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How to Become a Lawyer Guide

By Zach Skillings

Zach Skillings is the Scholarships360 Newsletter Editor. He specializes in college admissions and strives to answer important questions about higher education. When he’s not contributing to Scholarships360, Zach writes about travel, music, film, and culture. His work has been published in Our State Magazine, Ladygunn Magazine, The Nocturnal Times, and The Lexington Dispatch. Zach graduated from Elon University with a degree in Cinema and Television Arts.

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Updated: November 30th, 2023
How to Become a Lawyer Guide

A career in law is one of the most rewarding (and lucrative) professions you can pursue. However, the path to becoming a lawyer is filled with hard work. Aspiring lawyers must earn a bachelor’s degree, a Juris Doctor degree, and pass multiple exams before they can practice law. Of course, it’s entirely possible with enough dedication and perseverance. Keep reading to learn more about how to become a lawyer. 

Related: Top reasons to become a lawyer

1. Determine your preferences 

You have a lot of options to explore if you’ve decided to become a lawyer. From animal law to tax law, there’s so many different routes you can take if you’re pursuing a legal career. Your decision doesn’t have to be set in stone at this point, but knowing your preferences can help you chart your educational path down the line.

Here’s just a few of the many types of law: 

  • Animal Law 
  • Civil Rights
  • Corporate Law
  • Education Law
  • Environmental Law
  • Immigration Law
  • International Law
  • Real Estate Law
  • Tax Law

You can learn more about the various fields of law on the LSAC website. 

Related: Top summer law programs for high school students

2. Earn a bachelor’s degree

The first big step to becoming a lawyer is earning your bachelor’s degree. Law schools don’t require any specific undergraduate coursework, meaning you can major in anything you want. Common pre-law majors include criminal justice, English, economics, philosophy, and political science.

Law schools generally have high GPA requirements, so study something that you enjoy. You’re more likely to perform well in classes that you’re passionate about. Choosing a particularly difficult major (or one that you don’t enjoy) is unnecessary and may cause your GPA to suffer. 

Additionally, try to take classes related to the area of law you’d like to practice. If you want to practice corporate law, for instance, you should take more business classes. But if you’re looking to practice environmental law, you should load up on science courses. Talk to your academic advisor and see which degree track makes the most sense for your career goals. 

Also see: How to get into law school with a low GPA

3. Pass the LSAT

To gain entry to law school, you’ll need to pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). The purpose of this exam is to test the skills necessary for success in the first year of law school. Those skills include reading comprehension, verbal reasoning, and writing. The LSAT takes half a day to complete and is composed of multiple choice questions and a written response.

Law schools place a lot of weight on LSAT scores. For students who don’t have a high GPA, doing well on the LSAT can increase their chances of admission. Plus, many schools award merit scholarships based on LSAT scores. LSAT practice tests and study resources are available on the Law School Admission Council website

Also see: Everything you need to know about a doctorate degree

4. Attend law school and earn a J.D. 

To practice law in the United States, a Juris Doctor (JD) degree is required in nearly all cases. While it’s possible to become a lawyer without going to law school, earning a JD from an accredited school is the most straightforward path. Attending an unaccredited school is an option, but you’ll be limited in the states where you can take the bar exam and practice law. Full-time law programs typically last three years.

Law school is challenging, with the first year usually being the most difficult. Most law schools share a common first-year approach, with more variation in the second and third years. Foundational first-year topics include civil and criminal procedure, constitutional law, contracts, legal writing, legal method, property law, and torts. Students have more freedom in choosing their classes as they advance in their programs. Learn more about what to expect out of law school on the Law School Admission Council website

5. Pass the MPRE

You’ve probably heard of the bar exam (see step 7), but maybe not the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). Passing this test is a prerequisite for taking the bar exam in all but two U.S. jurisdictions – Wisconsin and Puerto Rico. The MPRE focuses on legal ethics and professional conduct. During the exam, students grapple with ethical situations they might face as a practicing lawyer. Most aspiring lawyers take the exam during their second or third year of law school. 

6. Earn another degree (optional)

After earning their JD, some graduates go on to obtain a Master of Laws (LLM). This is usually done to gain expertise in a specific area such as international law, business law, tax law, or family law. Although an LLM is not required to practice law, it’s popular among students seeking specialized training. 

Another option is to combine your JD with a master’s degree related to your particular field. If you’re looking to go into family law, for instance, a Master of Social Work degree would be helpful alongside a JD. Or if you’re pursuing a career in health law, a Master of Public Health would be useful. Be sure to do your own research to see if you could benefit from an additional degree. 

Related: How much does law school cost?

7. Pass the bar exam 

The final step to becoming a lawyer is to pass the bar exam in the state where you’d like to practice law. The exam is designed to evaluate your knowledge of state law and your ability to apply the law to various scenarios. Exams are usually taken over a two-day period, consisting of both multiple choice and essay questions. State bar exams are notoriously difficult, and require a lot of study and preparation. Once you pass, though, you’ll be ready to practice law in your state! 

Don’t miss: Top law scholarships in 2022

Frequently asked questions about how to become a lawyer

How much do lawyers get paid? 

Lawyers are some of the most highly paid professionals out there. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawyers made a median annual salary of $126,930 in 2020. Of course, earnings vary based on several factors — the main one being the type of law you decide to practice. For example, public defenders and estate attorneys make far less than corporate lawyers. 

The size of the law firm is another big factor. Lawyers who work in big firms tend to earn higher salaries than lawyers who work in smaller firms or own their own practices. Additionally, lawyers in major cities tend to earn more than those in small towns or rural areas. 

How many years does it take to become a lawyer? 

Between getting your bachelor’s degree and Juris Doctor, you’re looking at seven years of full-time study. If you plan to attend law school part-time, it will probably take an additional one to two years. 

Can I become a lawyer without going to law school? 

Yes, but it’s far less common. In four states — California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington — it’s possible to become a lawyer without going to law school at all. Instead, aspiring lawyers can get a legal apprenticeship and gain several years of hands-on experience. Three other states — Maine, New York, and Wyoming — require some law school experience, but allow an apprenticeship to substitute for one or two years of law school. Keep in mind that you’ll still have to pass the bar exam if you pursue this alternative route.

Also see: Grad school financing options


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