How to Become a Lawyer: Law Schools & Careers
Prospective lawyers must undertake a series of steps to practice law, including completion of undergraduate and graduate degrees, examinations and licensing processes. Prior to embarking in this journey, those interested should ask themselves why they want to become a lawyer and if they are willing to commit several years to studying law in order to do so. For those who answer affirmatively, the following guide outlines the various academic, skill building, and licensing steps required to begin a career practicing law.
How to Become a Lawyer
Complete a Bachelor’s Degree Program
A bachelor’s degree is the minimum educational requirement for admission to law school. No singular field of study is recommended by the American Bar Association at this level. In fact, the ABA notes that students gain admission to law school from nearly every area of study, ranging from political science to mathematics. Common undergraduate majors for prelaw students include English, political science, economics, business, philosophy, and journalism.
“In 2014 the median earnings of young adults with a bachelor’s degree ($49,900) were 66 percent higher than the medan earnings of young adult hig school completers ($30,000).” – National Center of Education Statistics
Pass the Law School Admission Test
Along with an undergraduate degree, the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is a core component of the law school admissions process. Admissions officers use scores from the LSAT as an objective measure to assess the knowledge and quality of applicants. The examination includes five multiple-choice question sections and an unscored writing sample. The LSAT measures candidates’ skills in critical areas of future legal work, including reading comprehension, information management, analysis and critical thinking, reasoning, and argumentation.
Identify Law Schools and Complete Applications
After finishing an undergraduate degree, some students choose to forego further education, while others gain professional experience in other fields prior to enrolling in law school. Regardless of the timing, prospective students should only consider law schools accredited by the American Bar Association. In addition to overall GPA, undergraduate coursework, and LSAT scores, other admission factors may include community service, organizational affiliations, and recommendation letters from educators, alumni or legal professionals. The Law School Admission Council is a great resource for students in the research phase of the law school application process.
Earn a Juris Doctor Degree
The Juris Doctor (JD) is the nationally recognized degree for practicing law in the United States and is currently offered by 205 ABA-accredited law schools. Prospective students should have knowledge of the faculty, areas of study, tuition, and curriculum prior to applying. There are numerous specialties within legal practice and students should select a program that offers a focused curriculum in their area of interest. For example, students may choose to concentrate in areas of real estate, property, criminal, environmental, tax, or family law. Typically students can complete their Juris Doctor in three years of full-time study.
Pass the Bar Examination
Most states require lawyers to graduate from an ABA-approved law school and pass the state bar examination prior to qualifying in that state. Although each state sets its own testing guidelines, the bar exam is commonly a two day process: day one is spent completing the Multistate Bar Examination while day two focuses on writing examinations covering various legal matters. In addition to the bar examination, the state board of bar examiners also consider the candidate’s educational background, competence, character, and ability to represent others in legal matters prior to offering full legal licensure.
Advance Your Career
There are many opportunities for lawyers to advance their careers. Freshman lawyers generally start out as associates, working closely with seasoned lawyers to hone their craft. After several years of successful practice, attorneys may rise to become partners in a firm while others may choose to open their own law office. Some may move beyond practicing law and become a judge or shift into public positions. Lawyers may also pursue further education at both the master’s and doctoral levels. The Master of Law (LLM) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) are two common choices for lawyers interested in careers involving research and academic scholarship.
What Does a Lawyer Do?
The work of a lawyer is broad in scope as there is no singular occupation designated to the title. A spectrum of options is available, allowing legal professionals to pursue opportunities in corporate, private, government and international settings. In all cases, lawyers are well-trained advisors to their clients, providing support in a variety of legal matters, civil or criminal.
As advisors, lawyers represent clients in both legal issues and disputes. In doing so, lawyers conduct case law research, participate in formal hearings, draft and file legal documents, represent clients in a courtroom and provide general advice. As an example of the diversity within the field, lawyers may prepare mortgage papers, draft and file will and trust documents, defend a client in a criminal trial, or conduct research in international shipping disputes, all within a standard workweek. Lawyers often practice in a number of areas, including tax law, intellectual property, corporate law, criminal law, litigation, family law and environmental law.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median annual wage for lawyers was about $114,970 in 2014, with the top 10 percent of earners taking home more than $187,199 per year. Those working in state and local government tend to earn less while lawyers specializing in financial and insurance law are in the top bracket.
Prospective lawyers considering where to practice law should also be aware that in 25 states, the annual salaries surpassed the national average. The District of Columbia topped this list in 2014, with lawyers taking home nearly $169,000. Below is a list of the top ten paying states for lawyers in 2014 according to the BLS.
2014 Average Salary