The road to becoming a criminal attorney begins after high school, because a four-year college degree is a prerequisite for admission to law school. Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary to study political science or criminal justice in college in order to get into law school. Post graduate institutions value intellectual diversity, so applicants with engineering degrees or other specialized academic backgrounds sometimes have an advantage over more "typical" student profiles.
Since applicants' undergraduate performance is part of the admissions equation, college students should concentrate on an area that genuinely interests them, because they are more likely to achieve high GPA's that way, as well.(1)
During the third year of college, aspiring law students take the Law School
Achievement Test (LSAT), a standardized test designed to measure a student's aptitude and chances of successfully completing the Juris Doctor program. The LSAT is more ability-oriented than the SAT, and less concerned with substantive knowledge. Nevertheless, there is a degree of specificity and preferred analyses patterns from exam to exam that makes enrollment in an LSAT preparatory course worthwhile, to achieve the highest possible score on the exam.(2)
The Juris Doctor degree is usually a three-year fulltime academic program.
First-year law students all share the same curriculum: Contracts, Torts, Constitutional
Law, Property, Civil Procedure, Legal Method and Legal Writing. The degree of difficulty and academic stress experienced by first-year law students ranges very widely, and is somewhat predictable by relative LSAT scores. The other source of stress for first-year law students is a function of the Socratic System usually employed by professors of first-year classes.(3)
The traditional Socratic method consists of the professor's assigning a lengthy reading assignment from casebooks to be completed for the first class. During his first lecture, the professor passes out a seating chart and once it is filled in, he consults it and selects a student to explain the facts of one of the assigned cases. If the student answers correctly, the professor continues with questions about the issues and the holding or decision of the case. Finally, the professor poses hypothetical factual situations and asks for an analysis according to the legal reasoning in the assigned case. If the student provides an incorrect answer along the way, the professor generally selects another student. Sometimes the professor returns to continue with the first student, other times he focuses on the next until his first incorrect response when he shifts to someone else.(4)
Part of the mandatory law school curriculum includes a legal writing course and participation in a moot court case, both of which are designed to expose students to some of the skills required of practicing attorneys in drafting memoranda and researching issues for litigation briefs. Unless one participates in subsequent moot court competitions or specifically makes an effort to take additional courses on trial advocacy, this is just about all the practical experience law students receive from their formal training.(5)
Law school grades are exclusively functions of a single exam given at the end of each course. Except for the Legal Writing course, there are rarely any writing requirements or any other assignments besides the daily assigned readings in preparation for lectures. The exams themselves are known as "issue spotters," requiring the ability to read a hypothetical fact pattern followed by brief instructions to "analyze all issues presented" or to provide a "memorandum of law" identifying the issues presented by the fact pattern. In answering the questions on a law school final exam, the student is expected to ignore any issues outside the subject matter dealt with in the course and analyze only the relevant issues. This means one always ignores any contractual issues and criminal issues in an Evidence final exam, and so forth. The exams are usually graded completely anonymously, where students use an assigned ID number rather than their names on exam booklets. Exams are usually closed book, but there are occasional exceptions.(6)
Contrary to popular belief, law school does not particularly emphasize rote memorization: even on final exams, it is the very rare professor that demands actual citation of cases by name. It is far more common for students to allude to relevant cases informally, such as by referring to a recognizable aspect of that case as it relates to the fact pattern presented on the exam. Finally, law professors often craft final exam questions that can be argued convincingly either way, rather than situations that require one specific conclusion. Students are graded on their demonstrated understanding of the main elements covered in the course and on their ability to apply those concepts properly to the hypothetical facts on the exam.(7)
Traditionally, even law schools with strong programs in particular areas only offered a few courses on any given legal subject in elective courses. Law school has always been considered as a training ground where students learn to think and analyze factual situations like a lawyer, and as a preparation for the state bar exam. Unlike undergraduate programs, the law school curriculum neither requires nor even provides any opportunity to pursue any specialized focus in a chosen area of law. In some respects this has changed in the last decade or so, which a course catalog comparison reveals. According to the New York Law School Course Catalog of 1983/84, a student with a particular interest in Criminal Law was able to choose from a total of only four elective courses, during the entire three-year fulltime Juris Doctor program.(8) While there is still no opportunity to pursue any "major" course of study along the lines of most undergraduate degree programs, the situation has greatly improved over the last twenty years. The 2003/04 Course Catalog from the same law school includes no less than twelve elective courses in Criminal Law and Procedure:
Adjudication, Criminal Law and Procedure: Investigation, Criminal Law and Procedure: Jury System, Criminal Law and Procedure: Mentally Disabled Defendant, and Criminal Law and Procedure: Death Penalty.(9)
Generally, law students start applying for summer internships during their second year, so that they can acquire practical experience at a law firm. Students wishing to focus on criminal law apply to criminal defense firms and government agencies that staff the local or state prosecutor's office. Competition for summer internships is based on a student's grades in law school, and government positions are somewhat more difficult to secure, mainly by virtue of their comparative scarcity.(10)
The common practice at many larger law firms is to pay summer associates the same pay scale as first-year associates on a (pro-rata basis for the summer months). Summer associates are often assigned more interesting assignments than typical law firm "grunt work," as well. The idea behind this practice seems to be presenting law firm life as more pleasant than it might really be, in order to attract fulltime applications from former summer associates when they start looking for permanent work the following year.(11)
The experience of students interning for the summer in government offices resembles the actual work of a first-year Assistant District Attorney (or Public
Defender) much more closely than their private sector counterparts, because there is no real "competition" for fulltime applicants from other agencies the way private firms must compete against each other to attract the best available graduates.
All law school graduates wishing to practice law after graduation must pass the state bar exam in any state they intend to work. Bar exams vary quite a bit from State-to-state, in that some test only the six so-called "multi-state" subjects
Contracts, Torts, Property, Criminal Law, Evidence and Civil Procedure). Other states like New York and California test twenty or more other subjects in addition to the multi-state subjects. The American Bar Association now requires an Ethics portion on the bar exam and several states have recently added a memorandum writing…