Get an internship or research assistant job with a professor. And take a variety of classes. Don't just take prelaw classes. Take some art, theatre, language and science classes. College is time when you should really try to experience everything you can.
And lastly, reach out admission people at colleges and law schools you think you might want to go to. They can provide information on what they look for. Listen to what they say and make that your plan for the next 2 years and the 4 years after that. Visit them. We're lucky in Michigan in that there are lots of great colleges and law schools here that you can visit. Visit law schools. Watch moot court tournaments. Talk to students.
Good luck. Law is a great career but to really do well, you need to have a plan and stick with it. You're thinking about your plan now which is great! Keep at it and right it down.
Matthew L. recommends the following next steps:
If your school has a speech and debate class, you should consider taking that. If not, maybe you can start a speech and debate club. You may also want to check out Toastmasters International. They are and organization that helps people develop their communication and leadership skills through practical experience. They have a youth program you may be able to participate in.
However, if you think you may be ok with all of that, you may enjoy the benefits of this career. You get to be in court more than most attorneys and engage in intellectual sparring. You are often the decision maker in your own cases (although you may need to run certain big decisions - like plea deals - by a superior if you are a new, inexperienced prosecutor). You may enjoy the identity of being a prosecutor - someone who is supposed to represent justice and is trying to deliver consequences to someone accused of harming the community. And no matter how frustrated you may feel, if you are able to remain professional and fair to all court participants (defense attorneys, court staff, judges, etc.), you will build up your credibility and become a more successful prosecutor. Prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys (particularly public defenders) are "repeat players" in the court process, so it is to your benefit if you are known as a trustworthy and competent lawyer. Judges will be more likely to listen to and accept your arguments. Defense attorneys may be more accommodating around scheduling issues.
Anyway, it's great that you are thinking about this already, and good luck finding the right role for you!