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i'm going into eleventh grade and am considering becoming a criminal trial lawyer. what should i expect from the career?

last year in my english class, we read a book about a jury trying to come to a unanimous vote followed by a class trial based on a real case and i found it fascinating, it was my favorite unit of the class. thinking about it further made me think that maybe being a criminal trial lawyer could be for me (maybe for the prosecution's side). i don't fully know what like an average week/day looks like though. stuff like if the schedule set or if it's spontaneous, how much paperwork is done on a daily work day, etc.

Thank you comment icon Hi, Ro! Fellow Philadelphian here. This is a great question. Thanks so much for giving some background on why you are asking this question. Criminal Law is really interesting, and I'm glad you enjoyed that part of your English class so much! I hope you get some great advice. Alexandra Carpenter, Admin

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Matthew L.’s Answer


Hi Ro. Great question!

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. And I can see how you could easily get the bug for trial work after doing the class project.

I would agree with pretty much everything HM said with a few additions.

Easy question first. There is much less paperwork involved in doing prosecution work than in most other areas of law. Prosecutors have a lot of cases and for most of those matters you can carry 50 files in one briefcase. You don't do a ton of writing at the prosecutor's office either, unless you get into the appellate world. You may have to write and file the occasional motion or brief or respond to one from the defense, but that is rare. Pretty much every party involved in a legal case has the right to an appeal if they disagree with the decision in the trial court. In most prosecutor's offices, the trial court attorneys don't write appeals. These offices have a person or even a whole department dedicated to writing appellate briefs (which are long--25 to 50 pages of facts, case law and arguments). There is also not that much trial work in the state courts until you get some seniority. For example, depending on what kind of law you decide to go into, you likely will start out as an assistant county prosecutor or city attorney if your city is large.

For the first several years you will likely handle low-level misdemeanor and traffic cases (assault and battery, shoplifting, driving offenses, trespassing, minor drug cases, etc. Misdemeanors are cases where generally the maximum sentence is 90 days in jail or a year at most). One thing about criminal law is that most cases will "plead out" meaning the defendant pleads guilty to one of several charges brought or maybe to a lower charge in exchange for a lighter sentence, lower fine, or fewer points added to their license. Statistically, about 95% of criminal defendants plead guilty without a trial. I know prosecutors who have gone years without trying a case. Part of the reason for this is that trying cases is expensive for defendants. And also a large percentage of defendants are represented by public defenders who typically (at least in my experience) don't try many cases either. You might get some bench trials (in front of a judge) or maybe a jury trial or two a year, but those are quite rare, at least in my experience. Those trials take a ton of time and a lot of prosecutor's offices just don't have the resources to spend on them, so they tend to try to arrange plea deals.

It is a bit spontaneous (to use your word) and you do have to be good on your feet. Depending on your case load, you may get a big pile of files for the day. These can be traffic tickets and misdemeanors set for trial or a bunch of "pretrial" files. At a pretrial you meet with the defendant and his attorney and try to reach a plea agreement. You might have 50 pretrials in the morning and 50 more in the afternoon, depending on the day and office. Being organized really helps. Whatever does not settle/plead at the pretrial, is set for trial. You may be seeing those 50 files for the first time that morning.

Once you get some more seniority you can move up to felony cases, which are more serious matters, usually involving cases where the maximum sentence is over 1 year (even up to life in prison). Most of these cases will also be pled down and disposed of that way. However, in some serious cases where the defendant is facing a lot of time in jail and can hire an attorney, they may take it to a jury trial because they don't have as much to lose and a serious felony on your record makes getting a good job hard. The police officers who wrote the ticket or made the arrest are usually there and will have input into how the case is disposed of. If the defendant was nice and cooperative during the arrest and it's a first offense or wrong place/wrong time thing (like a person was in a car with some people who were actually doing the illegal thing), the case will be pled down to lower charge. If, however, the defendant has a long rap sheet and took a swing at the cop or something else, probably no easy deal. If there are evidentiary problems with a case (like illegally obtained evidence or the only witness disappears) the prosecutor will try to deal the case and get rid of it for a lesser charge.

The hours at most prosecutor's offices are not bad either pretty 9-5, though you may have work at night or on the weekend to get ready for the next day. If you plan to have a family, working as a prosecutor or city attorney that does the criminal prosecutions has a much better work-life balance than most law jobs.

Some of what HM mentioned does not apply to prosecutors or most criminal attorneys, for that matter. Prosecutors generally work for either a city, a county, the state or a division of the federal government. They don't normally work at large firms. And prosecutors definitely don't make the kind of money that HM mentioned. A typical assistant city or county prosecutor just out of school or with zero to a few years of experience makes between about $45,000 and $100,000 per year in Pennsylvania, for example (you can search salaries for all kinds of professions on websites like Glassdoor and Salary.com. Federal prosecutors make more but there are fewer of them and it's pretty competitive. There are also limited opportunities for advancement unless you are in a large city or county prosecutor's office.

The large firms that HM is talking about generally only take the very top students with the best grades from the best law schools. And they work you very hard. You can expect to work 80 to 100 hours a week at a large firm for much of your career. You don't go to court (except maybe to help the more senior partners present their cases) and will mostly do research, writ memos and briefs, and review documents. The client contact and high-level work is done by partners. You trade your time for money.

At smaller firms you will have more client contact, more trial work (if it's that kind of firm) and have more input into the cases and strategy, particularly if you bring in your own clients. Smaller firms pay less (a lot less) but your quality of life is much better. If you own your own firm (like I do) you do as much or as little work of whatever type you want. I spend most of my day managing the firm, not going to court or talking to clients or doing research. Many lawyers who like criminal law start out in the prosecutor's office or public defender's office and then start their own firms but doing criminal defense (representing defendants). The money is better and you can get more trial work if that's what you like.

So I hope that answers your questions directly. Here is the other part of the equation. 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 (one of the top 2 or 3 schools in the country), for example, only around 1 in 15 of their highly qualified applicants makes it through and is accepted (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 hard getting into law school and while they were there, but it really pays off in your career. That firm pays the highest starting salaries of any firm in Michigan.

In my professional life as a lawyer I've been a prosecutor, criminal defense lawyer, insurance defense lawyer, business lawyer, personal injury 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, does not mean you will like it after you have worked as one for a while. 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 and (at least right now) you've never even heard of.

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. These are the people that throughout your life will help you get internships, jobs, and clients.

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 a 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 (if your parents will let you, of course). All this shows you have broad interests and are not just smart at books. Show you are good with people and have other skills and 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. I should have practiced more.

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 to admission people at colleges and law schools you think you might want to go to now. 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 the schools. Your lucky that in Pennsylvania you have 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:

Get the best grades you can in high school, college and law school. Good grades at each level means you get into better schools and will have the most opportunities when you get out of law school.
Become a well-rounded student. Do sports, volunteer, join the drama club, take debate and forensics, tutor kids. This is what colleges and law schools look for.
See if you high school or city has a mock trial team. This is great practice and super fun.
Network like crazy in high school, college and law school. Your network will get you better jobs and eventually clients.
Don't put all your eggs in one basket. You may find you hate prosecuting or even don't like trial work. Do the best you can so you can change course later if you decide to.
Thank you comment icon this was really in depth, thank you! i'm highly considering going out of the us for the entirety of college (and maybe also law school) (specifically in argentina because college is free, the dollar is worth a lot there, and i have family i can stay with. the language isn't an issue since i'm also fluent in spanish). how would that change things about the career after returning to the us? Ro
Thank you comment icon awesome response, covering everything!!!! Kim Igleheart
Thank you comment icon Thanks, Kim. Much appreciated. Voice of experience. Still not sure what I want to be when I grow up. But it's really fun figuring it out. Matthew L. Tuck, J.D., M.B.A.
Thank you comment icon Hi again Ro. I think studying in Argentina would be very interesting. There are a couple issues raised by your follow up question I wanted to mention. First, It's great that you're already thinking about how to pay for college and law school. Free college is very tempting and having a degree from a foreign college or university is generally not a hinderance when you apply to a U.S. law school. Many schools actually pride themselves on the number of foreign students they accept. That type of degree (as long as it's from a reputable school) could even help you get into law better school that your grades or LSAT score don't allow. Matthew L. Tuck, J.D., M.B.A.
Thank you comment icon My only concern would be that there is a TON of writing in law school so it is imperative that you learn to read and write very well while you are in college. Take a lot of writing courses. When I was in law school I had an easier time because I had taken a ton of writing in college (political science/history major--writing is all we did). But I noticed that the first year of law school was very difficult for the non-humanities majors. The engineers, nurses, doctors and accountants struggled with the long essay exams and their grades suffered because they were all relearning how to absorb tons of text and write well. Matthew L. Tuck, J.D., M.B.A.
Thank you comment icon This approval can take up to a year or even longer, which is a long time to be waiting before you can even take the bar exam. Part of the reason is that some countries don't require a 4-year degree to attend law school. High school diploma is enough, so the prerequisites don't line up with the U.S. law schools. Another issue is that Argentinian law is based on a civil system (statutes-based, like Spain and France). The U.S. is based on the Common Law (cases, like UK, Canada and Australia) which is different. It may be more difficult to pass a bar exam in the U.S. (which, again, you have to do to practice law) coming from a civil law-based school in Argentina, no matter how good it is or how well you do. Matthew L. Tuck, J.D., M.B.A.
Thank you comment icon A lot of the classes you take in law school do help prepare you to take the bar exam. So those are some of the considerations I would take into account. You will basically have to completely learn U.S. law to sit for a bar exam. Every year a lot of people fail the bar exam even after getting a U.S. law degree. One guy in my class failed the Michigan Bar Exam 9 times. Studying Argentina criminal law will not help you much as a prosecutor back in the U.S. either. Matthew L. Tuck, J.D., M.B.A.
Thank you comment icon That said, if you did go to law school in Argentina and wanted to practice business law or international law, that might be a GREAT asset to a firm in the U.S. that represents clients in Argentina, or vice versa. Having a unique specialty like that (or accounting or engineering or medicine) can make you very valuable to a law firm. Hope this helps. Matthew L. Tuck, J.D., M.B.A.
Thank you comment icon that was very useful, thank you! Ro
Thank you comment icon Great answer, very in-depth advice Harish M
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Harish’s Answer

Lawyers do a lot of paperwork, and trials are a relatively small portion of their workweek. Paperwork has been starting to reduce in recent years due to automation/digitisation, though.

If you want to earn a large salary as a lawyer, the usual path is to go to college, then go to a strong law school (preferably a T14 school, but other law schools are fine too), pass your Bar exam, and then go into Big Law or a similarly lucrative subfield of law. Lawyers in Big Law or other subfields of laws, work long hours. 50+ hours a week is not uncommon. But the salaries are great; some Big Law lawyers earn $150k-200k+ in their first year out of Law School, and even the median Big Law lawyer earns $100k+ in their first year out of Law School. If they eventually make partner in a law firm, they may earn $500k-$1mil+ a year, depending on the size of the firm.

There's also a level of oversaturation in the law field, though; lawyers follow a bimodal distribution of salaries. The top 30% of lawyers (went to strong law schools, managed to get into Big Law or other lucrative field of law, have good experience and have built a good client network) make great money. But the bottom 70% oftentimes have to compete over the scraps of the top 30%, and it may be tough to carve out a career if you fall into the bottom 70% of lawyers. So, if you end up getting into Law School and become a lawyer, absolutely make sure that you are in the top 30% of lawyers, so that you have a strong career.
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Elizabeth (Liz)’s Answer

There are already some really impressive answers to this question, so I will attempt to add on what advice I can.

First off, I would strongly recommend working as a paralegal or in a law-affiliated setting in between college and law school if that is an option so that you can see if the work agrees with you. Working as a paralegal for a few years before law school was absolutely invaluable to me.

The next thing to consider is WHY you want to go to law school...is there an area of law you're passionate about? Is there an issue or cause that mean a great deal to you? If so, and if this is part of the reason you're considering law school, then volunteering with organizations like that, especially while you're in high school or college, are going to be key in finding work both in law school and outside of it.

If you would like to be a prosecutor someday, you should see about clerking (which is often on a volunteer basis, and usually requires you to be a qualifying student) or paralegal-ing (which may require a paralegal's certificate or a bachelor's degree, depending on the state) for your local prosecutor's office. That kind of work will help you when you seek to apply when you're a licensed attorney as well. I don't know how competitive your local prosecutor's offices are, but where I live, the competition is pretty fierce for both the prosecutor and the public defender's offices, so volunteering is key.

Also, as Mr. Tuck has already noted, keep your mind open! Many folks think that they'll do one thing when they go to law school, but fall in love with a very different area of law. Please keep an open mind about areas of law while you have the chance to shop around, and seriously, engage in the work as a clerk if you find you have an inclination that way.

Last thing to consider is expense. Law school is a very expensive endeavor, and unless you or your family are able to lay out the money for it, you will be taking on student debt to go. The average lawyer enters the market with approximately $150,000 worth of student debt, and while this debt may be cancelled after 10 years of working in a qualifying prosecutor's office, public defender's office, 501(c)(3) or the like, that's 10 years of diligent payments, which may hold you back from other adulthood goals (home ownership, family, etc.) There's also the reality that very few of these debts are actually discharged even with qualifying work, so understand the debt situation you are potentially entering beforehand. If you choose to (and are able to) work at a firm which pays much better than public service (something that's generally reserved for folks who attend a "top tier" law school and have exemplary grades and the like) then you may have more financial options on this front. This will require much more in the way of paperwork (since this is something you noted you might want to avoid) since most of the best-paying jobs will be in some flavor of corporate law.

Either way, ask a lot of questions, volunteer, and be prepared to work hard! It's a fiercely competitive field, but there are a lot of opportunities out there for whatever areas of law you're interested in if you work at it. Good luck!
Thank you comment icon Good and thorough answer! Harish M
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Cynthia’s Answer

In England dealing with police and a lot of openess due to SYSTEM. Have you ever heard of hearsay?
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