What It Takes To Be A Lawyer

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What It Takes To Be A Lawyer
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The final step to becoming an attorney is taking your state’s oath of attorney. This involves a ceremony where you’ll be sworn in and take your oath. In most states, this oath is a promise to support the U.S. Constitution, faithfully carry out your duties as an attorney and demonstrate integrity and civility in your conduct. States may differ on the exact elements of their oaths.

How To Become A Lawyer: Education, Salary And Job Outlook

Sheryl Grey is a Houston-based freelance writer who specializes in creating content related to education, aging and senior living, real estate, wellness, digital marketing, and home improvement. She is also a professional copywriter who helps businesses grow through expert website copywriting, branding, and content creation. Sheryl holds a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications from Indiana University South Bend, and she received her teacher certification training through Bethel University’s Transition to Teaching program. Learn more about Sheryl at www.sherylgrey.com, or connect with her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/houstonfreelancewritersherylgrey/.

Sheryl Grey is a Houston-based freelance writer who specializes in creating content related to education, aging and senior living, real estate, wellness, digital marketing, and home improvement. She is also a professional copywriter who helps businesses grow through expert website copywriting, branding, and content creation. Sheryl holds a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications from Indiana University South Bend, and she received her teacher certification training through Bethel University’s Transition to Teaching program. Learn more about Sheryl at www.sherylgrey.com, or connect with her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/houstonfreelancewritersherylgrey/.

Brenna Swanston is an education-focused editor and writer with a particular interest in education equity and alternative educational paths. As a newswriter in her early career, Brenna’s education reporting earned national awards and state-level accolades in California and North Carolina. Since 2018, she has worked in the higher education web content space, where she aims to help current and prospective students of all backgrounds find effective, accessible pathways to rewarding careers.

Brenna Swanston is an education-focused editor and writer with a particular interest in education equity and alternative educational paths. As a newswriter in her early career, Brenna’s education reporting earned national awards and state-level accolades in California and North Carolina. Since 2018, she has worked in the higher education web content space, where she aims to help current and prospective students of all backgrounds find effective, accessible pathways to rewarding careers.

Updated: Dec 1, 2022, 8:15am

Editorial Note: We earn a commission from partner links on Forbes Advisor. Commissions do not affect our editors’ opinions or evaluations.

How To Become A Lawyer: Education, Salary And Job Outlook

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Lawyers play essential roles in our everyday lives. To start, these professionals help individuals plan their estates, protect their intellectual property and recover personal injury losses. A lawyer who passes the bar exam and joins their state’s bar association can officially call themselves an attorney. There are more than 1.3 million practicing attorneys in the United States.

If you’re wondering how to become a lawyer, you’re in the right place. In this article, we cover the steps required to build a fulfilling career as a lawyer.

What Does a Lawyer Do?

Lawyers provide legal advice and representation for individuals, businesses and organizations. Their responsibilities may include:

  • Providing legal advice that is in a client’s best interest
  • Representing clients in court
  • Interpreting laws and regulations
  • Researching legal issues and analyzing data
  • Filing legal documents, such as wills and contracts

Different types of lawyers specialize in different legal fields, such as corporate law, environmental law, tax law, family law, criminal law and intellectual property law.

Top Skills for Lawyers

Lawyers typically need a variety of skills and knowledge, depending on what type of law they practice. For example, a tax lawyer should understand accounting principles and have top-notch analytical skills.

Certain skills are necessary for every type of lawyer, regardless of specialization. The tops skills for lawyers include:

  • Research and analytical skills
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Communication skills, including writing and speaking
  • Research skills

How to Become a Lawyer

If you’re wondering how to become a lawyer, you should prepare for a rigorous process that leads to a fulfilling career. In most cases, prospective lawyers need to complete education and licensing requirements. This includes taking a state bar exam, and each state has its own requirements for the bar.

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree is the first step you must take toward completing the education requirements for becoming a lawyer.

You don’t need to pursue any specific pre-law major during undergraduate school to qualify for law school. When choosing a major, first consider what type of law you want to practice, and take classes that are related to this subject area. For example, if you want to practice corporate law, you may want to pursue a business administration bachelor’s degree.

All aspiring lawyers should take courses that will help develop their problem-solving, communication and research skills.

Take the LSAT or GRE

The Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) is a standardized examination that assesses students’ readiness for law school. Traditionally, passing the LSAT has been required for admission to law school in the United States. However, this has changed in recent years.

In 2016, Arizona State University began accepting the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) standardized exam as an alternative to the LSAT. Harvard Law School followed suit the next year. Graduate students typically take the GRE before pursuing graduate work in various fields.

Currently, many law schools—including Columbia, Cornell, Yale and others accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA)—have started accepting the GRE rather than only LSAT scores.

This change means many prospective law students who have already taken the GRE are no longer required to take additional examinations to gain admission to law school. This broadens the applicant pool by encouraging more students to apply.

Complete Law School

If you want to become a lawyer, you should plan on completing law school to earn your juris doctor (JD). This degree is typically a three-year program. Completing law school gives you the knowledge and skills you need to pass the bar exam.

In addition to passing the LSAT or GRE, expect to write a law school personal statement as part of your JD program application.

Earning a JD is the traditional and most common path to becoming an attorney. However, some states offer other options as alternate routes to starting a law career.

In California, Virginia, Washington and Vermont, you can become a law reader—or an apprentice—instead of earning a law degree. Each of these states has different requirements, which may include several years of study under the guidance of an experienced judge or attorney, studying for a set number of hours or passing a baby bar exam.

Wyoming, New York and Maine do not require lawyers to hold a JD degree, but they do require a certain number of hours in law school.

In Wisconsin, as long as you have a JD, you do not have to pass the bar exam to become an attorney. If you choose to not earn a law degree, you’ll save money associated with law school costs, but you may be less prepared for the bar. In addition, many law firms want the lawyers they hire to have JD degrees.

Not earning a law degree may have been common in the days of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, who became lawyers without law degrees, but it is uncommon now.

Earn Licensure

After you have completed your education, you can begin the process of earning a license to practice law. The steps outlined below are typically required to begin practicing law, but specific requirements may vary among states.

Pass the Bar Exam

The bar exam is used to determine whether a lawyer has the knowledge and skills needed to become licensed and practice law. Each state has the option to choose its bar exam, but most jurisdictions use the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), which is administered by the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

The UBE consists of multiple components. It is administered and scored the same way in all jurisdictions, so scores are transferable to other jurisdictions that also use the UBE.

States that have adopted the UBE determine their own exam policies, including eligibility to sit for the exam, character and fitness, educational requirements and acceptable passing scores. The ABA provides detailed information on bar admission requirements.

Meet the Character and Mental Fitness Requirements

The bar examiners ask candidates questions about the quality of their character, their criminal history, academic integrity, their financial situations, any substance abuse issues and mental fitness. This information helps examiners determine whether each candidate can practice law competently.

Take Your Oath

The final step to becoming an attorney is taking your state’s oath of attorney. This involves a ceremony where you’ll be sworn in and take your oath. In most states, this oath is a promise to support the U.S. Constitution, faithfully carry out your duties as an attorney and demonstrate integrity and civility in your conduct. States may differ on the exact elements of their oaths.

Become an Attorney-at-Law

People sometimes use the terms “lawyer” and “attorney” interchangeably, but there is a difference. When you have passed the bar exam and become a member of the bar association in your state, you’ll officially be an attorney at law. An attorney has to be a lawyer, but a lawyer is not necessarily an attorney.

Lawyer Salary and Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), lawyers earned a median annual salary of $127,990 as of May 2021. Precise salaries vary by industry and geographical location. For example, on the higher end, the average annual salary for lawyers is $198,820 in Washington, D.C., and $179,060 in New York, according to the BLS.

The BLS projects employment opportunities for lawyers to increase by 10% from 2021 to 2031. This rate is twice as fast as the average projected job growth for other careers nationwide.

Individuals and businesses will always need legal work, according to the BLS, but as law firms attempt to cut back on their expenses, paralegals and legal assistants may take on more of the work traditionally completed by lawyers.

Frequently Asked Questions About Lawyers

Is being a lawyer hard?

Yes. Becoming a lawyer involves years of study and a comprehensive examination, so it isn’t easy. The exact level of difficulty depends on how well you absorb the information you learn and how much effort you put into preparing for your examination.

How do you start being a lawyer?

The first step to becoming a lawyer is completing your educational requirements. As you plan and complete your undergraduate work, think about what kind of law you want to practice, and take classes that can help you prepare to practice that type of law.

How long does it take to become a lawyer?

In most cases, if you want to become a lawyer, you should plan on spending about seven years in school (four years to earn your bachelor’s degree and three years to earn your JD). You should also plan to spend additional time studying for the bar exam.

How to Become a Lawyer: A Complete Guide

So, you’ve decided you want to become a lawyer? Congratulations! Lawyers tend to be some of society’s most prestigious and well-paid professionals. But we’ll be frank: you’ve got a long road ahead of you that will require dedication, hard work, and (likely) a lot of coffee.

Fortunately, you’re about to read this guide, which lays out everything you need to know about how to become a lawyer, from what to possibly major in during your undergraduate studies, and when you should take the LSAT, to how to prepare for the law school admissions requirements, and what to do after you pass the bar exam … and everything else in between.

By the time you finish reading, you’ll understand exactly what you need to do to turn your dream of becoming a lawyer into reality. Let’s begin!

  • How to become a lawyer
  • Step One: Earn a bachelor’s degree
  • Step Two: Take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) or Graduate Record Examination (GRE)
  • Step Three: Apply to and complete law school
  • Step Four: Pass the Bar Examination
  • Step Five: Obtain Your License
  • How long does it take to become a lawyer?
  • Important skills for lawyers
  • Types of lawyers
  • How much does a lawyer earn?
  • Can you be a lawyer without going to law school?
  • Final thoughts

How to become a lawyer

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree
  2. Take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) or Graduate Record Examination (GRE)
  3. Apply to and complete law school
  4. Pass the Bar Examination
  5. Obtain Your License

And here’s detail on how to complete each of those steps:

Step One: Earn a bachelor’s degree

You’ll need a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university to meet the application requirements at most law schools. Why did we say “most law schools” instead of “all”? Well, there are some law schools that accept students without a bachelor’s degree.

For example, the Glendale University of College of Law accepts students with “an AA or AS degree, or a minimum of 60 bachelor degree-applicable units from a regionally accredited college.”

Still, without a bachelor’s degree, your options for law school would be limited, and you may miss the chance to develop some essential skills.

What degree do you need to be a lawyer?

You may think you need to major in politics, history, economics, or some other field related to the legal profession during your undergraduate studies. But here’s the truth: law schools don’t care what you major in. What they do care about is your GPA and LSAT score.

So, pick an undergraduate major that interests you and that allows you to develop skills like critical thinking and logical argumentation—those will be important for both the LSAT and law school itself. That way, you can focus on learning and getting the best grades possible instead of trying to predict what might look good on your law school applications.

Step Two: Take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) or Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

The next step in the process is to take either the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) or the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Depending on the law school you’re applying to, some may require the LSAT as the only admission test, while others may accept the LSAT or GRE.

For example, Harvard Law School accepts applicants with LSAT or GRE scores. Their admissions website also states that they do not have a preference for either exam. On the other hand, Emory University School of Law requires applicants to submit LSAT scores.

When can you take the LSAT?

Here are the official LSAT test dates and registration deadlines for 2023 and 2024.

2023 LSAT Test Dates

Dates Registration Deadline
January 13-14 December 1, 2022
February 10-11 December 27, 2022
April 14-15 Mar 2, 2023
June 9-10 April 25, 2023
August 11-12 June 29, 2023
September 8-9 July 25, 2023
October 13-14 August 31, 2023
November 10-11 September 28, 2023

2024 LSAT Test Dates*

Dates Registration Deadline
January 12-13 November 30, 2023
February 9 December 26, 2023
April 12 February 29, 2024
June 7-8 April 23, 2024

*There will likely be more test dates for 2024. However, as of the publishing date of this article, the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) website only shows official LSAT dates up to June 2024.

When can you take the GRE?

You can schedule to take the GRE in person at various times throughout the year, depending on the dates offered at your local test center. You also have the option to take the GRE at home, whenever is convenient, seven days a week.

How many times can you take the LSAT or GRE?

You can take the LSAT up to seven times over your lifetime—up to three times in a single testing year and five times during a five-year period.

You can take the GRE once every 21 days—up to five times within any one-year period.

When should you take the LSAT or GRE for law school applications?

You should take either the LSAT or GRE at least six months before your law school application deadlines. That way, you have plenty of time to prepare and ensure you’re happy with your score before submitting your applications.

If you’re a college student hoping to go to law school immediately after graduating, you’ll generally want to take either of these exams during the spring of your junior year, the summer after your junior year, or the fall of your senior year.

Step Three: Apply to and complete law school

The next step is applying to, gaining admission, and completing law school. Law schools typically require applicants to submit the following application materials:

  • Transcripts from all post-secondary education
  • LSAT (or sometimes GRE) scores
  • 2 letters of recommendation
  • A law school personal statement
  • Complete application

For an in-depth guide to the law school application requirements, check out this article.

When are law school applications due?

Law school application deadlines vary depending on the specific law schools and the admissions cycle you are applying for.

Many law schools in the United States have rolling admissions, meaning they review applications as they are received and may have multiple deadlines throughout the year. In rolling admissions, applying as early as possible is generally advantageous, as seats and scholarship funds may become limited as the cycle progresses.

However, there are two other common application cycles and deadlines you should be aware of:

  • Early Decision/Early Action: Some law schools offer an early decision or early action option, with deadlines usually falling between September and November. Early deadlines may offer advantages such as priority consideration or expedited decision timelines, but early decision applications are binding commitments.
  • Regular Decision: The regular decision deadline for many law schools is usually between December and February. This is the main application deadline for most law school applicants. Unlike early decision applications, you can apply regular decision to multiple law schools.

How long does it take to complete law school?

Most full-time law school students earn the Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree in three years. Part-time students may take up to five years to complete law school.

What do you learn in law school?

Law school education provides students with a comprehensive understanding of legal principles, analytical skills, and the ability to think critically. The curriculum typically covers a broad range of subjects related to law and legal practice.

Here are some of the key areas of study in law school:

  • Legal foundations: Law students start by learning the fundamentals of legal systems, including constitutional law, contracts, property law, civil procedure, and criminal law.
  • Legal research and writing: Students learn to research legal sources, such as statutes and case law, and develop strong writing skills to draft legal documents, memos, and briefs.
  • Legal analysis and reasoning: Law school teaches students to analyze complex legal issues, identify relevant legal principles, and apply them to specific factual scenarios.
  • Specialized legal areas: Students have the opportunity to explore various specialized areas, such as corporate law, criminal law, family law, environmental law, intellectual property law, international law, and more.
  • Professional skills: Law schools often offer courses and programs to develop practical skills necessary for legal practice, such as negotiation, trial advocacy, legal clinics, and legal ethics.
  • Electives: Law school elective courses cover various legal topics and can be taken in areas such as health law, human rights, entertainment law, tax law, or any other specialized area.

Examples of official law school curriculums

If you’d like to see greater detail, check out the curricula below from some highly respected law schools:

Maddie Otto

By Maddie Otto

Maddie is a second-year medical student at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney and one of Level Medicine’s workshop project managers. Prior to studying medicine, she worked and studied as a musician in Melbourne. She has a background in community arts, which combined her love for both the arts and disability support. She is an advocate for intersectional gender equity, and is passionate about accessibility and inclusive practice within the healthcare system.