CategoryClient Awareness

Legally Attuned blog posts about increasing legal awareness and making sense of the Illinois legal services market.

Lawyer Training: One Attorney’s Take

This post in the Attuned Legal® client awareness series discusses Illinois lawyer training. All content is informational—not legal advice.

A natural follow-up question from last month’s post on how to check that an attorney is licensed to practice in Illinois is what kind of training Illinois lawyers must have before serving clients.

My perspective reflects experiences with the practice of law throughout Illinois. Although I grew up in a West Coast port city (the unimaginatively named Portland, Oregon), my legal career is entirely Illinoisan.

After attending law school at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign College of Law, I practiced in various state and federal courts south of I-80 from Quincy to East St. Louis and Golconda in my first job as an attorney. Since 2017, I’ve been based in Cook County.

Certain quirks of the statewide legal ecosystem that locals take for granted can be confusing to outsiders.

In Illinois, the state pays locally elected judges. Attorneys must meet rigorous educational, character, and knowledge requirements to obtain a law license. There’s a healthy climate of heated yet respectful debate about big-picture policy questions, including the laws and ordinances that impact Attuned Legal® clients.

The flip side of statewide constant grumbling about corruption and partisan politics from all political directions is that nothing is shocking about questioning the government here. It’s a fantastic place to be a lawyer!

Unlike attorneys trained in places where law can be practiced through apprenticeship or only requires undergraduate credentials, the standard path for an Illinois attorney is to:

  1. Graduate from high school or complete similar preliminary education (doesn’t have to be fancy—I hold an Oregon General Equivalency Diploma);
  2. Finish college coursework equivalent to a standard, 90-semester-hour degree from an approved institution (also more flexible than the stereotypes of pre-law students—my undergraduate degree from Prescott College had narrative grades); and
  3. Earn a Juris Doctor (J.D.) at an American Bar Association-approved law school.

As the first attorney in my immediate family, I’m often asked about the return on investment for attending law school, especially after focusing my practice on services for low and middle-income people and small businesses as a participant in the Chicago Bar Foundation’s Justice Entrepreneurs Project legal incubator.

Despite the frequent portrayal of American law school as a kind of extended adolescence for wealthy college graduates, the role of the modern law school is largely to train future legal professionals.

An element of financial risk, along with challenging coursework, likely dissuades many people who don’t want to become attorneys from completing the course of study. Completing a J.D. doesn’t guarantee licensure or a job. Attending law school can be expensive beyond tuition and living expenses in terms of lost income and career progression. Unlike other American degree programs usually recognized as terminal, such as the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), law schools typically don’t fund attendance through graduate assistantships. And, as with any academic pursuit, many valuable opportunities to develop skills are also unpaid.

The steep cost of legal training can be mitigated by seeking scholarships, filling out applications honestly and carefully, and directly asking schools about any potential additional funding before accepting an offer to attend.

The University of Illinois College of Law enticed me with a Lincoln Scholarship covering $90,000, or roughly 74%, of the total out-of-state tuition for the three-year program. (J.D. tuition for the academic year was $40,000 for 2010-11 and $40,800 for each of 2011-12 and 2012-13.) I took out federal student loans to cover the rest of my tuition, room and board, and summer classes. During my second and third years of full-time study, I also held graduate work-study positions supervising tutors at local schools and took exam proctoring gigs.

This approach allowed me to develop practical legal skills via unpaid opportunities clerking for a local trial judge and at the Champaign County Public Defender, which led to my pro bono transcript notation and the hands-on knowledge that has guided my career. Of all the choices I made in law school, the time I spent at the local courthouse understanding how abstract theories and concepts impact real people has been the most valuable.

After graduation, there’s also a little more room for innovation than usually expected. Because I only took out federal student loans, income-driven repayment plans can effectively set my monthly student loan payments based on a percentage of my earnings. (While Attuned Legal® focuses on an underserved market, the firm is a private entity, and my work here doesn’t qualify towards public service loan forgiveness programs.)

I used to feel deeply conflicted about carrying significant educational debt, but the College of Law’s investment in my future through the Lincoln Scholarship and my access to income-driven repayment plans have opened the door to many interesting opportunities. I’m thrilled that my alma mater continues to make real efforts to reduce financial barriers to attendance: most current JD students at Illinois Law receive scholarships.

Training Isn’t Enough: Character and Fitness

Designed to protect potential future clients from predatory or unstable lawyer behavior, character and fitness is a detailed review of an applicant’s history before an Illinois law license is granted. Problems with “honesty, trustworthiness, diligence, or reliability” can result in the applicant not being admitted to practice.

The character and fitness application allowed me to contemplate the twists and turns that brought me to the completion of law school by disclosing what often felt like my entire life story to the licensing authorities I most wanted to impress at the end of an expensive educational journey. My paper copy of the form I had to submit is 69 pages long, and included:

  • every paid or unpaid employment I’d had during the decade before applying, even a few hours as a volunteer at a wildlife center;
  • my attendance, or lack thereof, at a community college where I’d only ever registered for classes that I dropped when my plans changed;
  • my time on academic warning as an undergrad at Prescott College for racking up incompletes as I figured out what I wanted to study; and
  • multiple encounters with law enforcement, such as speeding tickets, being detained by cops as a crime scene was secured, the time I was deemed insufficiently sober to drive by a police offer who pulled over the car in which I was a passenger, and being turned away from entering Canada over a friend’s improperly labeled pill.

The key is that I disclosed everything I could think of in response to the questions. My law license isn’t dependent on hiding anything. This gives me confidence when taking on legal issues, no matter how powerful or well-connected the people are who I must challenge on a client’s behalf, and a very special kind of professional freedom now to write about my actual life.

Law students interested in becoming licensed attorneys may find it helpful to gather needed information as soon as a specific bar application is in mind. Finding all the details can take a lot of time, and consulting with the law school’s Dean of Students or another bar application point person can be very helpful, especially if the form reveals unflattering information not included in the law school application. Also, the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program can be a great resource for mental health and substance abuse questions.

The Bar Exam

The remaining hurdle to becoming an Illinois-licensed attorney is demonstrating basic legal knowledge. For would-be attorneys who aren’t licensed in another state, this means sitting for the bar exam and completing a professional responsibility requirement. Practicing attorneys licensed in other states who otherwise meet the educational and character qualifications can apply on motion.

The bar exam is an interesting tradition. In Illinois, it typically takes place in Chicago on the last consecutive Tuesday and Wednesday of February and July. Many Chicagoans have likely overheard law students experiencing distress in the weeks leading up to the exam. Studying eight to twelve hours a day is common.

The subjects studied in American law schools often aren’t covered or are approached so differently on the bar exam that many students take a separate preparatory course offered through private companies. Some law students work as sales representatives for bar study companies to help cover the cost of these private bar prep classes, which frequently cost over a thousand dollars. What’s more, neither law school coursework nor bar prep studies match the content lawyers need to be familiar with at many legal jobs.

Debate continually rages about this lawyer training and qualification system, but licensed attorneys are still picking up skills through practicing and further study.

For example, an important part of my first job as a lawyer—practice and procedure in the Illinois Court of Claims—was barely mentioned in law school or bar prep. I learned how the tribunal operated by reading the rules and case law, listening to more experienced attorneys, and representing clients in evidentiary hearings.

The Doors of the Profession (Probably) Aren’t Locked

The historically exclusionary tendencies of the legal field have led to many stunted careers. Walking Out the Door: The Facts, Figures, and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice by Roberta Liebenberg and Stephanie Scharf is a great intro to how some of these issues play out.

While the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission hasn’t yet released its 2023 annual report, the 2022 highlights indicate that 40% of Illinois-licensed attorneys were female, .01% were non-binary, and 60% were male. The “Years in Practice by Gender” graphic on the third page shows changing trends, from 49% female and 51% male for attorneys with less than five years of practice to 3% female and 97% male for attorneys with 51 or more years in practice.

The full report doesn’t address personal characteristics beyond gender and age. However, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism has demonstrated a broader commitment to increasing diversity in the profession. These and similar efforts give me hope that the field will continue maturing into inclusivity.

How to Verify a Lawyer is Licensed in Illinois

This post in the Attuned Legal® client awareness series discusses how to check if a lawyer is licensed in Illinois. All content is informational—not legal advice.

Checking Illinois Attorney Qualifications

Attuned Legal® clients, especially those more familiar with legal systems outside Illinois, often want to verify whether a demand letter or phone call came from a legitimate attorney before responding. Assuming the communication is from the person it claims to be and not a scam, several resources are available for checking Illinois attorney qualifications.

Still, remember that a licensed attorney may advocate for a client by presenting a legal argument or position. The message recipient needs independent guidance to determine the communication’s legal effect. Seeking advice right away is important because legal issues can be very time-sensitive.

Free Legal HelpPrivate Attorneys
CARPLS – ☎️ (312) 738-9200
CCLAHD – ☎️ (855) 956-5763
Eviction Help Illinois – ☎️ (855) 631-0811
ILAO Get Legal Help (website)
Lawyers for the Creative Arts (website)
JEP – ☎️ (312) 546-3282
CBA Lawyer Referral Service – ☎️ (312) 554-2001
ISBA Illinois Lawyer Finder – ☎️ (800) 922-8757
Locating Illinois Attorneys
How to Verify an Attorney is Licensed in Illinois

In the United States, law is a profession regulated by individual states. The Illinois Supreme Court is in charge of admission to law practice in Illinois.

An Illinois law license grants an individual attorney permission to handle legal matters for clients at all levels of the state’s courts. Whether an individual attorney holds an active Illinois law license is public information. Anyone can verify whether a lawyer is licensed to serve clients in Illinois by checking with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.

Individual attorneys and not employers hold Illinois law licenses. The lawyer must comply with all applicable rules, including education requirements. Although Illinois attorneys aren’t required to perform volunteer (pro bono) legal services, and employment duties prohibit some from doing so, lawyers report volunteer hours and monetary contributions to organizations providing such services each year as part of registration.

While people can represent themselves in many types of Illinois legal disputes, only licensed attorneys can practice law on behalf of clients. Nonlawyers providing legal services can be reported to the Illinois State Bar Association’s Task Force on Unauthorized Practice of Law.

How to Verify an Attorney is Licensed in Neighboring States

Checking whether a lawyer is licensed in Illinois may not be the end of the path. A client’s physical location doesn’t automatically govern where the lawyer handling a matter needs to be licensed. In places like Chicagoland, where people and goods flow across Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Lake Michigan, a resident of one state might have to find an attorney licensed in a different state to address an everyday legal concern.

Illinois-licensed attorneys aren’t allowed to practice law in other states without following the license procedures required by those jurisdictions. To research whether attorneys are licensed in neighboring states, try the State Bar of Wisconsin Lawyer Search, Indiana Roll of Attorneys, Iowa Lawyer Database, Official Missouri Directory of Lawyers, Kentucky Bar Association Lawyer Locator, and State Bar of Michigan Member Directory Search.

How to Verify an Attorney is Admitted to Practice in Illinois Federal Courts

State law licenses also allow lawyers to apply for permission to practice in specific federal courts. Illinois has three federal district courts, each with its own admissions procedures, which may distinguish between categories of attorneys that don’t exist in the Illinois state scheme.

For example, I’m admitted to practice in the United States District Courts for the Northern District of Illinois and the Central District of Illinois. In a prior role, I held government attorney admission to appear before the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, which expired when I left that job. I’d need to apply for general admission before representing a private client in a Southern District case.

To verify whether an attorney is admitted to practice in a specific federal court, check with the jurisdiction you’re interested in. The Northern District of Illinois offers an online Active General and Trial Bar Members Search.

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