Process of Becoming a Lawyer: Education and Career Roadmap

Jul 08, 2019

If you're interested in becoming a lawyer, read on to learn about the education and licensure requirements, the potential pay and other considerations for entering the challenging but rewarding field of law.

View Popular Schools

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

94% college-bound high school students
…said it was important to communicate with colleges during the search process. (Source: Noel-Levitz 2012 trend study)
  • 0:00 Should I Become a Lawyer?
  • 1:27 Step 1: Earn a…
  • 2:08 Step 2: Take the LSAT
  • 3:05 Step 3: Attend Law School
  • 4:32 Step 4: Pass the Bar Exam

Find the perfect school

Process of Becoming a Lawyer

Lawyers are highly trained professionals in all aspects of the law, although they may specialize in one legal field, such as estates, personal injury, corporations, intellectual property, criminal or civil law and so on. The chart below provides an overview of this profession and is followed by detailed steps to becoming an attorney.

Lawyer Education Bachelor's degree followed by Juris Doctor (J.D.)
Licensure Must pass bar exam and ethics review
Job Skills Analytical, interpersonal, problem-solving, research, speaking and writing skills
Salary $144,230 (2018 mean)
Job Growth 8% (2016-2026)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Steps to Becoming an Attorney: Educational Requirements

The process of becoming a lawyer starts with getting an undergraduate bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university. You can go on to become a lawyer with any undergraduate major, but should take coursework in areas including history, government, English, political science and economics.

Students looking to explore law topics before attending law school have the option to take online legal courses on a non-credit basis or they can even earn a graduate certificate or master's degree in a specialty area such as constitutional law prior to attending law school. prior to attending law school. However, law schools do not require these options and students may proceed directly from their bachelor's to law school if they wish.

Aspiring lawyers must attend a law school accredited by the American Bar Association. To be accepted, you will need to pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). LSAT preparation courses are available both online and in-person.

Law school typically lasts three years, after which graduates earn a Juris Doctor (J.D. degree). Law school normally involves one year of generalized study in broad areas of the law, followed by two years of coursework in a specialized field of legal studies.

A few states allow aspiring lawyers to skip law school, provided candidates complete an approved apprenticeship and pass the bar exam. However, this is a highly unusual route to becoming a lawyer.

Lawyer Preparation Outside the Classroom

While a lawyer's education is crucial, legal experience outside the classroom can also be very useful to help candidates find a job later. One way to gain experience is to participate in mock trial competitions as a law student, an undergraduate or even a high school student.

Mock trial involves fictional court cases in which student legal teams conduct theoretical trials, sometimes with real judges or other legal professionals judging each team's performance. A highly competitive national collegiate mock trial championship tournament is conducted every year.

Internships at law firms (or in criminal law, at district attorney's or public defender's offices) are another valuable way for law students to gain real-world experience that can improve their employment prospects. The same is true of working as a clerk for a judge, though clerkships may be open only to those who already have a law degree. Any real-world legal work open to law students can help pave the path to employment later.

Test to Become a Lawyer: The Bar Exam

To practice law, you must pass the bar exam -- a rigorous test that measures a candidate's overall knowledge of the law. Bar exams differ from state to state and usually are administered over the course of two days. Many states have adopted the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), which is prepared by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. While each state sets its own passing score and other standards to become a lawyer, the UBE streamlines the process for aspiring lawyers considering more than one state in which to practice.

The bar exam is notoriously difficult to pass. In California, which is widely considered to have the toughest bar exam, the pass rate in 2017 was only 44%. In some states the bar exam is less challenging -- Oklahoma, for example, had a pass rate of 81%. Candidates often pay hundreds of dollars, sometimes thousands, for special study programs outside of law school designed to help them pass.

Another requirement for obtaining a law license is to pass a review of your moral character and fitness. This involves an inquiry into any criminal history, disciplinary actions in college or law school, or other concerns that reflect on your ethical standards. If you fail this review, you cannot become a lawyer.

The Path to Becoming a Lawyer: What Happens After Law School

So you've got your undergraduate degree, you've graduated from law school and you've passed the bar. Congratulations -- you're an unemployed lawyer!

Ideally, you've established a network of contacts while in law school. You may have interned at a firm you'd like to work for, so that your skills are already known to your potential employer. And hopefully you have a good list of reputable professionals who can recommend your services.

New law grads usually start as lower-level associates at law firms working on relatively minor cases. As you prove yourself on the job, you can move on to more complex cases and eventually become a partner. You can also strike out on your own and start your own law firm.

By the way, you can also become president of the United States. Out of 45 presidents, no fewer than 25 were lawyers. If you're interested in going into politics at any level, a law degree can be an excellent start.

How Much Do Lawyers Earn?

According to an Investopedia analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, attorneys are number 22 on the list of highest-paying professions in America. The BLS reported in May 2018 that lawyers earned a mean (average) annual wage of $144,230.

Next: View Schools

Popular Schools

The listings below may include sponsored content but are popular choices among our users.

Find your perfect school

What is your highest level of education?