The Three Levels of Courts in the US

As Americans, we have a civic duty to understand how our government, which represents us, is organized. We should also understand the functions of the various branches of government and their different parts. The structure and functions of the judicial branches of our state and federal governments are no exception to that rule. Generally speaking, the court systems in the United States are divided into three levels: trial courts, courts of appeals, and courts of last resort. This is true of both the federal and state judiciaries.

Level 1. Trial Courts

Trial courts are the courts where virtually all lawsuits are filed. They go by many different names, like district courts or county courts, but they serve similar functions. Trial courts are the first courts to deal with a lawsuit. As the name suggests, they are courts where trials are conducted. Parties file pleadings with the trial court to initiate a lawsuit, and discovery is conducted under the supervision of the trial-court judge. The trial court will also make rulings on what evidence will be admitted in the case, and will often submit any factual disputes between the parties to a jury for them to determine which side is right. The judgment of the trial court is subject to appeal, most often to a court of appeals, but in rare cases, directly to the court of last resort.

Level 2. Courts of Appeals

If a party to a lawsuit is unhappy with the outcome in the trial court, he or she can appeal to the second level of courts, a court of appeals. At the federal level and in some states, there are multiple different courts of appeals with jurisdiction over specified geographical areas. Some states have just one court of appeals that covers the entire state. However structured, courts of appeals review the proceedings in and judgments of trial courts to make sure that they were conducted properly and no legal errors were made. Courts of appeals normally do not accept evidence. Instead, the parties file legal briefs explaining where they think the trial court went wrong, or explaining why they think the trial court was right. The parties may then appear for oral argument before the court of appeals, where the judges will ask them questions about the basis for their appeal. The legal rulings of a court of appeals are binding on any trial courts within that court of appeals’ geographic jurisdiction. The decisions of a court of appeals are subject to further review by the court of last resort.

Level 3. Courts of Last Resort

The court of last resort in a judicial system is usually known as the Supreme Court. For example, the United States Supreme Court is the court of last resort in the federal judiciary. Two states, Texas and Oklahoma, actually have two different courts of last resort, one with jurisdiction over civil lawsuits, and one with jurisdiction in criminal cases. Confusingly, New York calls its state court of last resort the New York Court of Appeals. New York’s supreme courts are actually trial courts. In any event, the court or courts of last resort in a judicial system are the system’s highest judicial authority. Once they decide a legal question, there is no other court to appeal to, except in cases where a state court of last resort decides a question of federal law. Like courts of appeals, a court of last resort does not conduct trials. The parties will submit briefs containing their arguments, and may be asked to give oral arguments before the judges or justices. The decisions of a court of last resort are called “opinions,” and explain the court’s reasoning in deciding the case as it did.

picture of the supreme court

These days, very few cases actually go to trial in a trial court, let alone work their way up through the entire court structure to the court of last resort. But understanding the court system is still an important part of being an American citizen. The courts are one branch of the governments that represent us, so we should at least have a basic familiarity with their structure and functions. For more on this, you can visit the the Justice.gov article on the federal court system.

How to Become a Lawyer

If you’ve landed on my site, chances are that you are interested in becoming a lawyer. If that is the case, good for you! While a being a lawyer may not be as animated as the television shows, “How to Get Away with Murder” or “Suits,” – it can be a rewarding career choice. That being said, how does one actually become a lawyer? What steps need to be taken to do embark on that journey?

If you would like the answers to those questions, keep on reading!

1. Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree

First and foremost, you must obtain a bachelor’s degree. A lot of people are confused about how many years of schooling it actually takes to become a lawyer. On average, it takes about seven years. You will spend four years in undergraduate school obtaining a bachelor’s degree, and three years in law school obtaining your juris doctorate degree.

studying a legal book

One of the benefits of becoming a lawyer, is that your bachelor’s degree does not need to be in any particular field. While a lot of law students major in political science, English, and psychology – that is not required. The only time that you will be required to major in a particular field, is if you would like to go into patent law. Even in that case, there are other methods you can look into if you did not major in any of the required fields for patent law. If you plan on going into patent law, make sure you research, contact various law school schools, and speak to patent attorneys, to see what degree you should major in in undergrad to get into patent law. You should also investigate the different options available if you did not to major in one of the required fields.

2. Take the LSAT Exam

The next step that you want to take, is to take the LSAT exam. The LSAT is a one-day test that is broken up into five different parts. The LSAT also includes an essay section on the test. The essay section will not be given a score, but the law schools that you apply to will have access to a copy of your essay.

There are various study programs that can help you prepare for your LSAT. It is also extremely important to know when you should take your LSAT, so contact admissions for the law schools you are interested in, the appropriate advisers at your undergrad school, and the LSAC website (yes, I mean LSAC), in order to determine when you need to take your test.

3. Apply to Law School

Third, you must apply to law school – an ABA approved law school to be exact (Make sure that the law schools that you apply to are ABA approved! A lot of states will not permit you to take the bar exam if you do not attend an ABA approved law school).

decide which school to apply to

Your GPA and what you make on the LSAT are going to be important when applying to law school. If you did not have a strong GPA in undergrad, do not be discouraged. Work hard on obtaining a high LSAT score, and you will still be able to compete with all the other law students to get into law school. That being said, if you are still in undergrad, make sure that you focus on keeping a good GPA. Try to apply to as many law schools as possible. Of course you will have your favorites, but give yourself options. Also, find out the GPA and LSAT requirements for the schools that you will be applying to.

4. Attend Law School and Earn a Law Degree

Notice that this sections says earn a law degree. That is exactly what you will be doing. Law school takes a lot of work, and a lot of time. You will take various classes that will teach about legal writing, the law itself, interpreting the law, and learning how to think like a lawyer. You are giving up three years of your life to enter into a world that will change your life for the better. Make sure that you take advantage of that. Apply for internships, network, and most importantly, do not be afraid to ask for help. Law school is not hard – it just takes a lot of hard work. When you walk out of there three years later with your juris doctorate degree, it will all be worth it.

5. The MPRE Exam and The Bar Exam

Even though you now have that wonderful piece of paper in your hands (your juris doctorate degree), it is not over yet. In order to practice law, you must take and pass the MPRE and bar exams. The MPRE exam is an ethics test that is given three times a year. It can be taken while you are still in law school or after you graduate from law school.

The bar exam is given twice a year in each state, and can only be taken once you have completed a certain amount of hours, or after you have graduated. It is typically a 2-3-day test (depending on the state that you are taking it in). The test is a comprehensive bundle of a variety of the subjects that you learned throughout law school. It can be intense, but it is nothing that you cannot handle.

You must pass both the MPRE and the bar exam to become a licensed attorney (The word attorney is the name used for those who are licensed. However, a lot of people still call attorneys, lawyers).

6. Set out of for Greatness

Now that you have put in the work, fought for your goals, and never gave up, it is time for you to go out and be the best attorney that you can be. You can apply for jobs at law firms, work for the government, become a solo practitioner – it is all up to you. Sometimes, it can be tough trying to get your foot into the doors of the legal community. However, if work hard for what you desire and stay positive, you will achieve greatness. Hope you enjoy this and my site, there’s a lot more where this came from!