Personal injury lawyers make up about 10 percent of the 800,000 to 1.2 million total attorneys practicing in the U.S. This area of law practice can involve long hours and stressful cases, but can also be one of the most rewarding career choices. As a personal injury lawyer, you’ll be able to represent people dealing with serious, potentially life-altering injuries and illnesses and help them recover the compensation they need to move forward.
If you’re interested in a personal injury law career, how can you get started? Is there a specific path you should take in college or law school, or can personal injury law draw from a variety of backgrounds? Below are some tips and tricks on how you can grow a successful personal injury law career, with steps to take in college, law school, and beyond.
Why Personal Injury Law?
Personal injury lawyers represent one of the broadest sectors of cases. Personal injury lawsuits can encompass the following, and more:
- Slip-and-fall cases
- Product liability
- Food poisoning
- Car, motorcycle, and ATV accidents
- Boating accidents
- Sexual assault
- Premises liability
- Medical malpractice
- Workplace accidents
- Wrongful death
The circumstances that create a personal injury claim can often mark one of the worst days of the plaintiff’s life. As a result, to be a successful personal injury attorney, you’ll need to have compassion and sensitivity toward your clients’ struggles. Being an advocate who will stand up for your clients’ rights and help them battle against well-funded insurance companies, healthcare providers, and other defendants means you’ll have an important and needed role in the legal community.
You’ll often find yourself inspired by your clients, as well. It can be tough to persevere in the face of major injuries, particularly when they’ve suffered as a result of someone else’s negligent or reckless behavior. Encountering these brave clients on a regular basis can give you the push you need to fight as hard as possible for fair compensation for their injuries.
And although personal injury law, like all facets of the law, has some elements that are routine and even boring, it’s also constantly changing. As new technologies develop, so do new ways to cause injury—and from self-driving vehicle crashes to privacy-invading photographic drones, there will always be cutting-edge topics and challenges in personal injury law. Being able to adapt to these changes and argue as to how current laws can apply to brand-new actions can put you ahead of the pack.
Setting Yourself Up for Personal Injury Success
If you think a personal injury career may be right for you, there are some things you can do now—whether you’re still in college or have already moved on to law school—to set yourself up for success.
To become a lawyer, you’ll need to get an undergraduate degree (generally either a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science) and then complete three years of law school. After that, to become a licensed attorney, you’ll need to pass the bar exam in the state or states you hope to practice law in. (If you’ve already been licensed as an attorney outside the U.S., you may be able to skip this process by taking your state’s bar exam or getting an additional two-year LLM degree from an accredited law school.)
There are some exceptions to this process. For example, California allows non-law-school graduates (and even non-college graduates) to take the state’s bar exam as long as they’ve studied at least four years under the supervision of an attorney or a judge. And Wisconsin has “diploma privilege” for graduates of its two in-state law schools, allowing University of Wisconsin and Marquette University law graduates to obtain admission to the state bar simply by graduating.
These exceptions are rare, though, and most states require seven solid years of college and law school education before you can become a licensed attorney.
Get Good Grades in College
The better your college transcript, the more competitive you’ll be when it comes time to apply to law school. However, don’t sacrifice a rigorous course of study just to pursue a 4.0. Your prospective law schools will want to see that you have a well-rounded education that includes a good mix of classes, particularly those that challenge you.
You don’t necessarily need to major in criminal justice or pre-law to be on the fast track to law school. Because personal injury attorneys often have to interpret and explain complicated medical jargon, majoring in biology, nursing, or even pre-med can give you an upper hand when it comes time to dive into a personal injury claim. Personal injury attorneys must also interpret complex insurance policy terms and corporate structures, particularly when deciding who to sue in a claim, so a business background can benefit future personal injury attorneys.
And while being accepted (and going) to a lower-ranked law school won’t doom your chances of success in the legal industry, a better college transcript can mean more scholarship offers—and more options.
Take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)
Most law schools heavily base their admissions on the applicant’s college transcript and performance on the LSAT. This test is designed to measure applicants’ logic, critical reading, task management and prioritization, and research skills. Although a solid performance on the LSAT doesn’t guarantee success in law school, those who struggle with the LSAT or have scores in the average range may find law school (and the practice of law) more of a challenge.
Because the LSAT is a unique type of test (and fast-paced enough that it may be tough to even answer all the questions in time), you may benefit from taking it more than once. If you receive a higher score on your second or subsequent attempt, you can opt to submit this score—not your lower one—to prospective law schools.
Apply to Law Schools
Once you have a satisfactory LSAT score in hand, it’s time to apply to law school. With fewer than 200 accredited law schools in the U.S., the admissions process at the top schools can be highly competitive, so it’s a good idea to get an early start. And because so many college students apply to multiple law schools, you may find yourself on several waitlists. As students make their final admission decisions, those on the waitlist can be bumped up or receive an admissions offer.
Earn a Juris Doctor (JD)
After three years of law school, you’ll receive a JD degree and be eligible to take the bar exam in the state you’d like to practice in. (This doesn’t have to be the state you attended law school in—as long as your school is accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA), you’ll generally be qualified to take the bar exam in any U.S. state or territory.
Most law schools have standard courses you’ll be required to take, especially the first year. These include Torts, Contracts, Constitutional Law, Criminal Procedure, Civil Procedure, and Legal Writing. But in your second and third years of law school, you’ll have more opportunities to take classes that are interesting to you or may be useful in your legal career, like Litigation, Medical Malpractice, Employment Law, and Environmental Law.
Take Advantage of Internships
While you’re in law school, you may have the opportunity to intern with a practicing attorney or serve as law clerk to a judge. Not all of these internships are paid; however, even unpaid internships can offer an invaluable view into the nitty-gritty of practicing law. You may find that a particular sector of the law just isn’t for you, or you could discover a new love for your desired practice area. By getting some hands-on experience before you graduate law school, you’ll be more prepared to hit the ground running in your first legal job.
Take (and Pass) the Bar Exam and MPRE
In addition to taking the bar exam, most states also require bar applicants to take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). This test measures a prospective attorney’s knowledge of legal ethics and professional responsibility standards.
If you don’t pass the bar exam the first time, don’t despair. Most states allow applicants to retake the bar as many times as they need to, although many only administer it once or twice per year. There are a variety of state-specific test preparation materials that can help you prepare for the bar exam, so don’t be afraid to take advantage of them—unlike college and law school, where grades can range from A through F, the bar exam is a pass/fail process. Whether you pass the exam by one point or 100, you’ll be admitted to the practice of law.
It’s also important to remember that one of the key benefits of practicing law is that you don’t have to confine yourself to one specific field. If you decide personal injury law isn’t your niche, even after you’ve begun practicing, there’s nothing stopping you from moving to another area of law, becoming a professor, or even running for judge. But if you’re like many personal injury attorneys, you’ll discover that the brave clients, interesting fact patterns, and fast-paced atmosphere of this niche make it one of the most rewarding legal jobs out there.