How to Become a Lawyer – The Basics (Part I)
You hear about lawyers and lawsuits in the news all the time. But have you ever wondered what it takes to be a lawyer? What do lawyers do on a day-to-day basis? What salary does a lawyer typically earn? Why is a law degree one of the most sought after professional degrees?
For starters, lawyers come from all walks and stages of life. For example, some people decide they want to be lawyers at an early stage in their lives and attend college on a "pre-law" track. Others may decide to enter law school after graduating from college because they aren’t ready for a "real job" or because someone in their family is a lawyer. And other people go to college and enter the work force, only later deciding to pursue law as a second career. People who become lawyers as a second career are made up of former teachers, accountants, nurses, engineers, librarians, or any other profession you can imagine. The bottom line is this: lawyers come from every kind of background and stage of life.
While lawyers’ backgrounds are diverse, there is a general path that must be followed to be a lawyer. In short, in order to be a lawyer you must: (1) graduate from high school (or get your GED), (2) graduate from a 4-year college with a Bachelor’s degree, (3) graduate from law school, (4) pass a state bar exam, and (5) find a legal job.
Once you become a lawyer, the possibilities of what you can do with your law degree and training are quite numerous. For example, you could work as a trial lawyer, be a law clerk for a judge, join the military as a Judge Advocate General, become a special agent with the FBI, enter the business world, etc. The main point is that a law degree opens many doors.
As you can begin to see, what lawyers do on a day-to-day basis and the career paths that come with achieving a law degree can vary drastically from one lawyer to another. However, certain careers and educational backgrounds tend to better prepare one for becoming a lawyer. And if you know what you want to do with your law degree before you enter law school, you can choose the studies and training to get you where you want to go quicker. We like to call this "thinking backwards" – i.e. think about where you want to go (your goals), then figure out how to get there one step at a time.
In this article, we’ll explore where lawyers come from, what it takes to be a lawyer, what lawyers do, and the timeline in detail for becoming a lawyer. We’ll explore all these questions and more to see if the legal profession is one that appeals to you.
Next, we’ll look at whether you’re cut out to be a lawyer.
Are You the "Lawyer Type?"
Although you have already learned that lawyers come from all walks and stages of life, lawyers do have one universal feature in common. Above all, lawyers are problem-solvers. Do you enjoy and/or excel at solving other people’s issues and concerns? Or do you tend to shun away from others’ problems? Do you see a problem as an opportunity or as a roadblock? Skilled lawyers tend to enjoy analyzing and finding solutions to difficult questions and concerns.
Skilled lawyers are also great communicators. They need to be good at such skills as reading, writing, and speaking. Depending on what law career one chooses, a lawyer may focus on one form of communication over the rest. For example, trial lawyers are well versed in oral advocacy – i.e. speaking in front of juries and others on behalf of a client. Other lawyers may devote the bulk of their time to legal writing, such as law clerks who work for a judge. Overall, however, lawyers tend to use all forms of communication in some way or another.
So how do you know if you are the lawyer type? If you like to challenge your mental intellect, then this could be a career path for you. Becoming a lawyer is not for the faint-hearted, but with hard work and persistence it is very realistic that you could be successful in this profession. The path to becoming a lawyer is not a sprint; it is a marathon.
Next, see we’ll explore the timeline for becoming a lawyer.
Timeline for Becoming a Lawyer
As mentioned in this Introduction, there is a general path that all aspiring lawyers must follow. However, this general path can be broken down into two main routes. The first route is the most direct route. In short, it requires graduating from undergraduate school, then going directly to law school, and finding a legal job. The second route is a less direct route. It involves those who choose to become lawyers as a second career. In other words, it is for those people who have already gained an undergraduate degree, left school, and entered the work force.
Let’s explore each of these two routes in more detail. Next, we’ll take a look at Route 1 – The Most Direct Route.
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.
Route 2: As a Second Career
You are already in the working world. Congratulations, because you have a job and did not have to go to law school. So why would you ever want to go back to school? There may be many reasons, but the most prevalent purpose we hear from people is to promote their own career. Maybe you want to advance up the ladder with your current employer, embark on a new career, or simply explore your possibilities again with a new degree. Whatever your reasoning may be, if you like what you have been reading so far, please read on.
You will follow the same path as Route 1 (assuming you have graduated from a four-year college), but will start with Step 4 instead of Step 1. A larger section of people who enter law school as a second career also choose to go to school part-time instead of full-time.
There are some pros to this. For example, you can continue at your current job and not give up your income. You will have a lighter workload in law school. You can also gradually ease into the "school environment" instead of being thrown in full force.
However, there are some cons too. You will likely not graduate in three years. Instead, it will likely take you four years to graduate. Also, attempting to balance a full-time job, family life, and law school at the same time is no easy task. Many people have done it, and many have been successful. But make sure you have a game plan and know yourself before attempting to do this. In other words, make sure that your family is 110% behind your decision. There will be nights where you will be very busy (especially during finals) and your family or significant others may have a tough time in dealing with your absence. Once again, we highly recommend that you talk to some lawyers who have gone this route. Get at least a few different viewpoints, then make your decision. If you select this route with the right attitude and focus, you will likely be very successful.
Finally, we’ll wrap up this Part 1 with some main thoughts to keep in mind.
In this article, How to Become a Lawyer – the Basics (Part I), we took a look at whether you’re the lawyer "type," and the timeline for becoming a lawyer under Route 1 (straight out of college) and Route 2 (as a second career).
This article was simply designed to give you a brief overview of the process of becoming lawyer. And you should now have a better idea about the timeline for becoming a lawyer and commitment required.
With that said, we highly recommend you read "How to Become a Lawyer – From College to the Job Market (Part II)"
for a more thorough explanation of the process in becoming a lawyer. Part II is written for individuals considering Route 1 or Route 2. In other words, everyone interested in becoming a lawyer should read Part II for more details that you’ll need to know to be successful in you quest in becoming a lawyer.
In short, Part II covers pre-law considerations in college/university, the law school application process, law school itself, the state bar exam and licensure, legal jobs and salaries, and jobs for lawyers outside of the legal market.
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