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How to Become a Lawyer: Best Degrees, Bar Exam & Licensing Requirements

Learn how to become a lawyer

If you are looking for a respected, challenging career that can not only be financially rewarding, but can also be applied to almost any passion, becoming a lawyer may be right for you.

Becoming a lawyer is a long, difficult, and often frustrating path, but it can lead to one of the best careers possible. It requires extensive education, so if you are going to commit to this path, you need to understand the different types of lawyers, the requirements for this career, and the best places to work.

Most of all, you need to know how to become a lawyer, and that means understanding the educational requirements.

Want to know more about how to become a lawyer? Keep reading and you’ll get the information you need. In this article, we’ll answer questions and cover numerous topics, including:

How to Become a Lawyer

Becoming a legal professional takes time, so it’s best to break it down into smaller steps. Here are the recommended steps to become a lawyer…

  1. Complete a four-year bachelor’s degree
  2. Pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) to gain admission into a law school in that state you intend to practice in
  3. Graduate with an advanced law degree—usually an ABA accredited juris doctor law degree
  4. Pass the bar exam in the state you intend to practice in

After passing the bar exam, you’ll be able to practice law in your chosen field.

What Does a Lawyer Do?

First, let’s start with the various tasks performed by lawyers. Then we can move into the education. Lawyers provide advice and recommendations to clients of all type regarding their legal options and rights. They are versed in the laws of their area, and use this knowledge to represent individuals, businesses, organizations, or groups of people.

Their work doesn’t just include delivering impassioned speeches in front of juries. On the contrary, most lawyers will spend a majority of their time researching a case, examining the law and legal precedence, preparing legal documents, and providing advice to clients. They often prepare and file legal documents, and many are tasked with managing and overseeing teams of paralegals.

Perhaps more than any other profession, lawyers work in many different areas. Understanding these areas will help you choose the right path for your career.

Civil vs Criminal Lawyers

There are many ways to divide and categorize the different types of lawyers, but perhaps the most obvious is civil vs criminal.

Civil courts deal with a citizen’s or group’s private rights, and does not include situations where someone is being prosecuted for a crime. They don’t involve jail time, but usually feature someone (or some group) suing another, either for money or for someone to take an action or to stop taking an action. Either way, no one is going to jail after a civil case. Theses cases may include child custody, breach of contract, property damage, defamation, and more. Civil lawyers often specialize in a certain subject, such as divorces or estates.

One of the defining factors of civil law is that it’s one person or group vs another, while in criminal cases, it’s the government vs a person or group.

In criminal courts, someone is being accused of and prosecuted for a crime. There are charges by government authorities, and jail time, probation, and financial penalties may apply. From theft to murder to racketeering charges, criminal lawyers on both sides deal with the justice system and legal punishments.

The Different Types of Lawyer

It’s not enough to simply know how to become a lawyer. You also need to understand the different types of lawyers. From prosecuting accused criminals to navigating the complexities of real estate law, there are numerous types of lawyers…

Criminal Prosecutors
Prosecutors work for governments, including state and federal branches, to prosecute accused criminals. They may specialize in a specific type of crime, and many of them work with law enforcement, such as the FBI or state police departments, to create cases against suspected criminals.

Defense Lawyers
Defense lawyers can be hired by either the government or by a private citizen. They specialize in the legal defense of accused criminals, usually going against prosecutors to win a case. They provide expert counsel and advice to people after they have been arrested, and often stay with a client from the initial charges through the court proceedings and, if needed, sentencing and appeals.

Family Lawyers
These types of lawyers handle a wide variety of domestic cases, including divorce, legal separation, adoption, paternity, prenuptial agreements, and more. Essentially, if a situation involves both the family and the legal system, family attorneys are there to help.

Estate Planners
No one likes to think about their own death, but it’s inevitable. To ensure that a person’s financial property is distributed according to their wishes, and within the law, they will work with estate planners. These legal professionals draft wills and legal documents during a person’s life. When one of their clients dies, it’s their responsibility to make sure their last wishes are honored properly.

Injury Lawyers
If someone has suffered physical, mental, or emotional injury, they often hire injury attorneys to reach compensation. These experts specialize in “tort law,” which is a branch that deals with civil and legal liabilities and financial damages. Injuries can happen for a wide variety of reasons, and personal injury lawyers are often there to help people overcome the financial hardships created by lost work, medical bills, and damaged property.

Business, Contract & Corporate Lawyers
From employment disputes to business competition, corporate lawyers help settle the complex legal issues that businesses face everyday. Depending on the nature of their clients, they may help draft contracts, provide hiring advice, assist with tax issues, or support mergers and acquisitions.

Tax Lawyers
Most people, including business owners and managers, are not tax experts. Tax lawyers help people overcome disputes with the IRS, helping ensure they are treated properly and not overly charged by the government. Tax attorneys are often hired by large businesses as well as wealthy individuals, but middle-class and blue collar people often need their services as well.

Real Estate Lawyers
Real estate transactions can be complex. However, a real estate lawyer can help sort through the details of selling a property and moving the title from one person to another. They may help with the sale of a residential or commercial property, and they are often needed to negotiate disputes between landlords and tenants.

Constitutional Lawyers
If someone feels their civil rights have been violated, they may seek the help of a constitutional lawyer. These professionals are versed in issues such as free speech, assembly rights, self defense, proper punishment for crimes, property rights, and more.

Lawyer Education Requirements

How Long Does it Take to Become a Lawyer?

How long is law school? That’s a common question that is a big concern for many aspiring lawyers and people wondering how to become a lawyer. The education of a lawyer is long, complex, and requires an advanced education from a top-class institution. The education is challenging, but it can be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling journeys you’ll ever complete.

After high school, most prospective lawyers will complete their education in seven years. This includes four years to complete a bachelor’s degree, and three more years of law school. After seven years, you’ll meet the basic requirements for becoming a lawyer.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Lawyer?

Most aspiring lawyers complete a bachelor’s degree that is related, at least on a small level, to the law. This might include law studies, legal history, or political science. These degrees give you a basic understanding of the legal system, providing a foundation for your future studies.

A lot will depend on the goals for your law career. For example, if you want to become a corporate lawyer, a bachelor’s degree in business administration would be useful; if you want to be a prosecutor or defense lawyer, a degree in criminal justice may be ideal.

Broad-level degrees that expand your critical thinking and communication can be crucial before entering law school. This can include philosophy, history, writing, English, and more. Many aspiring attorneys wonder what undergraduate degree do you need to be a lawyer, but the reality is that most bachelor’s degrees are useful in some way.

How to Get into Law School & Choosing Your Degree

Once you complete a bachelor’s degree you’ll be ready for law school, assuming your grades are high enough. We should note that law schools often have high requirements for GPA and class performance, so you need to maintain an elite level of academic success to ensure you meet the top law degree requirements.

The LSAT exam score is also considered in your law school applications. To prepare, some students take prep classes or reduce their course load to allocate more time studying for the test. The LSAT score is more important if your GPA is borderline. In this scenario, consider prioritizing your LSAT prep as your results can often tip the scale on admission to the school of your choice.

In choosing your degree, make sure you have a full understanding of what graduate level education you’ll need to meet your states’ requirements to become a practicing lawyer.

The traditional path is to apply to and get accepted into an ABA-accredited law school where you’ll enroll in a juris doctor (JD) law degree. Once you graduate, you’ll qualify to sit for the bar exam.

However, depending on the state where you intend to practice law, there may be an alternate pathway. In some cases, you can enroll in a graduate level law program at a school that does not hold ABA accreditation and still qualify to sit for the bar if some additional requirements are met. Read more about ABA accreditation and online law schools in the following sections.

The classes in law school can vary widely, and law school requirements will change depending on the school. However, there is often a core curriculum that is fairly similar from one school to another. Throughout your studies, most students will study aspects of legal procedures, constitutional law, contracts, property, and criminal law. Much of the focus will be on the legal methods of the American and international legal system.

For many schools, the first year of law school is often the hardest. The material is complex and extensive, and you’ll likely be subject to a larger workload than you received during your bachelor’s degree. Furthermore, the teaching method is different, creating challenges for students not prepared for the change. Essentially, this time is for teaching you to think like a lawyer.

Besides your classes, you’ll likely need to study for at least two hours for every hour of class time. So if you have a class that lasts three hours a day, you’ll need roughly six hours of study time to make sure you are ready for testing.

ABA Law School Accreditation

Accreditation is an important process for all schools, as it verifies a school’s quality of education and ensures students are fully prepared for their chosen profession. For law schools, accreditation is generally delivered through the American Bar Association (ABA). At the time of publish (October 2021), the ABA accredits 198 institutions and schools offering JD degrees.

This nationally-accrediting body is responsible for a majority of schools in the United States, but individual states have their own process for accrediting law schools. Most adhere, in some form, to the standards set by the ABA.

Can You Become a Lawyer Online?

While most academic educations have been available online for many years, law degrees lagged behind as the ABA resisted online education. The ABA, essentially, refused to accredit online schools and there are no fully-online law schools recognized by the ABA. Their reasoning was that the online education environment didn’t allow for the dialoguing and debating of law concepts in the same way an in-person classroom did.

However, the ABA's stance on online law education is rapidly evolving. As online education technology offers solutions that better emulate an in-person environment, the ABA is now allowing hybrid JD programs. In hybrid JD programs, up to one-third of coursework may be completed in an online or distance format. Hybrid degree students graduate with identical JD degrees as their on-campus peers and also qualify to sit for the Bar exam.

Additionally, in September of 2021, the ABA has granted approval to first fully online law school in the country—Saint Mary's University School of Law. The first cohort of 25 part-time students will begin in Fall of 2022.

If a hybrid JD isn’t right for you and you’re unable to wait for new online JD program(s) to begin enrolling, consider pursuing licensure in a state where non-ABA pathways to the Bar exam exist. Each state sets licensure criteria independently. Currently, a few states provide a path to practice law without earning an ABA-accredited JD, which can open up online law degree options. However, keep in mind that you will not be allowed to practice law in other states where an ABA-accredited JD is required.

According to Indeed, Washington, Vermont, California, and Virginia allow you to take the bar exam without a JD, but you must meet other criteria. Wyoming, New York, and Maine require some law school prior to taking the bar.

Finally, there are certain schools that are creating fully-online law courses, and some have received initial approval from the ABA. These may become available in the next couple of years.

Master of Laws (LL.M) vs JD

The Juris Doctor degree is not, however, the only law degree option to consider. A new type of legal degree, the master of laws (LL.M) is being offered by some top online law schools. While these won’t meet qualifications to sit for the bar exam, they will give you an advanced law education that you can apply in various types of employment.

Required Licensing & Certification for Lawyers

The Bar Exam & MPRE

You’ll have to pass a test to become a lawyer, which means passing the bar exam. After completing your law degree, you can’t just jump into the career of a lawyer. First, you need to complete the bar exam, the final hurdle for how to become a lawyer. It’s one of the most difficult exams you’ll ever take, so you’ll need to be prepared. The bar exam is a two-day test that is held at a specific time.

The Bar Exam contents and format varies by state. Some states use a standard test. This format includes two days of testing. Day 1 starts with two 90-minute performance tests. In the afternoon, you’ll have to complete six 30-minute essay exams. The second day does not get any easier; the morning features a 100-question multiple-choice test, while the afternoon features yet another 100-question multiple-choice test.

However, many states have their own Bar exams that only use either the essay or multiple choice portions or neither of these. Other section(s) are designed by the state to be state-specific.

It’s a challenge, a grueling two-day gauntlet of mental fatigue. But if you are well prepared by a top law school, you should have little problem passing the bar exam. To get an idea of how candidates have done in the past, review pass rates by state.

Beyond the Bar, many states require the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). The MPRE usually needs to be taken around the same time as the Bar exam and before admission to the Bar.

State Requirements for Becoming a Lawyer

While most share the basic requirements, there are some differences for becoming an attorney in different states. Let’s look at two states to highlight the different requirements…

How to Become a Lawyer in California

Because it’s the largest state in the country, many people want to know how to become a lawyer in California. While the process is similar to other states, there are some unique aspects for California.

California offers both a traditional (ABA accredited law education) and adjunctive pathways. To sit for the Bar exam, you need to meet one or a combination of the following options:

  • Complete 3 or 4 years of study at one of the 21 ABA-accredited law schools in California
  • Complete 4 years of study at a state Bar-Registered traditional, brick and mortar law school in California
  • Complete 4 years of study (minimum 864 hours) at a registered, unaccredited distance learning or online law school, based in California
  • Complete 4 years of study under the supervision of a practicing California state judge or attorney

How to Become a Lawyer in Texas

The process for how to become a lawyer in Texas is more traditional. This state does not mandate undergraduate education, but, like most states, they do require that you graduate from a school that is accredited through the American Bar Association to be eligible to sit for the Bar exam. Additionally, all applicants must meet certain moral standards set by the Texas Board of Law Examiners.

Career Outlook

Lawyer Salary

If you are thinking of becoming a lawyer, you probably want to know how much does a lawyer make. Lawyers, as you may know, have a reputation as one of the most high-earning professions in the world. While much will depend on your skills and your chosen profession, it’s reasonable to expect a high lawyer salary.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a lawyer in May of 2020 was $126,930. (This mean that half of all lawyers surveyed make more!) By comparison, the median for all occupations was below $42,000. The highest 10% in this career make over $208,000, so there is clearly the potential for excellent incomes.

Job Outlook for Lawyers

Not only is the pay strong, there should be excellent opportunities for skilled lawyers. The BLS says that job growth for lawyers between 2020 and 2030 should be 9%. Legal services will be required by many individuals, and organizations are more likely to hire in-house attorneys.

However, routine legal work may be outsourced, so lawyers will have less of a burden, which could work against them as demand is decreased.

Start Your Law Career with the Right Education

If you want to become one of the best lawyers in the world, you need the right education. Head to our degree database to view the leading online law degrees, all properly accredited, to help you become a leader in the legal profession. With the right education, you’ll have a strong understanding of the legal profession and be prepared for the bar exam, the most important test to become a lawyer.

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