Legal Education

Legal Education in the United States

Training required to prepare an individual to practice law. Legal education for most persons now entering the profession of law involves completing law school. This is a relatively recent development. Well into the twentieth century, prospective lawyers learned the law largely through apprenticeship. Most aspiring attorneys trained by clerking for a practicing lawyer. When they felt sufficiently prepared, they would seek admission to the bar before a local court. While law schools existed, they represented a seldom chosen path to the legal profession. Law schools became a more accepted option toward the end of the nineteenth century with the adoption of the case method of teaching law. Studying the underlying principles in appellate court cases made the study of law similar to other academic disciplines, and law schools connected to large universities began to appear more frequently. Not all law schools were of high quality, and the American Bar Association helped establish the American Association of Law Schools as an accrediting agency. Entrance standards for law schools were elevated as part of this process. These changes not only improved the quality of legal training, but produced greater uniformity of standards among the states. Currently, virtually every state requires graduation from an accredited law school as a prerequisite for taking the bar examination.

See Also

American Bar Association (ABA, U.S.) Legal Profession (Judicial Personnel issue).

Analysis and Relevance

The legal education received from most law schools covers similar content. The curricula generally feature courses on such topics as contracts, criminal procedure, and constitutional law. The basis of study in these courses are appellate court opinions. The objective of these courses is to convey substantive principles of law as well as appropriate techniques of legal analysis. Some are critical of law school curricula, asserting that law students receive less practical preparation than is necessary to practice law. In response, a number of law schools have added clinical programs that allow students to gain some experience in local courts and in conducting negotiations on behalf of clients. The law school experience is a socializing process for prospective lawyers. Students learn to approach and solve problems in a particular way; they come to think in a similar way. Attitudes and values are also affected. Law students learn, for example, that use of nontraditional or unconventional approaches are generally unsuccessful. Law students also come to learn that particular specializations and association with large law firms carry the greatest rewards both in terms of professional status and income.

Notes and References

  1. Definition of Legal Education from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California

Legal Education in the United States

Education to become a lawyer. Worldwide requisites

The educational prerequisites to becoming a lawyer vary greatly from country to country. In some countries, law is taught by a faculty of law, which is a department of a university’s general undergraduate college.[51] Law students in those countries pursue a Master or Bachelor of Laws degree. In some countries it is common or even required for students to earn another bachelor’s degree at the same time. Nor is the LL.B the sole obstacle; it is often followed by a series of advanced examinations, apprenticeships, and additional coursework at special government institutes.[52]

In other countries, particularly the United States, law is primarily taught at law schools. In the United States[53] and countries following the American model, (such as Canada[54] with the exception of the province of Quebec) law schools are graduate/professional schools where a bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite for admission. Most law schools are part of universities but a few are independent institutions. Law schools in the United States (and some in Canada and elsewhere) award graduating students a J.D. (Juris Doctor/Doctor of Jurisprudence) (as opposed to the Bachelor of Laws) as the practitioner’s law degree. However, like other professional doctorates (including the M.D.), the J.D. is not the exact equivalent of the Ph.D., since it does not require the submission of a full dissertation based on original research. Many schools also offer post-doctoral law degrees such as the LL.M (Legum Magister/Master of Laws), or the S.J.D. (Scientiae Juridicae Doctor/Doctor of the Science of Law) for students interested in advancing their knowledge and credentials in a specific area of law.

The methods and quality of legal education vary widely. Some countries require extensive clinical training in the form of apprenticeships or special clinical courses.[55] Others do not, like Venezuela.[56] A few countries prefer to teach through assigned readings of judicial opinions (the casebook method) followed by intense in-class cross-examination by the professor (the Socratic method).[57][58] Many others have only lectures on highly abstract legal doctrines, which forces young lawyers to figure out how to actually think and write like a lawyer at their first apprenticeship (or job).[59][60][61] Depending upon the country, a typical class size could range from five students in a seminar to five hundred in a giant lecture room. In the United States, law schools maintain small class sizes, and as such, grant admissions on a more limited and competitive basis.[62]

Some students have a preference for full-time law programs,[63] while others often work full- or part-time to pay the tuition and fees of their part-time law programs.[64][65]

Law schools in developing countries share several common problems, such as an overreliance on practicing judges and lawyers who treat teaching as a part-time hobby (and a concomitant scarcity of full-time law professors);[66][67] incompetent faculty with questionable credentials;[68] and textbooks that lag behind the current state of the law by two or three decades.[69][70]

Earning the right to practice law

Main articles: Call to the bar and Admission to the bar

Some jurisdictions grant a “diploma privilege” to certain institutions, so that merely earning a degree or credential from those institutions is the primary qualification for practicing law.[71] Mexico allows anyone with a law degree to practice law.[72] However, in a large number of countries, a law student must pass a bar examination (or a series of such examinations) before receiving a license to practice.[71][73][74] In a handful of U.S. states, one may become an attorney by simply passing the bar examination, without having to attend law school first (though very few people actually become lawyers that way).[75]

Some countries require a formal apprenticeship with an experienced practitioner, while others do not. For example, a few jurisdictions still allow an apprenticeship in place of any kind of formal legal education (though the number of persons who actually become lawyers that way is increasingly rare).[76]

Career structure
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln is a famous example of a lawyer-turned-politician.
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln is a famous example of a lawyer-turned-politician.

The career structure of lawyers varies widely from one country to the next.

Common law/civil law

In most common law countries, especially those with fused professions, lawyers have many options over the course of their careers. Besides private practice, they can always aspire to becoming a prosecutor, government counsel, corporate in-house counsel, administrative law judge, judge, arbitrator, law professor, or politician.[77] There are also many non-legal jobs which legal training is good preparation for, such as corporate executive, government administrator, investment banker, entrepreneur, or journalist.[78] In developing countries like India, a large majority of law students never actually practice, but simply use their law degree as a foundation for careers in other fields.[79]

In most civil law countries, lawyers generally structure their legal education around their chosen specialty; the boundaries between different types of lawyers are carefully defined and hard to cross. After one earns a law degree, career mobility may be severely constrained. For example, unlike their American counterparts,[80] it is difficult for German judges to leave the bench and become advocates in private practice.[81] Another interesting example is France, where for much of the 20th century, all magistrates were graduates of an elite professional school for judges. Although the French magistracy has begun experimenting with the Anglo-American model of appointing judges from accomplished advocates, the few advocates who have actually joined the bench this way are looked down upon by their colleagues who have taken the traditional route to magistracy.[82]

In a few civil law countries, such as Sweden,[83] the legal profession is not rigorously bifurcated and everyone within it can easily change roles and arenas.


In many countries, lawyers are general practitioners who will take almost any kind of case that walks in the door.[84] In others, there has been a tendency since the start of the 20th century for lawyers to specialize early in their careers.[85][86] In countries where specialization is prevalent, many lawyers specialize in representing one side in one particular area of the law; thus, it is common in the United States to hear of plaintiffs’ personal injury attorneys.[87]


Lawyers in private practice generally work in specialized businesses known as law firms,[88] with the exception of English barristers. The vast majority of law firms worldwide are small businesses that range in size from 1 to 10 lawyers.[89] The United States, with its large number of firms with more than 50 lawyers, is an exception.[90] The United Kingdom and Australia are also exceptions, as the UK, Australia and the U.S. are now home to several firms with more than 1,000 lawyers after a wave of mergers in the late 1990s.

Notably, barristers in England and Wales and some states in Australia do not work in “law firms”. Those who offer their services to the general public — as opposed to those working “in house” — are required to be self-employed.[91] Most work in groupings known as “sets” or “chambers”, where some administrative and marketing costs are shared. An important effect of this different organizational structure is that there is no conflict of interest where barristers in the same chambers work for opposing sides in a case, and in some specialised chambers this is commonplace.

Lawrence M. Friedman and Rogelio Pérez-Perdomo, “Latin Legal Cultures in the Age of Globalization,” in Legal Culture in the Age of Globalization: Latin
America and Latin Europe, eds. Lawrence M. Friedman and Rogelio Pérez-Perdomo, 1-19 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 6.
Abel, England and Wales, 45-59; Rokumoto, 165; and Schuyt, 204.
Wayne L. Anderson and Marilyn J. Headrick, The Legal Profession: Is it for you? (Cincinnati: Thomson Executive Press, 1996), 52-53.
Anonymous, “Careers in the legal profession offer a variety of opportunities: While we may not think about it often, the legal system affects us every day,” The Telegram, 14 April 2004, D8.
Olgiati, 345.
Pérez-Perdomo, “Venezuelan Legal Profession,” 384.
Robert H. Miller, Law School Confidential: A Complete Guide to the Law School Experience, By Students, for Students (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000), 25-27.
Anderson, 4-10.
Friedman and Pérez-Perdomo, 6; Blankenburg, 132; and Olgiati, 345.
Sergio Lopez-Ayllon and Hector Fix-Figaro, ” ‘Faraway, So Close!’ The Rule of Law and Legal Change in Mexico: 1970-2000,” in Legal Culture in the Age of Globalization: Latin America and Latin Europe, eds. Lawrence M. Friedman and Rogelio Pérez-Perdomo, 285-351 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 324.
Herbert Hausmaninger, “Austrian Legal Education,” 43 S. Tex. L. Rev. 387, 388 and 400 (2002).
Miller, 42-60.
Abel, American Lawyers, 57; Miller, 25; and Murray, 337.
Falcão, 410.
J.S. Gandhi, “Past and Present: A Sociological Portrait of the Indian Legal Profession,” in Lawyers in Society: The Common Law World, vol. 1, eds. Richard L. Abel and Philip S.C. Lewis, 369-382 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 375.
Lopez-Ayllon, 324.
Eliane Botelho Junqueira, “Brazil: The Road of Conflict Bound for Total Justice,” in Legal Culture in the Age of Globalization: Latin America and Latin Europe, eds. Lawrence M. Friedman and Rogelio Pérez-Perdomo, 64-107 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 89.
Junqueira, 89.
Rogelio Pérez-Perdomo, “Venezuela, 1958-1999: The Legal System in an Impaired Democracy,” in Legal Culture in the Age of Globalization: Latin America and Latin Europe, eds. Lawrence M. Friedman and Rogelio Perez-Perdomo, 414-478 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 459. For example, a 1997 study found that not a single law school in Venezuela had bothered to integrate any part of the Convention on Children’s Rights into its curriculum, even though Venezuela had signed the treaty in 1990 and subsequently modified its domestic laws to bring them into compliance. Rather than embark on curriculum reform, Venezuelan law schools now offer special postgraduate courses so that recent graduates can bring their legal knowledge up-to-date with current law.
Lopez-Ayllon, 324.
a b Abel, American Lawyers, 62.
Lopez-Ayllon, 330.
Miller, 335-341.
Alan A. Paterson, “The Legal Profession in Scotland: An Endangered Species or a Problem Case for Market Theory?” in Lawyers in Society: The Common Law World, vol. 1, eds. Richard L. Abel and Philip S.C. Lewis, 76-122 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 89.
G. Jeffrey MacDonald, “The self-made lawyer: Not every attorney goes to law school,” The Christian Science Monitor, 3 June 2003, 13.
Weisbrot, 266.
Abel, American Lawyers, 167-175; Abel, England and Wales, 214; Arthurs, 131; Gandhi, 374; and Weisbrot, 277.
Anderson, 124-131.
Gandhi, 374.
Although it is common for former American judges to return to private practice, it is highly controversial for them to suggest that they still retain any judicial powers (for example, by wearing judicial robes in advertisements). Brad McElhinny, “Workman criticized for using robe in ad: Group files State Bar complaint about the way former justice seeks clients,” Charleston Daily Mail, 3 February 2005, 1A.
Blankenburg, 133.
Boigeol, “The Rise of Lawyers,” 202.
Bernard Michael Ortwein II, “The Swedish Legal System: An Introduction,” 13 Ind. Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 405, 440-445 (2003).
Olgiati, 353.
Abel, American Lawyers, 122.
Michael H. Trotter, Profit and the Practice of Law: What’s Happened to the Legal Profession (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1997), 50.
Herbert M. Kritzer, “The fracturing legal profession: the case of plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyers,” 8 Int’l J. Legal Prof. 225, 228-231 (2001).
Anderson, 111-117.
Hazard, 39.
Junqueira, 92. According to this source, as of 2003, there were 901 law firms with more than 50 lawyers in the United States.
Gary Slapper and David Kelly, The English Legal System, 7th ed. (London: Cavendish Publishing Ltd., 2004), 550.

See also:

Legal education in the Philippines
Continuing Legal Education
Legal education in the United States
Legal education in the United Kingdom
Public legal education
Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund
Institute for Political and Legal Education

Legal Education


Further Reading

  • Applause (letter), Koskoff, Thomas I., 60: 464 (May '77, AJS Judicature)
  • Apprenticeship Programs (letter), McLaughlin, Walter H., 60: 464 (May '77, AJS Judicature)
  • Art of Relevancy (letter), Drinan, Robert F., 61: 5 (Jun.-Jul. '77, AJS Judicature)
  • Bread-And-Butter Work (letter), Enright, Thomas C., 64: 298 (Feb. '81, AJS Judicature)
  • Can We Bring The Courtroom To The Classroom (query), Tauro, G. Joseph, 62: 108-110 (Sep. '78, AJS Judicature)
  • The Case Against South Carolina's Bar Admission Program (letter), Blackmar, Charles B., 64: 253-255 (Dec.-Jan. '81, AJS Judicature)
  • Continuing Education (letter), Krizman, Frederick E., 60: 160-161 (Nov. '76, AJS Judicature)
  • Did The Devitt Committee Find Problems Worthy Of Its Solutions? (query), Renfrew, Charles B., 64: 58-59, 100 (Aug. '80, AJS Judicature)
  • Dispute Resolution: The Periphery Becomes the Core (review essay), Menkel-Meadow, Carrie, 69: 300-304 (Feb.-Mar. '86, AJS Judicature)
  • Drake University Law School lauded for integrated ethics and professional curriculum (focus), Eckley, Timothy S., 92: 167-168, 178 (4, AJS Judicature)
  • Educating the Public About Courts and the Law (review essay), Smith, Christopher E., 75: 109-113 (Aug.-Sep. '91, AJS Judicature)
  • The Empirical Turn In Legal Education (editorial), Editorial, AJS, 89: 312, 351 (6, AJS Judicature)
  • Endorsement (letter), Rutter, Thomas B., 60: 464 (May '77, AJS Judicature)
  • The English Bar (letter), Coquillette, Daniel R., 61: 5 (Jun.-Jul. '77, AJS Judicature)
  • Ensuring Lawyer Competency: The South Carolina Approach, Littlejohn, Bruce, 64: 109-113 (Sep. '80, AJS Judicature)
  • An Excellent Introduction (letter), Mashayedi, Megan Marjan, 76: 220 (Feb.-Mar. '93, AJS Judicature)
  • Georgetown establishes degree program for journalists (brief), Richert, David, 90: 182 (Jan-Feb '07, AJS Judicature)
  • Graduate Schools in Trial Advocacy – Has Their Day Finally Come? (query), Tauro, G. Joseph, 60: 310-311 (Feb. '77, AJS Judicature)
  • A holistic approach to criminal justice scholarship (viewpoint), Pizzi, William T., 79: 58-59, 102 (Sept.-Oct. '95, AJS Judicature)
  • How the U.S. News rankings affect American legal education, Clark, Hunter R., 91: 80-85 (Sep-Oct '07, AJS Judicature)
  • Ill-Advised Rules (letter), Burkoff, John M., 64: 200 (Nov. '80, AJS Judicature)
  • Improving Federal Trial Advocacy, Devitt, Edward J., 60: 486-495 (May '77, AJS Judicature)
  • Is A Balance Between Experience and Theory in Legal Education Possible? (query), Bright, Myron H., 65: 338-339 (Feb. '82, AJS Judicature)
  • Law School and Professional Responsibility: The Impact of Legal Education on Public Interest Practice, Stover, Robert V., 66: 194-206 (Nov. '82, AJS Judicature)
  • Law-Related Education: The Mock Trial Program in Chicago, Sodaro, Dean J. and DeBoice, Geraldine S., 62: 422-424 (Apr. '79, AJS Judicature)
  • Law-Related Education: The Street Law Program In Washington D.C., Johnson, Norma Holloway, 62: 425-427 (Apr. '79, AJS Judicature)
  • Learning the Law (retrospect), Winters, Glenn R., 61: 45, 49 (Jun.-Jul. '77, AJS Judicature)
  • Let the People Observe Their Courts, Weinstein, Jack B. and Zimmerman, Diane L., 61: 156-165 (Oct. '77, AJS Judicature)
  • Maintaining Our Republic: The Vital Role of Citizen Education, Pirraglia, Robert K., 71: 284-286 (Feb.-Mar. '88, AJS Judicature)
  • A Massachusetts Program That Brings Kids to Court – And Courts to Kids (focus), Camp, Julie Van, 65: 166-169 (Sep. '81, AJS Judicature)
  • Mr. Sullivan's Response (letter), Sullivan, J. Thomas, 68: 58 (Aug.-Sep. '84, AJS Judicature)
  • Need for Advocates (letter), Jordan, Barbara, 61: 5 (Jun.-Jul. '77, AJS Judicature)
  • A New Use for Videotape – Reenacting Landmark Cases, Author, No, 61: 253 (Dec.-Jan. '78, AJS Judicature)
  • No Enthusiasm For New Bar Rules (letter), Matthias, Ronald S. and McArthur, John R., 64: 252 (Dec.-Jan. '81, AJS Judicature)
  • Opposing More Legal Fees (letter), Meyer, Norman H., Jr., 68: 58 (Aug.-Sep. '84, AJS Judicature)
  • Panel Studies Ways To Improve Lawyer Competency In U.S. Courts (news), Author, No, 62: 149 (Sep. '78, AJS Judicature)
  • Qualifying for the Bar (letter), Brown, Robert Howard, 65: 176 (Oct. '81, AJS Judicature)
  • The reemergence of tribal society and traditional justice systems, Vicenti, Carey N., 79: 134-141 (Nov.-Dec. '95, AJS Judicature)
  • A Respectful Dissent (letter), Krivosha, Norman, 64: 200-201 (Nov. '80, AJS Judicature)
  • Restricting Law Student Employment (letter), Martinie, Steve, 68: 57 (Aug.-Sep. '84, AJS Judicature)
  • Serious Problem (letter), Brooke, Edward W., 61: 5 (Jun.-Jul. '77, AJS Judicature)
  • Should Court Reform Begin in the Classroom? (query), Cooley, John W., 76: 221, 272-273 (Feb.-Mar. '93, AJS Judicature)
  • Should Users of the Legal System Pay for Legal Education? (query), Sullivan, J. Thomas, 68: 6-7, 47-48 (Jun.-Jul. '84, AJS Judicature)
  • Sink or Swim (letter), Gottlieb, Norman N., 60: 464 (May '77, AJS Judicature)
  • A Successful Experiment (letter), Tauro, G. Joseph, 61: 300 (Feb. '78, AJS Judicature)
  • Toward a More Competent Bar, Heidenreich, Douglas R., 60: 21-27 (Jun.-Jul. '76, AJS Judicature)
  • Tragic Phenomenon (letter), Hennessey, Edward F., 61: 5 (Jun.-Jul. '77, AJS Judicature)
  • Training Advocates (letter), Jeans, James W., 60: 464 (May '77, AJS Judicature)
  • Trial practicum integral to first-year law school curriculum, Lovell, Russell E., III, 90: 114-119 (Nov-Dec '06, AJS Judicature)
  • Would A Residency Program Improve Lawyer Competency? (query), Krivosha, Norman, 65: 6-9, 49 (Jun.-Jul. '81, AJS Judicature)


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