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

Entering the legal profession is no small task, so the choice to become a lawyer should not be made lightly, experts say. Getting a license to practice law in the U.S. generally requires years of strenuous effort, and it may involve acquiring a significant amount of student loan debt in order to cover the cost of law school.

A legal career often leads to a six-figure salary. The median annual compensation among lawyers in the U.S. as of May 2019 was $122,960, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Here are the steps involved in becoming a lawyer.

Step 1: Learn About Legal Jobs and Careers

Someone contemplating a career as a lawyer should conduct research on the legal field to gauge whether he or she would enjoy life as a lawyer, attorneys suggest.

One valuable resource is the “Discover Law” portal on the Law School Admission Council website, which includes a lot of information about what it is like to be a lawyer and the contributions someone with a law degree can make to society.

It’s prudent and valuable to conduct informational interviews with practicing attorneys and to secure a law-related job or internship, according to legal industry insiders.

Step 2: Cultivate Communication and Reasoning Skills and Develop a Strong Work Ethic

Once a person has determined that the legal profession is a good fit, he or she should start seeking out academic and extracurricular experiences that will prepare him or her to be a great lawyer.

Aspiring lawyers should take classes that involve extensive reading and writing so that they can become better readers and writers, since those skills are critical to most legal jobs, according to law school professors.

Courses in social science are also helpful, since those classes cultivate societal awareness and teach people skills. It’s also beneficial to take analytical courses of some sort, whether in philosophy or science, technology, engineering or math – STEM fields – since logical reasoning is a fundamental component of the legal profession.

One great way to prepare for a career as a lawyer is to get involved with a speech and debate team or a mock trial team. Those extracurricular activities allow students to develop their capacity to argue persuasively, lawyers explain, adding that drama also provides solid preparation for a legal career since the performing arts emphasize public speaking skills.

Even an activity that doesn’t initially appear to be related to the practice of law, such as athletics, could prove useful to an aspiring attorney if it helps him or her develop and demonstrate personal discipline.

In addition, aspiring lawyers should be studious, since law is a scholarly field that requires intellectual prowess, according to legal experts.

Step 3: Decide if You’ll Attend Law School or Read the Law as a Legal Apprentice

Though most U.S. states require licensed attorneys to have a law degree, there are states such as California and Vermont where it is possible to become a lawyer without attending law school if the person spends several years working and training under the supervision of a practicing attorney. This is known as “reading the law” and is rare for aspiring attorneys to do nowadays, though it used to be a common practice.

Jason Ruen – an executive attorney at Stewart J. Guss, Injury Accident Lawyers, a national personal injury law firm – notes that only seven states allow someone to practice law without a law degree. Wyoming, New York and Maine require some formal legal education, although they don’t mandate completion of a J.D. degree.

“It’s a very old model of becoming a lawyer, and one that was more common before the widespread availability of law schools,” he says. “It is not a shortcut. In fact, it will likely require more time than just going to law school.”

Step 4: Choose a College Major You Enjoy and Excel in College

Because law schools do not require specific undergraduate coursework, potential attorneys have the flexibility to take the college courses that interest them most.

Legal educators emphasize that J.D. hopefuls who take classes they like tend to perform better than students who don’t. Undergraduate GPAs are heavily emphasized in the law school admissions process, so it is unwise for college students interested in law to take classes in subjects they despise, according to experts.

Step 5: Study Hard for Either the LSAT or GRE and Achieve a Solid Score

The Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, is the traditional law school entrance exam, so that is the one that most prospective law students take in order to qualify for law school. However, prospective law students have the option to take the Graduate Record Examinations General Test, since some law schools recently began allowing applicants to submit a GRE score instead of an LSAT score.

If you intend to pursue a J.D., a strong standardized test score improves your odds of law school acceptance, so it is essential for law school hopefuls to thoroughly prepare for whichever test they opt to take.

Step 6: Get Into a Good Law School and Earn a Law Degree

Some law schools are highly selective, so applicants to those schools should keep that in mind when preparing their applications. J.D. admissions officers will consider not only a candidate’s GPA and test score, but also his or her personal statement and resume.

Legal industry experts advise J.D. students to be particular when choosing a law school, since their choice could affect their future. It is prudent for a future lawyer to attend a law school that has a track record of preparing people for the type of job he or she desires.

Judith Szepesi, a partner with the Nicholson De Vos Webster & Elliott intellectual property law firm in Silicon Valley, suggests that prospective law students investigate how competitive the culture is at their potential law school to make sure that they find a good fit. She also suggests assessing the return on investment of a law degree at that school, by comparing the cost of the degree with probable future earnings.

Full-time J.D. programs typically last three years and are highly rigorous, especially during the first year, experts say.

A J.D. is sufficient for most, but not all, legal positions. Here is a list of some areas of law with distinctive entrance requirements or where other specialized training is advisable:

  • Business law. A business lawyer who has both an MBA and a J.D. may be more marketable than someone who has only has a J.D., though an MBA is not absolutely necessary to work in this field.
  • Corporate law. Getting an extremely lucrative associate job at one of the world’s most prestigious and largest law firms is difficult without a J.D. degree from a top law school. Students at lower-ranked law schools ordinarily need to place near the top of their law school class in order to be considered for associate roles at big law firms.
  • Family law. A background in counseling or social work can be helpful for family lawyers. Some people combine a J.D. with a Master of Social Work, or MSW, credential.
  • Federal judicial clerkships. Achieving stellar grades in law school usually is necessary to become a clerk in a federal court. In addition, demonstrating exemplary legal writing ability is typically mandatory.
  • Health law: Aspiring health lawyers often combine a master’s in public health with a J.D.
  • Medical malpractice: Having either a medical degree or a biology degree is helpful for lawyers who litigate malpractice cases, though it is not mandatory. A dual J.D.-M.D. program may be beneficial.
  • Patent law: Patent attorneys must possess a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a technical academic discipline such as engineering, or a certain amount of scientific, engineering or technical training or experience. They also must pass the patent bar exam administered by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
  • Tax law: Tax attorney jobs sometimes require a master of laws or LL.M. degree in tax, in addition to a J.D. degree.

Step 7: Get Admitted to the Bar Where You Intend to Practice

In order to practice law in the U.S., an aspiring attorney generally must pass the bar exam in the jurisdiction where he or she intends to practice. However, the state of Wisconsin exempts local graduates of Wisconsin law schools that are approved by the American Bar Association from its bar exam, and it automatically admits those J.D. grads to the state bar.

Some state bar exams are notoriously difficult. It’s important for aspiring attorneys to take these tests seriously and to study thoroughly. Tammi Rice, vice president of legal programs at Kaplan, recommends devoting six to eight weeks of “head-down dedicated time” to bar exam prep and also advises completing a bar prep course.

Law students should attempt to soak up as much knowledge as they can during law school, since they will need that knowledge to pass the bar, explains Elena Langan, dean and professor of law at Touro College’s Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center in New York.

“The mindset of a student has to be, ‘I’m in law school in order to learn the law. I’m not here just to get a grade,’ Langan says.

J.D. students should realize that the goal of taking a law school course isn’t simply to get an A; the point is to master the material covered, Langan emphasizes. “You, in essence start preparing for the bar exam from Day One.”

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