How to Become a Lawyer: A Step-by-Step Guide

Earning a law degree and becoming a lawyer can be rewarding. Lawyers have the flexibility to work in all kinds of industries and positions, allowing you to craft a career that reflects your values and interests. The most common method of becoming a lawyer is earning a J.D. degree that enables candidates to sit for the bar exam. To get there, however, you must complete the necessary education, experience and exam requirements. This guide covers seven steps to becoming a lawyer.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Admission to a Juris Doctor (J.D.) program requires completion of at least a bachelor’s degree. The ABA does not recommend any specific undergraduate major, though some traditional areas of undergraduate study include political science, philosophy, history, English, economics and business. Some undergraduate universities offer pre-law curriculums, which may help you develop the skills necessary to succeed in law school.

While you don’t have to graduate with a certain major to become a lawyer, you will need to meet schools’ unique undergraduate GPA requirements. When researching law schools, note the median or average GPA required for admission.

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Step 2: Take and Pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)

The LSAT (commonly pronounced “el-sat”) is a two-part test administered by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC). The first part is a multiple-choice exam. As of 2019, this is administered digitally. The second part is an essay, which also is administered through secure digital software.

Most students take months to prepare for the LSAT. There are many types of study materials and formal programs you can use. Many colleges and universities set up practice exams as well. LSAC offers many test prep resources for the LSAT, such as study materials and sample tests.

As of September 2019, you can retake the LSAT three times in one testing year, which is from June 1 to May 31. LSAC allows you to take the test five times within the current and five previous testing years. You can take the LSAT seven times in your lifetime.

Your LSAT scores are reported to law schools, individually and as an average. The LSAT is the only test accepted by all law schools accredited by the ABA. Not all schools in the United States require an LSAT score, but most do. Some will also accept a GRE score. When you’re deciding which schools to apply to, look at the LSAT/GRE score requirements as well as the median or mean scores of previously admitted students.

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Step 3: Acquire a Juris Doctor (J.D.) at Law School

Law school is a three-year program, unless you participate in an accelerated or part-time program. Your year in law school is often referred to as 1L (first year), 2L (second year), 3L (third year), and so on. The first two semesters are comprised of predesignated classes. Your 1L year is about the core curriculum: torts, contracts, property, civil procedure, criminal law, constitutional law, and legal research and writing. These fundamentals are crucial to your success as a legal professional.

Two teaching methods you’ll experience in law school are the case method and the Socratic method. The case method involves reading and preparing ahead of class, including briefing legal decisions. The Socratic method involves teachers asking students questions. You’ll be expected to participate in class discussions.

Your grades in the first year are usually based on one exam at the end of the semester. In your 2nd and 3rd years, you’ll have a greater array of classes to choose from. During this time, you can explore different areas of law and begin to focus on an area you’d like to practice once you become a lawyer.

In recent years, some universities have launched online J.D. degree programs, allowing prospective students to earn a degree and work at the same time. It’s worth noting that when reviewing these programs, make sure you choose from ABA-approved online J.D. degrees, as this may affect your eligibility for bar admission in the future.

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Step 4: Consider Gaining Practical Experience While Pursuing Your Degree

There are several optional steps you can take when preparing to become a lawyer, including obtaining a clerkship, internship or fellowship. Since law school consists of a great deal of theory, gaining real-life work experience during school can help prepare you for the daily realities of working as an attorney.

The fall semester of your 1L year is a great time to look for summer internships or fellowships, since many have deadlines early in the spring semester. Look for internships offered by law firms or through bar associations. If you miss application deadlines in your 1L year, you can pursue an internship or fellowship for the summer between your 2L and 3L years. You can also look for volunteer or work experiences throughout the school year. Many firms hire law students as clerks.

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Step 5: Complete the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE)

The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) administers the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). The majority of jurisdictions require this test for bar admission.

The MPRE is a two-hour, 60 multiple-choice question test. The purpose of the test is to evaluate your understanding of the legal industry’s professional conduct and ethical standards. More specifically, the MPRE is based on the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct and Model Code of Judicial Conduct.

Many law students take the MPRE as rising 3Ls, though you can take it during your 2L or 3L year. The MPRE is administered in March, August and October every year. Each state determines the passing MPRE score for its jurisdiction. See the NCBE bar admission guide to learn more about the combination of scores required by jurisdiction.

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Step 6: Write and Pass the Bar Exam

A bar exam is an examination lawyers must take and pass to be admitted to a specific jurisdiction’s bar association. Bar exam and eligibility requirements differ per state; you must review the eligibility requirements for the state where you wish to sit for the exam.

Many states use the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), including New York and Texas. The UBE consists of the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE), two Multistate Performance Tests (MPT) and the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE).

The benefit of the UBE is that the score can be transferred to any UBE jurisdiction. However, the minimum passing score for the UBE differs per state .

The UBE and most bar exams are administered over two days, twice per year, in July and February. Approximately, 20 states and U.S. territories have not adopted the UBE, including California and Florida. States that have not adopted the UBE administer their own bar exams, and scores are not transferable between jurisdictions.

It should be noted that many states require a document attesting to your moral character before you can sit for the bar exam. For example, before taking the bar exam and becoming a lawyer in California, applicants must pass a background check and receive a moral character determination. In fact, many jurisdictions conduct quite rigorous background checks, requiring affidavits filed on your behalf by other attorneys and an evaluation of your work history. You might be required to address criminal convictions, significant debt or academic disciplinary issues before you can take the bar exam.

Note that significant time may elapse between taking the bar exam, receiving results, and being sworn into the bar. Test takers in some states could wait up to 12 weeks to get results, and then depending on your state’s swearing-in schedule, it could be up to another 6 months.

Research the requirements, deadlines, and fees in the state(s) in which you plan to practice.

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Step 7: Find a Job and Practice as a Lawyer

Once you have your J.D., pass the MPRE and pass the bar exam, you must then be evaluated by the state bar. Upon approval by that authority, you’ll be licensed by your state and can work as a lawyer. The 2019 median salary for a lawyer in the U.S. was $122,960, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This figure includes lawyers from a variety of backgrounds and with varying years of experience. Entry-level lawyers should expect to make less than six figures, as the BLS reports that 10% of lawyers made less than $59,670 per year in 2019.

The expected rate of job growth for lawyers in the United States is 4% between 2019 and 2029, which the BLS reports as being as fast as average compared to all occupations.

There are many kinds of firms and organizations you could work for as a lawyer. Or, you could work as a solo practitioner. If you do this, you must carefully navigate the malpractice insurance, accounting and tax requirements of starting a firm.

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How Many Years Does It Take to Become a Lawyer?

It takes about seven years on average to become a lawyer. This includes a four-year undergraduate program and a three-year J.D. program. However, this is very general. Your career path to becoming a lawyer may vary depending on how you were educated, internationally vs domestic, what type of enrollment you pursue in your program, full-time vs part-time, and if you took any breaks between earning your degrees.

It can take longer to become a lawyer if you participate in a part-time program or pursue a Master of Laws (LL.M.), which is a post-J.D. degree. An LL.M. can be used to help focus a career in a specific area of law by declaring a law degree specialization, such as bankruptcy, banking and finance, entertainment and media law, dispute resolution, estate planning, global legal studies, employment law, government, tax, real estate and so on. Online LL.M. programs are also available for those who can’t commute to campuses. In a few states, an LL.M. degree may enable students to take the bar exam, too, but a J.D. degree is more common and often a shorter path to become a lawyer.

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If you want to craft a legal career without becoming a lawyer, another option is to pursue a master’s degree in legal studies, such as a on-campus or online Master of Legal Studies program. Earning an MLS helps professionals gain a working knowledge of U.S. law, and even a specific area, without going through all the steps necessary to become a lawyer.

Last updated: February 2021