The legal profession is one of the oldest and most respected paths so it's no marvel that many people are interested in learning how to become a lawyer. If you want to become a legal professional, you may be wondering how to get started.
Factors to consider if you want to become a lawyer
Unlike many other jobs and career paths, becoming a lawyer involves four major steps:
- Acquiring educational and testing credentials that are required by law school admissions departments
- Getting accepted by and then going to an accredited law school
- Obtaining a legal degree
- Picking to take a state bar exam in the state where you will be admitted to practice law
Only after you've checked off those steps will you be capable of embarking on a legal career and be able to truly become a lawyer.
In fact, almost every aspect of becoming a lawyer is regulated, and the process of both becoming an attorney (and maintaining your status as a practicing lawyer) is largely determined in the United States by the voluntary professional trade organization, the American Bar Association or the state bar associations in the state where you intend to practice as a lawyer.
The American Bar Association comprises 400,000 members (who include law students in addition to practicing lawyers) and was established in 1787 to accredit law schools, establish model ethical codes for attorneys and provide lawyers with practical resources. Each state bar has different rules governing the process of becoming a practicing attorney (including the contents of the bar examination), as well as different requirements for maintaining your ability to practice law over the years.
Let's dive into crafting your future in law.
What are the educational requirements for becoming a lawyer?
You need several years of higher education and to have passed specific tests to become a lawyer. Here are the educational requirements.
1. Receive an undergraduate degree.
The American Bar Association has accredited 205 law schools in the United States.
You don't need to major in a particular discipline; if you’re in college you don’t have to specialize in legal studies or anything designated “pre-law” in order to be eligible for admission to a law school. You may study a wide range of subjects while you are an undergraduate, but keep in mind that your GPA and academic performance, as well as your extracurricular activities, can be taken into consideration, just as they were when you applied to college.
2. Take a standardized law school admissions exam.
The Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) is used by law school admissions departments to assess an applicant’s readiness for law school. The examination is intended to measure skills that are considered important for success in law schools, such as the ability to read and comprehend complex texts accurately, being able to organize and draw inferences from presented information and the ability to think critically, analyze and evaluate the arguments and reasoning of others.
The exam includes four graded multiple-choice questions and one ungraded writing sample. Each test taker is allotted 35 minutes for each section. Your LSAT score is an important predictor of what law school you will be accepted into, with the most prestigious law schools requiring top percentile LSAT scores.
3. Graduate from an accredited law school (most states).
Law school is typically three years, and ABA-accredited law schools require a certain curriculum to be taught to law students. Most state bar rules state that practicing attorneys be graduates of law schools and obtain a degree called the Juris Doctor (also known as a “J.D.”).
Ongoing legal education usually is with the intent of obtaining advanced legal degrees such as the Master of Law (also known as the LLM) and the Doctor of Philosophy law degree (Ph.D.). These degrees are popular among those interested in pursuing an academic or research-oriented legal career.
Law school is expensive and can lead to a lot of student loans. According to U.S. News data, the average cost of a full-time law school degree was $46,164 in the 2016-2017 academic school year. Note that the median salary for a first-year lawyer was $68,300 and $52,000 in the private and public sectors, respectively, in 2015.
Like many rules, there are also state-level exceptions to the rule about attending law school. Here are some examples:
- In California, Vermont, Virginia and Washington, you are not required to attend law school to practice law. You may also obtain the right to practice in those states if ultimately pass the state bar exam and obtain a law apprenticeship, which involves on-the-job training under the steering of mentors.
- According to the Sustainable Economies Law Center, in California, the requirements for avoiding law school and practicing under this legal apprenticeship path requires four years of 19 hours per week of work (five of which are directly supervised) under the supervision of an attorney with five years of active legal practice in the state. The California State Bar will also require progress reports and monthly tests during your apprenticeship.
- In Vermont, legal apprenticeships last four years and must occur under the supervision of an attorney with at least three years of experience. In Virginia, you must find an attorney who has been practicing for at least one year to supervise you for a year and be willing to forego compensation or employment while you study for a minimum of 40 weeks and 25 hours per week, for three years.
- Within the states of New York, Maine and Wyoming, those apprenticeships must be combined with attendance (but not necessarily graduation from) law school. This option may be best suited for those who attend law school but want to avoid high legal tuition bills or simply are less academically oriented. In New York, for instance, you must only attend one year of law school before you can apprentice for three years.
- Similarly, in Maine, if you attend two years of law school and combine this with one year of apprenticeship, you can become a practicing attorney in the state upon passing the Maine state bar.
- Finally, in the state of Washington, apprentices must pay an annual fee but are also required to be employed in a law office for four years under the supervision of an attorney for a minimum of three hours of direct supervision per week. Combined with study, if an apprentice’s hours are at least 30 between law school, she can become an attorney without a law school degree.
4. Pass a state bar exam.
The state bar is short for “the state bar association,” which is the governing body representing lawyers who practice law within a particular state. Every state’s bar association is slightly different, but most administer the state bar exam and set the rules for legal ethics and the disciplining of attorneys for rule violations. State bars also typically set requirements for lawyers to stay current with legal developments.
You must take separate bar exams in each of the states where you intend to practice. Alternatively, you can take the Multistate Bar Exam (MBEE), a 200 multiple-choice examination developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. Each state has different rules regarding the MBEE exam score that makes a lawyer eligible to practice in their jurisdiction. Either way, you'll want to study for this exam.
There are different kinds of bar associations. Some are “mandatory” or “integrated," meaning a state legislature and court system delegate the authority to a state bar to regulate the activities and admission of attorneys practicing in that state. In other states, membership in the bar associations is voluntary. Sometimes, a mandatory organization exists primarily for the purpose of regulating admission to practice, while a voluntary organization exists for other purposes. For example, in Virginia, the bar association is voluntary on the behalf of attorneys practicing in the state, but the Virginia State Bar oversees the bar exam.
5. Comply with ongoing rules and requirements.
Continuing education is a critical part of the regulation of practicing lawyers. Mostly set by state bar associations, lawyers are required to take regular courses throughout their professional life to stay current with developments in law and legal ethics.
Specialized legal careers
There are more nuanced career paths for attorneys who are interested in particular legal positions. For example, the career path to become a Fortune 500 company’s General Counsel differs from that of a defense attorney for Legal Aid or a path to sitting on the Supreme Court.
The practice of law is diverse and can involve working at all levels of government, non-profit organizations, advocacy groups, or private practice within law firms or working as an in-house lawyer for employers of all sizes. The end-goal is often very different for attorneys embarking on their legal careers but the process to become a lawyer shares some of these general outlines at the outset.
To come to be a lawyer calls for educational investment, certification and an ongoing commitment to legal education and training. There’s a saying that “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” This is certainly not the maxim for anyone who wants to become a lawyer!