Process of Becoming a Lawyer: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a lawyer. Research the education and career requirements, licensure information and experience required for starting a career as a lawyer.

Should I Become a Lawyer?

Lawyers represent all sorts of clients including individuals, businesses, and government agencies involved in legal disputes. In order to advise and represent clients, lawyers are responsible for interpreting laws and rulings and filing out legal documents. Some of the documents lawyers work with include lawsuits, contracts, deeds, and wills. Lawyers may specialize in a specific area within the legal systems such as criminal law, marriage and divorce law, corporate law, taxes, family law, or litigation.

Lawyers of all kinds work on a full-time basis, although many will work longer hours during the evenings and weekends as their caseloads demand. Most lawyers work in an office setting, although some travel for meetings and cases may be required. The job can be high stress depending on the specialty, but income for lawyers is good. Some individuals become trial lawyers, wherein they negotiate a person's innocence or guilt in the courtroom. Depending on the type of client being represented, these cases can become the subject of public frenzy, such as the high-profile case of OJ Simpson. Other times cases are dealt with more privately, such as in private settlement cases.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Juris Doctor
Degree Field Law (specializations can vary)
Licensure States require lawyers to pass a bar exam
Experience Most lawyers work as associates at firms before starting their own practice or getting into a partnership
Key Skills Excellent analytical skills plus strong communication, research, and problem-solving abilities.
Salary (2014) $114,970 (median salary for all lawyers in 2014)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

While there is no specific bachelor's degree prospective lawyers must earn, several subjects may help prepare students for law school. Taking courses in English, history, political science, and economics can be completed within a variety of majors and can give students an idea of what area of law they want to pursue. It's important for students to perform well in their undergraduate courses in order to earn acceptance into law school.

Success Tip

  • Participate in mock trials. At the undergraduate level, students may have the opportunity to participate in mock trials and gain a firsthand account of what it is like to work as a trial attorney. Mock trials also offer the chance to develop a fundamental understanding of the judicial system and develop strong critical thinking skills.

Step 2: Take the LSAT

The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is a required standardized exam that applicants must take before entering a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). The exam is offered four times each year and measures an applicant's reading, analytical, and verbal reasoning skills. This is one of several factors that law schools will take into consideration before assessing applicants for admittance. Questions on the exam cover reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning.

Success Tip:

  • Take an LSAT preparation course or study independently. Although the test does not examine a student's skill-sets in certain subjects the way other entrance exams like the MCAT will do, it is still very important to prepare for this test. According to the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), given that the LSAT is a rigorously timed test, students should, at the very least, take practice exams acquainting themselves with question formatting and to ascertain the amount of time they should spend on each individual question in order to complete the test on time.

Step 3: Enroll in Law School

Nearly all states require lawyers to earn a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from a law school accredited by the ABA. Law schools choose applicants for admittance based on a number of factors including grade point average, LSAT score, application essay (personal statement), and extracurricular activities. Law school takes three years to complete, and students can take courses that cover all areas of law.

The first year includes foundational courses, but students can start taking electives in a specialized area of interest beginning in the second year. For example, law students can take courses covering civil procedures, contracts, law and family relations, law process, legal research, evidence, constitutions, and property. The final year is focused on preparing law students for the transition into practicing law in the real world.

Success Tip

  • Complete an internship. During the summers between semesters, students may want to participate in internships at law firms. Not only can an internship give a student experience in the field, it may also help with job prospects after graduating from law school.

Step 4: Pass the Bar Exam

Each state requires law school graduates to pass the bar exam in order to practice. While each state may offer their own exam, some states have adopted the Uniform Bar Exam, which allows lawyers to practice in any other state that also accepts this exam. The exam is prepared by the National Conference of Bar Examiners and composed of questions from the Multistate Essay Examination, Multistate Bar Examination, and Multistate Performance Test. Some states may allow students to take the bar exam before they graduate law school.

Success Tips:

  • Attend law school in the state you wish to practice in. One piece of data many law schools obtain involves their school's statewide Bar exam pass rate. This is important as it indicates to prospective students how effective a school is at preparing them for this essential test. Most law schools will have internship opportunities at local law firms or at farthest the next major city, and as discussed before, these internships can turn into job offers after graduation.
  • Obtain a clerkship after graduation. Clerkships are offered to new lawyers as a way of garnering experience and networking. Most clerkships are either federal or judicial, and are excellent opportunities for students especially interested in working in government. These positions are usually reserved for the students at the top of their class.

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