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How to Become a Lawyer and Work at a Law Firm

The legal profession is one of the oldest and most respected profession paths so it's no marvel that, every year, many people are interested in learning how to become a lawyer.

If you suppose you want to become a legal professional, you may be wondering how a legal career develops and what requirements are involved. 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 (e.g. continuing legal education requirements).

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. You Must Attend College and Receive an Undergraduate Degree

The American Bar Association has accredited 205 law schools in the United States. These law schools, for the most part, have admissions requirements that require an undergraduate or Bachelor’s degree on the part of the applicant. 

No particular college major, field of study or degree from any particular bachelor degree program is required by law school admissions departments, so 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. You Must Take a Standardized Law School Admissions Exam

The Law School Admissions Test (popularly known as the LSAT) is a test used by law school admissions departments to assess an applicant’s readiness for law school. As described by the testing organization, “It provides a standard measure of acquired reading and verbal reasoning skills that law schools can use as one of several factors in assessing applicants.” 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 five sections: 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 (similar to the kinds of scores for your SAT exam when it comes to college and university admissions).

3. In Most States, You Must Be Accepted into an Accredited Law School and Graduate

Law school is typically a three-year course of study 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.”).

Further legal education can be pursued for students who are interested, and 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 an expensive undertaking, and it can lead to a lot of student loans. According to U.S. News data, the average cost of a full-time law school degree is $46,164 in the 2016-2017 academic school year. While public schools can offer lower in-state tuition, these educational costs must be factored in, especially in comparison with the median first-year lawyer’s salary in 2015 was $68,300 and $52,000 in the private and public sectors, respectively.

There Are Some Exceptions to the Rule About Attending and Graduating from Law School

Like many rules, there are also state-level exceptions to the overall rule about attending law school set by a handful of state bars. Here are some examples of exceptions:

  • In the states of California, Vermont, Virginia and Washington, you are not required to attend law school in order to practice law. In these states, 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 receiving 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 also last four years and must occur in a law office 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 find they are eager 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 is 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 and study, they meet the necessities to become an attorney without a law school degree.

4. You Must Take and 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 U.S. state. Every state’s bar association is slightly different but most administer the state bar exam (the prerequisite exam determining eligibility to practice law in that state), and also set the rules for legal ethics and the disciplining of attorneys for violations of rules. State bars also typically set the rules and requirements for lawyers to stay current with legal developments (something known as continuing legal education).

For folks who want to practice law in more than one state, you may take separate bar exams in each of the states where you intend to practice. Or you can take something called the Multistate Bar Exam (the MBEE), a 200 multiple-choice examination developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners and taken into account by state bar associations in determining to what extent a test taker has effectively qualified to practice in their jurisdiction. Each state sets rules that allow them to decide how to weigh the MBEE exam score in determining that lawyer’s competence 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” and this means that a state legislature and court system delegates the authority to a state bar to regulate the activities and admission of attorneys practicing in that state. In the other states, membership in the bar associations is voluntary. In some states, a mandatory organization exists primarily for the purpose of regulating admission to practice, while a voluntary organization exists for other purposes. As an example, in the state of Virginia, the bar association is voluntary on the behalf of attorneys practicing in the state but there is an organization called the Virginia State Bar that oversees the bar exam for that state.

There are many voluntary bar associations that can be organized at a more local, geographical level (e.g. county bar associations) or by area of practice (e.g. the bankruptcy law association)

5. You Must Comply With Ongoing Legal Rules and Requirements Such as Continuing Legal Education

Continuing legal education (or “CLE”) is a critical and ongoing part of the regulation of practicing lawyers and the legal profession in the United States. 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. While there is no federal standard for continuing legal education, the American Bar Association endeavors to set “model” rules for continuing legal education requirements.

Lawyers typically earn the required credits required by their state bar associations by attending classroom or a combination of classroom education (which may be taken online or completed via audio recordings) and self-study materials. No testing is required as a way to earn these credits.

While we’ve talked about the method of how to become a lawyer, there are much 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 looks very one-of-a-kind person who desires to work as a defense attorney for Legal Aid or practice criminal law as a district attorney than someone who is interested in becoming a corporate lawyer specializing in intellectual property law or someone who is preparing for a judicial career as a judge who dreams one day of being nominated to the bench of 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 a certain educational investment as well as professional certification and then an on-going 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!


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