Becoming an Attorney
A lawyer is one who has undergone formal and advanced education focused on the legal system as well as state and federal laws. Many lawyers choose to practice general law, but a large number also choose to specialize in one or more areas such as elder law, estate planning, or personal injury, just to name a few. Regardless of whether or not a lawyer specializes or practices general law, the majority of the requirements that they must fulfill in order to get their license to practice law are the same.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawyers are the 22nd highest paid professionals in the country. Their average salary across the U.S. in 2018 was $144,230. They also reported that job growth within the legal field between 2016 and 2026 is expected to grow 8%. If you have an analytical mind, are good at problem-solving, and you have interpersonal skills as well as excellent writing and speaking skills, becoming a lawyer may be a good career choice for you.
What are the undergraduate educational requirements for becoming a lawyer?
Earning an undergraduate bachelor’s degree from an accredited university, or college is the first step. There is not a specific type of undergraduate degree that you must have, but it is important to take classes in government, political science, English, economics, and history. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, you can attend law school if you are accepted. To gain a better understanding of whether the area of law is right for you before you commit to attending law school, you have some options:
- Take some online legal courses even before applying to college or university. You can do this by taking the classes on a non-credit basis.
- Earn a master’s degree or a graduate certificate in a specialized area such as government before attending law school.
Can I attend any law school to become a lawyer?
No. It must be a law school that is accredited by the American Bar Association. As part of the entry process to an accredited law school, you must pass the Law School Admission Test.
How many years does law school last?
Law school is usually a three-year program. Those who graduate obtain a Juris Doctor degree. The three years of schooling includes one year of general study as an overview of the legal field. After the first year of general study, students specialize in their studies. In a small number of states, an individual does not have to obtain a law school degree in order to fulfill educational requirements to become a lawyer.
- California, Vermont, Virginia and Washington: after completing a law apprenticeship, and undergoing on-the-job training in a law office under the guidance of an established lawyer, those who did not study at law at university for three years is eligible to take their state’s bar exam.
- Maine, New York, and Wyoming require a combination of law school attendance for a specified period as well as a law apprenticeship with a legal firm.
Upon fulfilling these requirements, just as someone who graduated from an accredited law school, the individual must pass their chosen state’s bar exam as well as an ethics review.
Additional Legal Training and Education Outside of the Classroom
A formal education is a critical aspect of a future lawyer’s training, but the education they gain outside of the classroom can be just as important. In fact, that additional education can make a great difference in gaining an entry-level position at a respected law firm over somebody who did not make that additional effort. Here are but a few examples of how you can obtain the additional training and education that can lead to opportunities in the post-graduate legal world:
- Participate in competitive mock trial events that are open to law students, high school students, and others. These are often based on fictional court case scenarios and real life legal precedent-making cases. Some competitions feature actual judges and other professionals from the legal field. There is also an annual mock trial championship tournament on the national collegiate level.
- Seek an internship at a local law firm, the public defender’s office, or the district attorney’s office. Ideally, the internship position will reflect your law education and target your career focus or specialty. The experience and insight you gain could be invaluable, and it may impress any future potential employer.
- After graduation from law school (or earlier, if possible), obtain a clerkship with a judge. As with an internship, the knowledge you learn can be leveraged when seeking future positions. As well, you can establish and begin growing your professional network. These connections may benefit you throughout your career.
Taking the Bar Exam
Though graduating from law school is a pivotal event and milestone, it does not guarantee that the graduate will become eligible to practice law. Before they can gain entrance to the legal world, they must first pass their chosen state’s bar exam. This is a difficult and challenging test that gauges the individual’s knowledge about various aspects of the U.S. legal justice system and much more. Each bar exam varies somewhat from state to state but typically takes two consecutive days of testing. The National Conference of Bar Examiners has established the Uniform Bar Exam, which many states have adopted in developing their bar exam. Each state also has the authority to determine what they consider to be a passing score as well as other standards applicable to aspiring lawyers.
As mentioned, passing any state’s bar exam is not an easy task. Oklahoma has one of the highest pass rates at 81%, but California’s pass rate (in 2017) was only 44%. The bar exam is only offered at certain times of the year, so failing the exam can cause a delay of many months while waiting to take it again. Even getting the results of your test can take several months. In addition, the cost to take the exam can be hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on the state. Additional costs and time invested in taking the exam often include specialized study programs to assist in preparations for taking the bar.
In addition to passing the bar exam, the aspiring lawyer must also pass an official review of their moral character and an analysis of whether or not they are fit to be a member of the legal field. The review will include a criminal record check, and a review of any disciplinary actions that were taken against the individual during their time in college or law school. If the individual fails this part of the process, even if they pass the bar exam, they will not be eligible to become a lawyer.
Life after Becoming a Licensed Lawyer
If you took advantage of opportunities during law school to develop your professional network through an apprenticeship, internship, or clerkship, you may already been offered a future position at a law firm that is contingent on graduating and passing your required tests.
In most cases, your first position at a law firm will be as a lower-level associate. The work you perform will likely be of a basic nature. You will perform the tasks that more experienced and higher paid lawyers need completed but do not have time to complete themselves. As you gain their trust and have proven your willingness and ability to work long, hard hours, you can expect to increasingly be given more responsibility.
Depending on the size of a firm, partnership opportunities may come sooner or later, but they can take decades of hard work and proving yourself before you are approached to join the firm at that level. Some lawyers eventually become judges. Others become politicians. Many U.S. presidents hold a law degree. It is well understood that anyone who has proven themselves by graduating from law school and subsequently passing the bar exam and forging a career in the legal field is a very good candidate for a wide range of opportunities.