How to become a lawyer
Selecting a future job is one of the most important decisions for every person. Though many people will change jobs and careers in the course of their lifetime, every choice and turn will be equally important. When deciding on our career path, it is important to consider three aspects. Firstly, we shall devote a large amount of time to the job we choose. Therefore, it is important to find pleasure in the selected career and not only to pursue it for the financial gain it brings. Secondly, income is equally important because, as for most people, it is an existential issue. The third aspect that should be considered when choosing a career refers to our personal competences. Sometimes the jobs we find attractive are not a good fit for us. Being a lawyer is one of the sought-after and well-paid professions. If you are considering this career option, you can find some basic information on this profession further in the text, and learn how to become a lawyer.
What does a lawyer do?
Your job as a lawyer will depend highly on the area of law you choose. However, there are some general job characteristics. According to the definition of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, a lawyer can give legal advice and represent an individual, a company, or a government agency in order to solve some legal issues.
Besides being a legal adviser who can represent clients in court, a lawyer also performs other tasks. Some of them are:
- Communicating with clients, detectives, police, and other lawyers
- Cooperating with other people from the same field, such as judges, mediators, and paralegals
- Interpreting applicable laws and studying previous cases
- Compiling, amending, and interpreting various legal documents such as lawsuits, appeals, pleas, and contracts
How hard is to become a lawyer?
Being an Attorney is a profession that many find attractive, as it is associated with the possibility to have very high income, as well as to have a challenging and dynamic job. Still, it is not the kind of job anyone can do. To become a lawyer, it is necessary to invest a lot of time, as well as money.
Typically, a prospective lawyer’s education lasts for 7 years and you have to allocate between $14,900 – 54,600 annually for the expenses. The expenses depend mostly on the type of the institution attended (public/private), living arrangement (on campus/off campus) and whether you receive financial aid.
How difficult you will find completing your undergraduate studies and then law school, depends on the institution selected and its curriculum, but also on the area of law in which you wish to specialize. Law schools are very competitive and selective.
Also, you are expected to take two important tests: LSAT (Law School Admission Test) – this test enables you to be accepted into some of the law schools and the Bar Examination – the test necessary for gaining the attorney license.
Thus, studying to become a lawyer requires a lot of effort and commitment. If this is not a job you truly wish to do, it will be very hard for you to overcome all the obstacles. However, if you do see yourself in this profession, your education will be just one of the challenges you will want to overcome along the way to your dream job.
How long does it take to become a lawyer?
Besides hard work and commitment, to build a career as a lawyer, it is necessary to invest a lot of time. The education itself takes years to complete. With regard to personal capacities and abilities to prioritize your tasks, it will take you between 6 and 8 years to become a lawyer. The process can be divided into 5 basic phases that will be explained step by step further in the text. It is necessary to:
- Acquire an undergraduate degree (most often it takes 4 years)
- Pass LSAT (depending on the length of preparation, can take from a few month to a year)
- Pass the law school (3 years)
- Pass the bar examination (several months, depending on the length of preparation)
How much does it cost to become a lawyer?
When looking into how to become a lawyer, one of the key questions is how much money you need to invest into your education. The answer is different for every individual. There are a lot of variables that impact the total cost.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics data, tuition fees for 2020-2021 were as follows:
- For 4-year public institutions: $9,400
- For 4-year private nonprofit institutions: $37,600
- For 4-year private for-profit institutions: $18,200
However, the education-related expenses include much more than just tuition itself. Taking into consideration a student’s living arrangements (on campus or off campus), the expenses for the academic year 2020-2021 varied a lot.
The average expenses for 4-year public institution education
- 4-year public institutions, on campus students: $25,700
- 4-year public, off campus students living with family: $14,900
- 4-year public, off campus and not living with family: $26,000
The average expenses for 4-year private nonprofit institution education
- 4-year private nonprofit institutions, on campus students: $54,500
- 4-year private nonprofit, off campus students living with family: $43,200
- 4-year private nonprofit, off campus and not living with family: $54,600
The average expenses for 4-year private for-profit institution education
- 4-year private for-profit institutions, on campus students: $33500
- 4-year private for-profit, off campus students living with family: $23900
- 4-year private for-profit, off campus and not living with family: $32 500
Another thing to be considered is that financial aid is available to students. Financial aid can be received from the state or private institutions, such as banks. The US government offers Federal Student Financial Aid. There are different types of aid that you can apply for:
- Grants and scholarships
- Student loans
- Work-study programs
5 essential steps. How to become a lawyer?
In order to work as a lawyer, you need a license to practice law. However, in order to get this license, it is necessary to go through certain steps.
1. Complete Bachelor’s degree
The very first step towards building your legal career is to attend a full-time study program at some 4-year institutions. The American Bar Association offers guidelines for law school preparation.
Undergraduate degree options
If you wonder what subjects are needed to become a lawyer, there is no exact answer. The ABA does not even recommend any particular undergraduate study programs or specific courses that you need to attend before applying to law school. Students can choose traditional programs such as philosophy, English, history, political science, economy or business. On the other hand, they can opt for arts study programs, sciences such as biology, engineering, mathematics, computer science, education, and many other areas. What is important is to choose courses you like and enjoy, but also those that are challenging enough.
Many students don’t know what area of law they want to focus on before they enroll in law school. Because of that, they don’t choose undergraduate degrees that can be “good preparation” for a law school program of study. However, it is important for students to research potential areas of interest and target as many of those courses as possible. For example, a student who might be considered specializing in corporate law would benefit most from an undergraduate bachelor’s degree in business.
Skills to develop
The ABA recommends acquiring as wide a knowledge base as possible during your undergraduate studies, but developing certain skills, too. The knowledge and skills thus acquired will be the foundation for legal education. Some of the skills that should be developed before entering law school are as follows:
- Oral communication and listening
- Writing and editing
- Critical reading
- Problem solving
- Organization and management
2. Pass LSAT
Law school applicants have to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). This test is the entrance exam for law school and it is intended to test your knowledge and skills required for further education. Some of the tested skills are reading comprehension, reasoning and writing. The test takes place several times a year and it can be taken more than once.
Most undergraduate students take this test in the third or final year of their studies, which allows them to take the exam again in case they are not satisfied with their score. In this way, they do not lose time after finishing their undergraduate studies.
The LSAT scores together with GPA are the most important factors that decide on law school admissions. Therefore, it is necessary to be thoroughly prepared for this exam. Applicants can prepare for the LSAT on their own, but they can also take a number of available courses. The Law School Admission Council offers official LSAT prep courses.
3. Apply to law school
When selecting the law school you will attend, it is crucial to consider several factors. Most importantly, you have to select an accredited law school. Do study the ABA-approved law school list and choose from the options.
Bearing in mind that the acceptance rate for each law school is different, it is important to be realistic regarding your abilities. Do a thorough research on the acceptance rates (of) schools and apply to priority schools as well as multiple backup schools of choice.
4. Obtain Juris Doctor degree
A student attending law school will receive the Juris Doctor degree. The Juris Doctor or JD is the title necessary to have legal practice in the USA. First year students typically have core subjects and compulsory courses, while in their second and third year of studies, they decide on a certain area of law, and mostly attend elective subject courses. Selecting the courses and gaining proficiency in one particular area of law, the student acquires the knowledge that will enable him/her to achieve his/her career goals.
Areas of study
Pursuing their interests and goals, there are a large number of fields of law that students can choose. According to the LSAC data, students can specialize in the following areas:
- Animal Law
- Civil Rights
- Corporate Law
- Criminal Law
- Education Law
- Employment and Labor Law
- Environmental Law and Natural Resources Law
- Family and Juvenile Law
- Health Law
- Immigration Law
- Intellectual Property Law
- International Law
- Municipal Law
- Real Estate Law
- Securities Law
- Sports and Entertainment Law
- Tax Law
Dealing with legal matters is not just about knowing the law. The existing large number of areas of law demonstrates that a person who practices law needs to have a vast array of knowledge of areas not directly connected to law. Therefore, many law schools offer dual or joint degree programs. Additionally, due to the availability of online programs at many institutions, enrolling into dual or joint degrees is significantly easier nowadays. The most in-demand programs are:
- JD/MBA (Master of Business Administration)
- JD/MPP (Master of Public Policy)
- JD/MPA (Master of Public Administration)
- JD/LLM (Master of Laws in Taxation)
- JD/MA (Master of Arts)
- JD/MS (Master of Science)
- JD/MPH (Master of Public Health)
5. Pass the bar exam to get admitted to the bar
One of the possible answers to the question “How to become a lawyer?”, you may have heard so far, is “Pass the bar exam”. And this is, indeed, true. The bar exam is the very last step.
In order to become a legal practitioner, it is necessary to pass the bar examination. A person who wants to practice law in a specific jurisdiction, has to pass a specific bar exam. There is not one uniform test to be taken. Each of the 56 different jurisdictions in the USA (states, territories, the District of Columbia) has their own specific exam.
UBE vs MBA
Most states have adopted the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE). Some states have kept only the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) specific for each jurisdiction.
The UBE consists of three components:
- The Multistate Bar Exam (MBE)
- The Multistate Essay Exam (MEE)
- The Multistate Performance Test (MPT)
Each of the above mentioned tests is designed to evaluate specific skills, as well as acquired knowledge. The UBE is adopted to provide the possibility of transferring scores. As already mentioned, each jurisdiction conducts its own exam. If you pass the UBE in one jurisdiction, the possibility to practice law in another jurisdiction depends on the MBE taken. However, the states that have adopted the UBE allow for some of the scores to be transferred. Still, though the scores can be accepted, each jurisdiction has the right to require additional testing in order to evaluate your capability to practice law within that particular jurisdiction.
For example, Arizona is a state which has accepted the UBE, while California has not. If you pass the UBE in Arizona, but want to be a lawyer in California, you will not be able to transfer your scores. To practice law in California, it is necessary to take its MBE.
The score transferring rules, as well as the necessity to take additional tests, vary from one jurisdiction to the other. Because of that, it is vital for you to get information on rules and regulations of the jurisdictions where you would like to practice law. Passage rates are also defined by each jurisdiction independently.
The Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) is also a standard part of the bar examination. The purpose of the MPRE is to establish the level of knowledge and understanding of standards of communication within lawyers’ practice. The MPRE does not establish an individual’s ethical values but his/her ability to follow defined rules of conduct.
Once you have been admitted to the bar, you become an attorney, that is, you have the license to practice law within a certain jurisdiction. However, there are many other options available for you.
Continue your education
As practicing lawyers, you need to have completed your undergraduate studies, law school and to pass the bar exam. But if you want to continue your professional development, you can gain one of the advanced law degrees. Advanced degrees allow you to start a variety of legal careers. The titles you may earn are as follows:
- Master of Laws (LLM)
- Doctor of Philosophy in Law (PhD)
- Doctor of Jurisprudence (JSD)
- Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD)
- Doctor of the Science of Law (JSD)
- Doctor of Comparative Law (DCL)
Jobs for lawyers
Apart from working in law firms, lawyers can choose among many other options. Their job encompasses so much more than representing clients in lawsuits. Besides working in a private sector, lawyers can also work in public institutions. Some of the positions lawyers can hold are:
- District attorney
- Public defender
- Attorney for a government agency
- Judge in judicial system
- Administrative law judge
- Research assistant for a judge
- Law professor
- Private practice
According to the data of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics from May 2021, the annual lawyer’s salary was between $61,400 and 208,000. The median annual wage was $127,990 in 2021.
Tips for high school students
If you are considering a career as a lawyer, it may be a good idea to start preparing for it while in high school. These preparations do not imply studying the law and legal regulations, but developing skills necessary for this profession. What can you do as a high school student to increase your chances for building a career as a lawyer?
- Take part in extracurricular activities. Activities such as debates, mock trial, and ModelUN provide students with opportunities to learn public speech skills, which is very important in a lawyer’s profession. Other useful options are community service, internships at law offices, writing for school newspapers etc.
- Develop academic skills. Law school courses imply a lot of reading, writing, and analytical thinking. Do your best to develop those skills in the regular curriculum-related activities, as well as in the extracurricular ones.
- Maintain your GPA. Good grades will enable you to enroll into high quality undergraduate study programs, which in the long run, will enhance your chances of enrolling into the desired law school.