Law is one of the toughest trades to break into - there’s a lot of competition out there, and there’s a lot at stake (law school isn’t exactly cheap). If you’re interested in entering the legal profession, you should be well-informed about everything it takes to become a lawyer.
Here, I’ll go through all the steps of how to become a lawyer. Before I jump into that, however, I’ll begin by touching briefly on what the job market looks like for lawyers both now and in the future.
What Is the Career Outlook for Law?
Before we get into exactly how to become a lawyer, I'll talk a bit about what the job is actually like before jumping into more logistical concerns (like salary and projected job availability). This stuff may not be particularly exciting, but it's helpful to be informed about how easy (or difficult) it'll be to find a job in the field after you're done with school.
What Does a Lawyer Do?
Law is a very broad profession - lawyers can do all sorts of different jobs. They may work in corporate, private, and government settings.
Common responsibilities include providing legal counsel and advice, researching information or evidence, drawing up legal documents, and prosecuting/defending in court.
Here's some important info about the law profession from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- 2014 Median Pay: $114,970 per year
- Job Outlook, 2014-2014 (i.e. the average growth in the number of jobs): 6%, which is about average across all professions
The number of jobs may be projected to grow as fast as average, but there are some other important factors at play here. Namely, competition for jobs is likely to be extremely high- the number of students who graduate from law school each year is higher than the number of new jobs available.
In a nutshell: the market is pretty saturated with law graduates at the moment, which means that finding and keeping a job in the field is no small feat. Even the American Bar Association started discouraging people from going to law school after the 2008 market crash - the profession is recovering very, very slowly. If you’re on the fence about law school, I’d encourage you to read this article, written by a lawyer, in the Huffington Post (fair warning, it includes plenty of colorful language).
This isn’t to say that no one should become a lawyer - if you plan on pursuing this career path, however, you should be aware of all the challenges you’ll face along the way.
Step 1: Excel in High School
With such serious competition in the field, it’s best to take your academic performance seriously from an early age. One of the best things you can focus on is bettering your chances of getting into a great college or university.
Put simply, better grades in high school → better school for your BA degree → better law school → better chances of getting a job. Law is one profession where it really matters where you go to school. Attending a top-15 law school doesn't guarantee that you'll end up with a great job, but it really helps. Attending a lower-ranked school will likely make it very difficult to find work. As such, you'll want to put yourself in the best position to succeed starting as early as high school.
Follow these tips in high school to start off on the right foot:
There aren’t really any specific classes you can take to prep this early for law school, but you can work on developing some of those critical skills that I mentioned earlier, like writing and critical thinking.
Aim to take as many advanced and/or AP courses as possible. Classes in English, Government, Economics, and Math will all you well in college and law school (and will pay off even if you change your mind about becoming a lawyer).
Extracurricular Activities and Leadership
Extracurricular activities, volunteer work, and leadership experience all help boost your college applications. Some activities might double as a way to get a feel for the legal profession. Check out these posts for more information on these activities:
- Complete list of extracurriculars
- How to get leadership experience in your extracurriculars
- 9 best places to do community service
If available at your school, you may want to check out Mock Trial (a club that simulates court trials), Debate, or Model UN - all of these activities help students develop writing, critical thinking, and leadership skills. If your school doesn’t have any of these clubs, consider starting one yourself!
Activities like mock trial are pretty different from what most lawyers actually do, but it's the closest you can get to legal experience in high school.
Finally, high school is a good time to learn more about what being a lawyer is actually like. Here are some ways to get more hands-on experience:
- Shadow a lawyer.
- Volunteer with a local legal aid organization.
- Talk to any friends or family members who work in the field about how they spend their time at work, what they like/don’t like about their jobs, whether they would do anything different, etc.
One big part of getting into a good college is doing well on your ACT or SAT. Whichever test you choose, it’s best to take it more than once - aim to take your first test fall of junior year (at the latest).
Read more about:
- Whether to take the SAT or ACT
- How long you should study for the SAT or ACT
- Complete study guide for the SAT or ACT
- How to get a perfect score on the SAT or ACT
If you end up at a well-ranked school, the following steps you’ll have to take to become a lawyer will be that much easier. Like I mentioned earlier, students at top-15 law schools have a much easier time finding a job than students at lower-ranked schools. The better your undergraduate program, the better your chances of getting into one of these top law schools.
So where do you start when it comes to looking at colleges?
You don’t have to look for schools with dedicated pre-law programs. In fact, some people argue that students hoping to go to law school should avoid pre-law majors altogether (I’ll talk more about this in the next section).
Step 2: Get Involved in College
You need a Bachelor’s degree at minimum in order to go on to law school, and it definitely helps if you end up at a school with a strong reputation.
Once you get to college, it’s important to keep up your academic performance (your grades will be important when you apply to law school). A minimum GPA of 3.0 is required for pretty much every law school in the US, but the truth is that this probably isn’t competitive enough. Aim for 3.5+ (the higher the better).
Staying on the Right Side of the Law
The first thing you should keep in mind as a college student is that any sort of criminal record may prevent you from becoming a lawyer. The American Bar Association puts aspiring lawyers through a moral character screening process (I'll speak more about this towards the end). If you’re generally honest and haven’t broken any laws, you won’t have any issues - just try to stay out of trouble as you make your way through the following steps.
Choosing a Program or Major
The American Bar Association (ABA) doesn’t recommend any specific major or discipline for students who hope to become lawyers. Some schools have pre-law programs, but (as I've mentioned) they’re rare and not necessary in order to get into a great law school.
The most important core skills you can develop include critical thinking, logic & reasoning, reading comprehension, and communication. Some majors which may prove useful for the LSAT/law school include:
- Political Science
You don’t have to know exactly what kind of law you hope to go into. If you do have an idea, though, you might use that to inform your choice of major. If you're interested in corporate law, for example, you might major in Business. If you're interested in tax law, consider Math.
Develop Relationships With Professors
You’ll need several strong letters of recommendation from respected faculty members when you submit your law school applications - use this to motivate you to network with as many people as possible.
Develop relationships with professors and mentors by going to office hours, participating in class, and taking opportunities to work on research projects.
I’ll go into more detail when I discuss law school apps, but most schools are looking for applicants who demonstrate some sort of social and professional engagement, community service, extracurricular involvement, and/or work experience.
Start by looking into volunteering with legal aid services at your university or in your neighborhood. If you'd like more ideas, check out our posts on different community service opportunities and extracurricular activities.
You can gain similar hands-on law experience by getting a student job. A position in a law firm (even in an administrative capacity) will help you get a better idea of the day-to-day work as a lawyer. A paying job also means more funds to cover college and law school expenses.
Prepare for Law School Applications
You’ll have the best chances of finding a job (especially a well-paying job) after getting your J.D. if you attend a top-15 law school (remember how I talked about how competitive it is out there for new lawyers)? To optimize your chances of getting into one of these schools, start working on your apps the summer before the year you want to begin your J.D. For example, if you want to start law school right after college, start working on apps the summer before your senior year
First, you should figure out whether you want to go to law school right after you graduate from college. If so, you need to plan on spending most of your senior year preparing for the LSAT and law school applications (I’ll go into more detail about the LSAT in the next section). The LSAT should be completed, and applications should be sent off the winter of your senior year if you don’t want a gap between college and law school.
A small side note: there is nothing wrong with taking time off from school after college graduation. If this is what you hope to do, you can use this time to get more law experience (e.g. working as a paralegal).
You'll also need to prepare those letters of recommendation - ask professors/mentors if they'd write them for you at least 12 weeks prior to application due dates.
Finally, register for the LSAT, and take the exam (at the latest) in December the same year you submit your apps.
Step 3: Ace the LSAT and Law School Applications
The Law School Admissions Test, or LSAT, is an exam all aspiring law students must take. It’s a half-day standardized test for admission to all American Bar Association-approved law schools and serves the same purpose as the SAT and ACT when students apply to colleges.
- Exam scores range from 120-180
- The average score is about 150
- You have to score well over 160 to get into a top 25 law school
The LSAT is a huge part of your law school applications - it might even be as important as your college GPA. As such, it requires that you dedicate some serious study time to the exam.
The recommended study time for the LSAT is 150-300 hours. This comes out to 20-25 hours a week for 2-3 months, which is obviously a serious commitment. You might want to look into a LSAT study program if you have trouble staying on track and/or motivated.
The test is administered only four times a year - usually in February, June, September, and December - so plan on registering months in advance. The latest you can take the LSAT for Fall admission is December of the previous year, although it's best to take it earlier (aim for June or September).
Studying for the LSAT: your new part-time job.
Submitting Your Law School Applications
Just like with college apps, law school apps consist of several parts. Their major components are your personal statement, LSAT score, letters of recommendation, transcripts, and resume. Let's go through what you should do to submit each of these components.
I’ve already talked about the importance of preparing for the LSAT, forming relationships with profs for letters of rec, and doing well in college for a great transcript.
Your personal statement is one of the only ways that admissions offices will get any insight into who you are and why you care about going to law school. You should write several drafts, well in advance of your application deadlines. Have a trusted prof or mentor read over your personal statement and give comments 3-4 months before the deadline.
Read more about how to write a great personal statement.
Your personal statement may demonstrate what you think and believe, but your resume demonstrates what you actually do.
According to UChicago’s Law School admissions office, schools are looking for several things in an applicant’s resume, including:
- Evidence of a strong work ethic
- Social and professional engagement
- Some combination of community service, extracurricular involvement, or work experience
It should be polished and professional - visit your school’s career center for guidance.
Submitting Your Applications
All materials should be submitted by the winter before you hope to go to law school.
Competition for a reputable school is tougher than it is for colleges, so you should plan on submitting more apps. Most applicants apply to at least four schools, but I would encourage you to apply to 8-10. Whatever you do, only apply to American Bar Association-approved law schools - an unapproved law school degree is basically worthless.
Don’t wait until the last minute to submit all of your materials. This doesn’t leave you any extra time to fill any gaps in your application, or opportunities to fix any issues.
Finally, you should be prepared for potentially uncomfortable application costs. Some applications are free, but others may cost $100 or more. It may be helpful to start budgeting for these expenses a few months before applications are due.
Step 4: Earn Your JD at Law School
It’ll take you three years to earn your law school degree. If you want one to find success after graduation - no matter what type of law you hope to go into - you’ve got to do well in law school. The way students are graded here is very different from how they’re graded in college.
Here are some important things you should know before heading off to law school:
- Your first year is really important. Law firms usually hire summer associates at the beginning of the second year - at this point, only grades from your first year will be available. The type of jobs available to you as a student - and after graduation - will be heavily dependent on your grades from 1L.
- Your grades are mostly dependent on your exam performance. You’ll receive few (if any) graded assignments outside of your final exams. This means that it’s important to keep up with your work and your reading through the entire semester.
- Plan on keeping meticulous notes. You’ll be learning about a lot of cases, and it’s important that you’re able to easily access notes from class about each one. It’s not uncommon for professors to allow notes in some final exams. Many successful students form study groups to work together to share notes.
- Do your readings and prepare to get cold-called. Law professors are notorious for cold-calling on students in class, so you’ll want to do the reading (and take notes) prior to heading to lecture. You want to make a good impression on your profs!
You'd think that acing your classes is the last big step to becoming a lawyer - but there's so much more to do.
While you’re in law school, you may have to take the MPRE (Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination), which is required for admission to the bars of most states. The examination is meant to test students' knowledge and understanding of established standards related to a lawyer's professional conduct.
When you need to take it, and the minimum passing score, varies based on your jurisdiction. For example, some states require you to pass it before you take the bar exam (sometimes months in advance).
Do your research on what’s required in your jurisdiction (or where you hope to practice in the future) early on in law school.
A big part of law school involves networking (and just plain working) in an effort to secure a job before you even graduate.
You’re going to be very busy keeping up with your schoolwork, but, if possible, it’s to your advantage to work part-time at a law firm. Examples of possible jobs include assistant, file clerk, messenger, or intern (paid or unpaid).
More importantly, you'll want to start thinking about landing those summer associate and internship positions. The best way to secure these jobs while you're in school is to network as much as possible - attend student events, communicate with your profs, and be on the lookout for recruiters.
Unfortunately for students without a ton of available resources, many legal internships (even at very prestigious firms) are unpaid. Some law students take out loans, in addition to loans that they use to pay for tuition, to cover expenses associated with taking summer internships. This is important to consider as you budget for both law school and your career after you pass the bar.
Be conscious of the sort of internships and associate positions you seek out for yourself. Oftentimes (if you do well), these employers will offer you a full-time job after you graduate. In fact, it’s pretty normal to have a job like this lined up in your third year of law school.
To sum up: the better your grades (especially your first year), the better your summer job opportunities. The better your summer job opportunities, the more likely you are to land an awesome job after graduation.
Unpaid internships are not ideal, but they may be necessary if you want to land a great job after law school.
Step 5: Pass the Bar Exam
In order to practice law in the US, you have to pass the Bar exam. Most students do this the summer after they graduate from law school, when information is still fresh in their minds. The exam varies by state, but some parts are standardized:
- MEE: Essay exam
- MPT: Performance Test
- The Bar: A separate test administered by each jurisdiction/area
Most exams last two days total, although some states (e.g. CA) have 3-day exams. To find out more about what the exam is like in different jurisdictions, check out the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ website.
Preparing for the Bar
The Bar is a notoriously difficult exam. Pass rates vary by state, although some states (again, like CA) have rates as low as 46.6%. It doesn’t matter how well you do as compared to other test-takers, as long as you pass.
You’ll have to prep for all areas of law that will show up on the test, even if you don’t plan on practicing in most of them. These areas include:
- Constitutional law
- Criminal law and procedure
- Real property
One expert suggested that if you’re preparing for the California Bar Exam - one of the most difficult in the country - you should study for 400 to 600 hours. If you study for 20 hours a week, that comes out to 20-30 weeks of prep time.You’ll have to start studying for the bar while you’re still a 3rd year student if you follow the traditional timeline - this may prove helpful if you’re able to form a study group with others.
There are a few different ways to prep for the bar exam:
- Independent study. This may work for students at a well-reputed law school who are also performing well in their classes. A quality education + strong foundational knowledge are the factors that most positively affect performance on the bar, but students would still of course need to spend significant time preparing.
- A bar prep course. Law students commonly take prep courses when they want a solid review schedule that will keep them on track. There’s a lot of material to cover, and a good course helps you make sure there aren’t any major gaps in your knowledge of content or strategy. They can be very expensive, however - most are several thousand dollars. Check out Barbri.com, Kaptest.com, and Adaptibar.com (a less expensive, supplemental option).
- A private tutor. Students who attend a poorly-ranked law school, whose grades weren’t up to par, or who have failed the bar before may want to consider this option. If you choose to seek out a tutor, choose someone with glowing recommendations and years of tutoring experience - they won’t come cheap, but they’re also less likely to waste your time and money.
Like I mentioned earlier, most students plan on taking the bar (in the jurisdiction they plan to practice) the summer after they graduate from law school. Read a more detailed guide on preparing for and taking the bar exam.
Final Steps: Beyond the Bar
If you’ve made it this far, you know that there are so many hoops to jump through for aspiring lawyers. Once you’ve passed the bar and gotten a job, however, you should know you’re not quite done!
Continuing Legal Education (CLE) is an important part of staying informed and up-to-date. Information on state-by-state requirements for CLE available through the American Bar Association. Fortunately, it’s not too big of a deal when compared to all of the education and exams you would have to endure through this point.
Finally, The ABA puts aspiring lawyers through a moral character screening process. If you’re generally honest and haven’t broken any laws, you won’t have any issues. The process varies by state - see CA as an example.
How to Become a Lawyer: Summary
This is a ton of information to take on at once, especially if you’re at the beginning of this process (or even if you’re still unsure about becoming a lawyer). Let's review the five main steps:
Do well in high school.
Study hard and get involved in your community in college.
Prepare for the LSAT and give careful thought to your applications.
Attend law school.
Pass the bar exam and become licensed to practice law.
This process may feel overwhelming, but here are a few important things to keep in mind:
- The path to becoming a lawyer is fairly flexible until you actually have to submit law school applications. This gives you tons of time to figure out whether the path is right for you.
- You don’t have to think about all of these steps at the same time. Once you’re in law school, your peers will be thinking about (and worrying about) the same things - there’s no way you’ll forget any important steps.
Becoming a lawyer is definitely not for everyone - it’s a particularly competitive field right now, and most lawyers’ jobs are nothing like what you see on TV. But if you decide you want to enter the legal profession, you now have the info you need to start off on the right foot.
You have a lot to think about, but remember: you just have to take it one step at a time.
To give yourself a head start, think about seriously preparing to get into a great college. Read about how to get a perfect score on the ACT or the SAT, and check out our guide on how to get into an Ivy League school.
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Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.