How to Become a Lawyer: College to the Job Market (Part II)


This article is Part II of How to Become a Lawyer. If you have not already read Part I, please read it first at How to Become a Lawyer – the Basics (Part I).

After having read Part I, you now have a basic understanding about what it takes to be a lawyer, the timeline for entering the legal profession, and some of the commitments required.

In this article, we’ll explore in more depth some of the considerations mentioned in Part I and we’ll go over 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.

Next, we’ll look at pre-law considerations.


"Pre-law" simply means that you are in college with the intent to go to law school. Just like "pre-med" students want to become doctors, pre-law students want to become lawyers. But what are the best pre-law tracks? What major should you select as an undergraduate student to best prepare yourself for law school?

There is no correct answer to these questions, but there are some guidelines. If you have no idea what area of the law you would like to go into (which tends to be true for many students), then choose a major that you enjoy and helps to develop your critical thinking. For example, English is a great major because law students and lawyers must be good at communicating. Other majors could include criminal justice, sociology, and education. These majors tend to develop your interpersonal skills. Such skills are very valuable once you are a practicing attorney.

If you know you want to specialize in a particular area of the law, then choose the major that corresponds with your interest. For example, if you want to work with inventors and be a patent attorney, then you must have an undergraduate degree in a hard science like engineering, physics, or math. On the other hand, if you want to be a sports agent for professional athletes, maybe you should consider taking some classes that focus on athletics.

As you can begin to see, there is no hard-and-fast rule for the "pre-law" track. However, if you are seriously thinking about going to law school while in college you should be asking yourself these questions. In addition, the absolute best way to see what law you might like is to talk to and/or shadow a lawyer who practices law in the area in which you are interested. There is no better way to learn than through hands-on training and/or observation. So, get out there and start talking to lawyers.

On a side note, be aware that lawyers are people just like everyone else and each lawyer will give you at least a slightly different perspective of the legal profession. Also, be aware that there are both good and bad lawyers. Hopefully, you’ll come across more good lawyers than bad ones. But if you do come across a bad lawyer, learn how not to be like him or her. These practical learning experiences are often the most rewarding and you will truly begin to discover what you like. Also, you’ll begin to develop your own critical thinking skills in how to properly interact with other lawyers, and you’ll be one step ahead of your peers with such knowledge.

Next, we’ll explore the law school application process.

Law School Application Process

Selecting a law school is very similar to the process of selecting the college you attended. Law schools will look at your entire application in determining whether or not they send you a letter of acceptance. However, the two most important criteria for being admitted to law school are your (1) LSAT score and (2) undergraduate GPA (some schools also have basic minority and/or out-of-state benchmarks they want to achieve). Most aspiring lawyers will apply to multiple law schools. The best way to do this is to break the list of law schools that you want to attend into three categories.

Category 1 should be your "dream list" of law schools. These are your absolute top choices, but there may be a good chance that you won’t get accepted to any of them. If you are completely set on going to one of the law schools on your "dream list" and you know your GPA and LSAT scores don’t make you competitive with what the school is looking for, then consider the possibility of taking the LSAT again. This may be an especially good option if you are only a few points away on your LSAT score from making yourself "competitive" for your "dream list" of law schools.

Category 2 should include the law schools where you would be "competitive" in the application process. By "competitive," we mean that your GPA and LSAT scores fall somewhere near the average for what students the law school has accepted in the past. For example, if The Ohio State Moritz College of Law has an average entering class GPA of 3.6 and LSAT score of 158, then your scores should be right around there. If your LSAT score is a little lower, then your GPA should be a little higher, and vice-versa. On the other hand, if your LSAT and GPA scores are both below the average then you may not be truly competitive for that school. But you can always apply in the hopes that your other credentials carry you through into acceptance.

Category 3 should include the law schools where you are nearly certain to be accepted. In other words, your LSAT and GPA scores should be above average relative to that school. If you have above-average scores, then you have a good chance of being accepted and maybe even receiving a scholarship. However, be aware that some law schools require you to maintain a certain GPA throughout law school to maintain your scholarship. The first year of law school is often said to be the most difficult and a high GPA in law school (such as 3.5) is usually much tougher to achieve than a high GPA in college.

Finally, if you don’t find yourself "competitive" with any law schools, do not despair. You can always still submit your application, and you only need one law school to accept you. Some law schools (especially lower-tiered law schools) place emphasis on different categories other than LSAT and GPA scores.

Next, we’ll explore what law school is all about.

Overview of Law Schools

Number of Law Schools

As of June 2008, there are approximately 200 American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law schools in the United States. The ABA is a large volunteer association of lawyers and law students that was founded back in 1878 in order to set academic standards for law schools. One task of the ABA is to set criteria for how law schools become accredited and must operate. To be "accredited" essentially means that the ABA has approved the way the law school operates. In most states, graduation from an ABA-accredited law school is expressly stated as a prerequisite towards being allowed to sit for that state's bar exam. California is one of the few states that does not require a law student to graduate from an ABA-approved law school to take its bar exam. But don’t worry too much about this, because most law schools are ABA approved (even in California).

Ranking of Law Schools

Professional schools including law schools, business schools, and medical schools are all ranked against their peers to try and determine which schools are "the best." This means that there is a separate list for the top 100 law schools, business schools, medical schools, etc. Think of it like the rankings in college sports, with basketball and football. There is no full-proof method to do this, and how the actual rankings are determined is quite complicated. However, law schools and legal employers often place a lot of emphasis on the ranking of a law school, just like the analysts do at ESPN with college sports.

US News & World Report runs the most popular ranking system for law schools and professional schools. Law schools are ranked once a year according to many factors, including reputation, law faculty, first-year GPA and LSAT scores, size of the law library, etc. Then, the law schools are "tiered" off into groups of 50. The top 50 law schools in the country are classified as Tier 1 schools; law schools from 51 –100 are Tier 2; law schools from 101-150 are Tier 3; etc. Many schools place a lot of emphasis on these reports because employers tend to select from the top law schools first, then work their way down the list. Large law firms that pay high salaries tend to only hire from the best law schools or select a few top graduates from lower ranked law schools. Therefore, many entering law students pay close attention to the rankings and try to get into the best law school they can in hopes of having more opportunities when selecting a job.

The rank of the law school that you attend will have some impact on your opportunities in job placement. However, many lower ranked law schools offer great legal education, and legal employers also like to hire alumni from the schools they attended. For example, if you want to practice law in Los Angeles, California, try to get into a law school in that geographical area. Because many lawyers end up practicing law near the law school where they graduated, there will be a higher percentage of alumni looking to hire you. The saying, "all law is local," sums this up best.

Next, we’ll take a look at what it’s like to go to law school.

Going to Law School

Without a doubt, law school is an experience like no other. The traditional style of teaching in law school, especially in the first year, typically utilizes the Socratic Method by examining real legal cases. The Socratic Method is named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates, who used to teach his students by answering their questions with further questions. Socrates believed this style of teaching was better suited to stimulate rational legal thought and debate than any other method.

In law school, most law professors expect their students to have read all the cases and reading assignments prior to class and come prepared to answer questions the moment class begins. The professor will pose a question, then randomly select a student to answer the question. The professor will often take the opposite position of whatever stance the student proposes. Because the law tends to be very fact specific, the professor may also just switch a few facts and then pose the same question or slightly alter the question. This form of dialogue tends to create anxiety in even the most well-prepared student, especially if the student doesn’t want to look like a fool in front of the rest of his or her peers. It can also be quite humorous if you are not the one being called on.

NOTE: You should watch the 1973 movie "The Paper Chase" (which is an adaptation of the 1970 novel) in which a brilliant Harvard law professor uses the Socratic Method on his students. The movie shows how one particular law student deals with his teaching style. You should also consider reading Scott Turow’s autobiographical narrative entitled "One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School."

During the first year of law school, students will also slowly begin to learn how to "brief" cases in order to prepare for being called on in class and for self-study. Briefing a case means that the law student will have outlined the procedure, facts, issues, rationale, and outcome for the case. Law students grow in their competence and knowledge of the law by examining real cases and determining how the law applies to the given facts. This is where law students begin to think like lawyers.

Most schools also require students to take the same classes during the first year of law school. These classes form the building blocks of the law. Such first year classes generally include: torts, civil procedure, criminal law, contracts, property, constitutional law, criminal procedure, business associations, legal research and writing, evidence, ethics, and/or trusts and estates. Then, at the end of the grading term (i.e. semester or quarter), one final is given for each class. In other words, the student’s entire grade for one 16-week class comes down to one 3-4 hour exam. You can see why finals in law school can be a stressful time in the life of a law student!

Law schools often offer many extra-curricular activities, including Law Review, Moot Court, Trial Advocacy, and many different clubs and associations. Law schools usually offer some type of lecture series where they will bring in distinguished legal scholars, lawyers, judges, politicians, and others to stimulate thought and debate in the law school environment. Law school is the training ground to help you begin to think, question, and debate like a lawyer. All of these extra-curricular activities are designed to facilitate the development of your legal mind.

Once you’ve successfully completed all your law school classes and graduated, it becomes time to take the "Bar Exam." Next, we’ll look at what the "Bar Exam" is all about.

State Bar Exam & Licensure

The state bar exam is a test unique to all other tests. There is no way to truly convey what it is like until you take it under test conditions. In this section, we’ll give you a brief overview of the bar exam application process, preparing for the test, format of the test, a glimpse of what you are in for on test day, and what to expect after you take the test.

Bar Exam Application

No matter how well you do in law school you can never be a practicing attorney unless you pass a state bar exam. This is the last "hoop" an aspiring lawyer must overcome before he or she can officially practice law. The bar exam is given by each of the 50 states twice a year, in late February and late July. However, before you can even take a bar exam you will have to go through a lengthy application process.

In order to register for the bar exam, you will have to fill out a very detailed application, obtain a criminal background check, and be interviewed by a lawyer in "good standing" with your state’s Bar. "Good standing" means that the lawyer who interviews you is a licensed attorney and has maintained the ethical codes of your state’s Bar. When we refer to the "Bar," we mean all the licensed attorneys in your state. Think of each group of lawyers in each state as a separate organization known as the Bar. Once you have complicated all the paperwork and paid the state’s registration fee, you can now begin to prepare for the exam.

Preparing for the Bar Exam

Most law students graduate from law school sometime in early May. The July bar exam usually begins on the last Tuesday in July. This gives a law student around 2 ½ months to prepare for the bar exam. This is no easy task, especially when most law students find out that what they learned in law school will not properly prepare them for the state bar exam!

As previously mentioned, the bar exam is a test unique to all other tests. It is very time-intensive, and some of the material may be completely new to a law student. Because most states require you to know many different areas of the law, most students choose to pay for a bar preparation class. In fact, it is generally rare for a law student to attempt to pass the bar exam without any type of bar preparation class. The best classes for bar preparation cost around $3,000 or more. This might seem like a hefty sum, but when your entire legal career depends on one test, most students elect to pay the fee.

A good bar preparation course will focus on the exact legal areas you will be responsible for on your state’s bar exam. Such a course will also teach you how to properly answer essay questions, select the "best" answer to multiple-choice questions, and give you guidance in time management. In the end, it all comes down to you. However, the more questions and practice essays you do, the more prepared you will be. Most students elect not to work or to work part-time while preparing for the bar exam. Then, at a minimum, a few weeks prior to the test should be completely devoted to bar exam preparation.

As you can see, this can be a stressful time in the life of an aspiring lawyer. A law student’s entire legal education comes down to 2-3 days! But don’t be too discouraged -- many lawyers have successfully passed multiple bar exams. Think of the bar exam as a rite of passage; it is designed to prove that you really want to be a lawyer.

Format of the Bar Exam

Each state administers its own bar exam, which may differ slightly or significantly from state to state. The length of the exam is 2-3 days and is closed book (e.g. no notes or any study materials are allowed in the test center). The bar exam is also very time-intensive. This means that students do not have a lot of time to answer questions. The purpose of this is to require students to answer questions quickly and soundly.

Days 1 and 3 are generally state-specific written essay questions. In other words, these are the portions of the bar exam particular to each state. Depending on the state, students can be held responsible for 15 or more areas of the law! The main way states test on days 1 and 3 is through written essays. An essay is generally a few pages long with a set of facts and some legal questions based off of those facts for the test-taker to answer (known as the “call” of the question). You have no idea what questions will be asked ahead of time, but you must be prepared for any question thrown your way. Many states also set a ½ hour time limit to complete each essay.

The bar exam on day 2 has the same format and questions in all states, excluding Washington and Louisiana. All of Day 2 is comprised of the Multistate Bar Exam ("MBE") section. The MBE consists of two three-hour segments of 100 multiple-choice questions for a total of 200 multiple-choice questions. This gives each test taker exactly 1.8 minutes on average to answer each question. The MBE tests 6 areas of the law: (1) torts, (2) criminal law and procedure, (3) evidence, (4) property, (5) constitutional law, and (6) contracts. If you pass the MBE in one state, you will likely not have to take the MBE in another state based on reciprocity.

As you can see, it is very critical to properly prepare for the bar exam. The more preparation you put into your studies, the more confidence you will gain, and the more likely you will be successful in passing the test on your first attempt.

Tip when studying: After you have studied to the point of exasperation, make sure to take breaks along the way to let your mind relax. Just like athletes must work out and train to get stronger, they must also rest to allow their bodies to properly develop. This concept is also true in studying for the bar exam.

Next, we’ll go over what happens when you actually take the Bar Exam.

Taking the Bar Exam

After all your hard work in studying, the day will finally arrive when you have to take the test. Before you arrive at the testing center, make sure to do the following: (1) know where the test center is, (2) book a hotel in advance, (3) arrive at your hotel the day before you take the test, (4) visit the test center from your hotel so you know how to get there in the morning, (5) pack all of the supplies you will need for the test the night before, and (6) get a good night’s sleep.

On the first day of the exam, arrive early to the test center and find your seat. If you have properly prepared, you will do fine. You will not get every answer correct, but don’t get too caught up on any one particular question that you may struggle with. The bar exam is all about getting points. You will need a certain amount of points to pass, and it doesn’t matter where those points come from. And remember, no one cares about what score you get on the bar exam. They only care if you pass! This is still our favorite Q&A regarding the bar exam:

Question: What do they call the person with the worst passing score on the bar exam?

Answer: A lawyer.

Next, we’ll take a look at what occurs after you take the Bar Exam.

After the Bar Exam

After you take the bar exam, do not expect to get your results back quickly. Many states take up to 3 months to return your results. This is often agonizing to the applicant test taker. It may also be difficult to obtain a legal job during this timeframe if you do not already have a job lined-up. This is because many legal employers will now wait to see if you passed before they offer you a job. We like to think of this timeframe as the legal profession’s last attempt to place anxiety in the minds of aspiring lawyers (and they do a pretty good job at it).

Okay. The big day arrives – you get your bar results. Either you pass or you don’t. If you do, congratulations! All those who successfully complete the bar exam are then sworn into the state where they took it as a member of that state’s Bar. This means that the state has now officially recognized them as licensed attorneys. The Bar of each state is a self-regulating body, which means that lawyers within the state regulate themselves and must report any misconduct they witness. If you don’t pass the exam, you can take it again.

So, you have passed the bar exam. What is next? Well, if you still don’t have a job, we’ll show you what your options are.

Next, we’ll discuss legal jobs and salaries.

Legal Jobs & Salaries

This is what law students have worked to achieve – to finally get a job. The job market for lawyers is a competitive one. According to the American Bar Association there were 1,143,358 licensed lawyers in the United States at the end of 2007. This means that you are competing for a legal job with over 1 million other lawyers. However, not all licensed lawyers use their law degrees to practice law. Some use their J.D.s to become more marketable in the business world or other professional areas.

As we stated earlier, all law is local. This means that each legal market has different levels of competition. For example, New York City has a highly competitive legal market, while Boise, Idaho may not. However, New York City lawyers tend to make more money on average than other U.S. legal markets. But the cost of living in New York City is also much higher than most other markets. In other words, there are pros and cons to any legal market you choose to enter.

The types of jobs in which you can use your law license are vast. The legal job you select, combined with the market you enter, and coupled with your experiences and background will dictate the type of income you can expect to receive. Here is a brief sampling of legal job opportunities and salaries:

1. Private practice.

In private practice, you can be self-employed or work for a law firm. Being self-employed means that you are your own boss, and you make the decisions. However, this is often a tough way to go because you will have to teach yourself everything and pay for everything. You will be inefficient when you first begin practicing law, because it takes time to become good at anything. If you are self-employed, you will also have to find your own clients. If you find no clients, then you will make no money. Because most young lawyers want to get proper training, they elect to work for law firms in private practice as "associates."

An associate is a lawyer who is an employee of the law firm. An employee earns a salary, but does not have any equity in the law firm. In other words, an associate is not an owner of the law firm. A goal of many associates is to one day make partner in the firm. A partner generally does have equity in the law firm. This means that partners are part owners of the company. Partners can make substantially more money than associates, but partners also have liability issues if the firm is sued.

Law firms come in many sizes, both big and small, and most firms specialize in certain areas of the law. Law firms are generally categorized based on how many practicing lawyers are in the firm. For example, if the firm has 2-25 lawyers it is considered a small law firm. On the other hand, a law firm with 500 or more attorneys is a very large law firm. As mentioned earlier in this article, large law firms tend to pay higher salaries. As of 2009, big law firms in New York City pay new associates around $160,000/year. This is a great paycheck, but most associates are required to work very long hours, including nights and weekends.

The following chart gives you a brief overview of what associates make in law firms, based on the size of the firm and number of years they have been working. It also shows what first, second, and third year summer law clerks make:

Median Base Salaries by Associate Year and Firm Size (as of April 1, 2009)

Associate Year FIRM SIZE — Number of Lawyers








All Sizes

Median Salary









































































Summer Associates ($/week)





























2. Government (Non-Military)

The government offers may legal opportunities for lawyers including working for a prosecutor’s office, public defender’s office, state agencies (like the attorney general’s office) or federal agencies (like the Securities and Exchange Commission).

Many new lawyers choose to work for the government because of the great legal experiences that that can provide. For example, county and district prosecutors will invariable get much more trial experience than their 1st through 5th year private law associate colleagues. Why? Because most government agencies have many cases and need new and young lawyers to handle them. In contrast, private law firms tend to rely upon experienced trial attorneys for their trials. This is due in part because private law firm have clients they must make happy, and most clients would not want a new and inexperienced lawyer handling their case in trial.

Many government agencies also generally offer fairly good benefits, such as pension plans, health and life insurance, etc. However, government agencies differ in what benefits and salaries they offer. So, shop around to find the best deals that suite your career goals.

NOTE: Many new lawyers choose to work for a government agency to gain legal experience, then transition into the private sector for higher pay.

3. Military

The military is also another great option for many new lawyers. Just like other government legal positions, the military offers many of the similar pros and cons.

As a military lawyer, you’ll be called a Judge Advocate General (JAG). You’ll be required to earn your commission as an officer, travel, and learn the Uniform Code of Military Justice (USMJ).

We know of multiple individuals who’ve chosen this career path and really enjoy it. There are also opportunities as part-time JAGS with certain military branches like the Air Force and Coast Guard. Contact your local officer recruiter to learn more of the details.

4. Clerkship with a Judge

Another great way to gain legal experience is to clerk for a judge. You can clerk for state or federal judges. Generally, a federal clerkship holds the most prestige and will open the door to job offers upon completion. Many judges require new lawyers to act as their clerk for 2 or more years.

As a clerk, you’ll be expected to do a bulk of the writing and legal research for the judge’s opinion. You’ll also have the opportunity to see the law through the judge’s eyes from the bench – often an invaluable tool when/if you actually practice law. After you finish your clerkship, you should be able to use your experience to find a job in the private or public sector.

5. Jobs Outside the Legal Market

The great part about earning a Juris Doctor degree is that it can open many job possibilities. You don’t have to confine yourself to only legal jobs. In fact, many law students use their law degree to enter and/or advance in other sectors such as business, education, management, science, etc.

The salary, benefits, and perks associated with non-legal jobs are as vast and different as the jobs available. In other words, your experience, background, grade, etc.


In this article, we went over pre-law considerations, the law school application process, an overview of law schools, going to law school, the state Bar Exam and licensure, taking the Bar Exam, after the Bar Exam, legal jobs and overview on salaries, and jobs for lawyers outside of the legal market. Now you should have a better understanding of what it takes to be a lawyer. As you can see, the path to becoming a lawyer is not a simple one; but it is not supposed to be.

Lawyers come from all walks and stages of life, and a law degree can open many opportunities into the legal and non-legal markets.

Above all, lawyers are problem-solvers that provide services to people in need. Lawyers are social advocates and leaders. Lawyers also face high scrutiny from the public, as public opinion polls and lawyer jokes indicate. However, when you get down to it, individuals and clients place their utmost trust, confidentiality, and hope in their lawyers. In other words, it is the lawyer that acts as the final shield or advocate for his or her client in times of crisis or need. Behind the scenes many lawyers work very diligently to achieve the best results for their clients. In this respect, lawyers act like the lubricant that keeps society running.

The 18th century British statesman, William Pitt the Elder, summed up the law best when he said, "Where law ends, there tyranny begins."

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