Route 1: The Most Direct Route
For purposes of explanation we will assume that you are in high school or college and thinking about becoming a lawyer. In other words, you have not yet graduated from college and entered the work force. Luckily for you, you are on the most direct path to becoming a lawyer (even if you didn’t know it).
You should view each step as a building block – you have to complete one step to get to the next step. You will start with Step 1 and gradually build to Step 9 (some steps are more like guidelines than actual steps). The better you do in each step along the way, the more opportunities you will likely have at the next step, until you ultimately become a practicing lawyer.
In order to become a lawyer, these are the 9 steps you will have to take:
- Graduate from high school with the best GPA (grade point average) and SAT/ACT scores you can achieve. Also, get involved with extra-curricular activities that you like and try to excel at them.
Go to the best four-year undergraduate college that suits you.
- Take the SAT or ACT while still in high school and do the best you can on it. Both of these tests are national standardized tests used by colleges in their admissions policies by comparing you with the rest of the students entering college. The ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36, with 36 a perfect score. The national average composite score for the ACT generally hovers around 21. The SAT is scored on a scale of 200 – 1600, with 1600 a perfect score. The national average composite score for the SAT generally hovers between 1000 and 1100. The higher the combination of your GPA and SAT/ACT scores, along with your involvement with extra-curricular activities, the more options you will have in going to the college of your choice in Step 2.
Obtain the best GPA you can in college, and take part in those extra-curricular activities that you enjoy and promote your leadership and character skills. This will help you in Step 5 when you apply to law schools.
Take the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test) while still in college and score as high as you can on the test.
- By this, we mean you should try to get accepted to the college that you like, have a good “gut feeling” about, and is academically sound with a good reputation. Generally, the best way to do this is to first read about the schools you are interested in. Then, begin to narrow down your selections and visit a handful of those schools you think you would like to attend. Also, break down the list of schools you would like to attend into 3 categories. Category 1 should be your "dream list" of schools. Category 2 should be schools where you think you will be "competitive" and have a good chance of being accepted. Category 3 should be one or two fallback schools where you are virtually certain you will be accepted (in case you are not accepted anywhere else). And remember, if you are dead set on going to a particular school, you may be able to retake the ACT/SAT. Also, you can always do well at the university/college where you’re accepted, then try to transfer to another university/college after you prove yourself.
Apply to law schools after you have taken the LSAT and received your results. Then select the law school that best suits your goals.
- The LSAT is a national standardized test where you will be compared to all other law school applicants. It is similar in some respects to the SAT/ACT, but is obviously more difficult because the applicants that take this test are more educated. It is based on a scale of 120 – 180, with 180 being a perfect score. If you score in the high 160s or above you will likely be able to get into any law school in the country (as long as your GPA is not too low). You can take the LSAT up to two times, but your most recent score is the only score that counts.
- Law schools generally place the most emphasis on your LSAT score! In other words, most law schools place more emphasis on your LSAT score than your GPA, extracurricular activities, or anything else. That’s because the LSAT is a national standardized indicator of how you’ll do in law school (much like the ACT or SAT for undergraduate university/college).
- If you don’t score well on the LSAT, don’t worry too much (but you should consider taking the test again and try to get a better score). Many law students, and lawyers, have scored poorly on the LSAT and done very well as law students and lawyers.
Graduate from law school with the best GPA you can, and partake in extra-curricular activities that promote your career goals.
- Apply in the same way you did under Step 2.
- Law schools will generally weigh your admission based on the following factors:
- LSAT score
- GPA and undergraduate school attended
- extracurricular activities
- in-state versus out-of-state applicant (some law schools attempt to accept a certain amount of out-of-state students each year)
- where you’re a minority applicant (some law schools attempt to accept a certain amount of minority students each year), and
- whether you have alumni that attended the law school (if you did, this may help your admission chances).
Take and pass the state bar exam in the state where you want to practice as a lawyer.
- Going to law school full-time takes 3 years, while going part-time generally takes 4 years (but can take more depending on how many classes you take).
- Employers (especially law firms) place a lot of emphasis on whether you were a member of the law school’s Law Review and/or Moot Court program. However, competition is generally tough for these two extra-curricular activities, and not everyone is interested in doing them. Employers do often look to whether you had practical legal experiences like working for a law firm and/or participating in internships/externships through law school. Plus, practical experiences are where you really learn how to be a lawyer.
Apply to work for legal employers.
- Lawyers must pass a state bar exam to be "licensed" in that state. Being "licensed" in a state means you have successfully graduated from a law school, passed that state’s bar exam, and can now charge others for your legal advice.
- However, where you go to law school does not dictate which bar exam you can take. For example, you could attend the Ohio State Moritz College of Law, pass the bar exam in New York, and then practice as a lawyer in New York. But you would not be able to practice law in Ohio if you did this (unless you passed the Ohio bar exam). Or you could attend New York University Law School and take the bar exam in Ohio. But you would not be able to practice law in New York. Because lawyers can only practice law in the state where they pass a bar exam, many lawyers take multiple bar exams. The more licenses you have, the more opportunities you’ll likely have to find legal jobs.
- On a side note, once you have practiced law in a state for a certain number of years (usually 5 years or more) many states grant reciprocity. This means, for example, that you would not have to take a bar exam in Michigan if you had been practicing law in Ohio for 5 years or more (but you would have to pay a fee).
Accept an offer for a job as a practicing lawyer!
- This generally begins after the first year of law school, and often lasts until you receive your bar exam results. You will need to have an updated resume, and most employers will conduct multiple interviews before hiring. Legal employers include law firms, government agencies, in-house counsel for corporations, the military, judges looking for law clerks, etc. The list is long and the opportunities are vast.
We hope these steps give you a solid and basic understanding of the timeline you will face if you want to go to law school straight out of college.
Do not let these steps dissuade you from becoming a lawyer. Instead, use this knowledge as a general roadmap to achieve your goals. Remember, if you are a freshman in high school and are thinking about law school (you are way ahead of us in terms of your goals, and we recommend you enjoy high school first), the total time with these nine steps would take about 11 years (4 years for high school + 4 years for college + 3 years for law school). Again, it is not a sprint; it is more like a marathon – one step at a time.
Next, we’ll look at Route 2 in becoming a lawyer – as a second career.