I first stepped into law school over 30 years ago, and my first thought was “am I ready for this?” My positive attitude pushed away doubts and I got excited for the adventure ahead.
How did I, a small-town kid, get to the steps of the J Reuben Clark Law School? To put it simply: hard work and perseverance. If you are interested in becoming a lawyer, you should know that hard work does pay off. Over the years I have heard many parents tell me that their children would make great lawyers because they love to argue—but that’s not a great trait! In fact, people who are naturally good at resolving conflicts make great lawyers. That trait, and the ability to stay organized and manage long hours, are critical in the legal profession.
A career as an attorney can certainly pay off in the long run. Lawyers earn well above average salaries. In 2020, the median annual salary for a lawyer in the U.S. topped $125,000. That said, becoming a lawyer is a long process. Earning a law degree requires years of schooling.
If you want to become a lawyer, you should know that it does not happen overnight.
You must first complete your education, and that can take up to 8 years. If you remain committed, all your education will no doubt pay off in the end.
As mentioned, lawyers earn among the highest average salaries of any profession. You might not start off making $100,000+ in your first two or three years, but you can get there over time. This depends on where you work, the type of law you practice, and where you graduate from law school. But even those who do not attend so-called “prestigious” law schools can end up very successful
One of the most exciting aspects of the legal field is that you can choose which discipline to pursue. Start by asking yourself: what matters interest and motivate you?
Here are a few of the more well-known legal categories:
- Personal Injury lawyer
- Employment lawyer
- Immigration lawyer
- Environmental lawyer
- Civil rights lawyer
- Criminal lawyer
- Family and divorce lawyer
- Estate Planning lawyer
- Construction and real estate lawyer
- Corporate lawyer
- Bankruptcy lawyer
You can pursue any one of the many disciplines in the legal field, giving you the chance to find the type of work you enjoy most.
Let’s review the steps you must follow to become a lawyer and how much time each step takes.
Once you determine that you want to be a lawyer, it is time to figure out how to get there. Most states require you to have a bachelor’s degree before heading off to a three- or four-year law school. There are some circumstances that you do not need a bachelor’s degree, but for this article we will not get into the few non-accredited law schools that do not require a bachelor’s degree. It is much easier to just get a bachelor’s degree in preparation for a law degree.
Step 1 – Earn your undergraduate degree
Time-to-completion: Typically, four years
Your journey to becoming a lawyer starts in undergrad. I learned early in my college career that the undergraduate degree you earn does not matter in the long run. I recently spoke with law school admissions staff who said that they like to see candidates with a variety of undergraduate degrees.
Many people advised me to take undergrad classes that interested me. For one, if you are interested in a subject, you are more likely to engage in coursework and get good grades. GPA is heavily factored into the law school admission process, and you give yourself a leg up with a high GPA, even if your bachelor’s degree is in a field unrelated to the legal profession.
During my undergrad, I talked with school counselors and asked what major would get me through college the fastest with my goal being to apply to law school. I settled on philosophy, and it worked. I got my bachelor’s degree quickly and was able to apply to law school earlier than expected.
Step 2 – Take the LSAT
Time-to-completion: Varies; several months to a year
You must take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) to enroll in a law school. The LSAT is offered multiple times throughout the year. The LSAT covers reading comprehension, logical thinking, and verbal reasoning proficiency. To attend a reputable law school, you must score high on this test.
When should you take your LSAT? I have found that the best time to take your LSAT is during your junior year of college. This allows you to take it again if you want to try to better your score prior to applying to law schools. Many people that I went to law school with took it their junior year of college.
You need to prepare for the LSAT prior to taking it. The test is considered difficult by many. You can either self-study or get tutoring to prepare for the LSAT. If you are well organized and committed, self-study may be the best option for you. But many people find a tutor. A tutor may be available at your college. You can also find LSAT tutors online from various organizations. There are official LSAT prep resources on the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) website. For me, I found that taking the LSAT preparation class from a reputable company was what worked best.
The time it takes to complete the LSAT varies. Some people take it after just a month or two of study. Others study longer and wait to take it until they feel sure about the likelihood of scoring high. Remember that it is possible to retake the LSAT if you do not receive a satisfactory score.
Step 3 – Enroll and complete law school
Time-to-completion: Three years
After you take the LSAT, you can enroll in law school. The actual law school admission process can take around six weeks, but this depends on the school. All American Bar Association law schools require three years of full-time study to earn a JD. Some law schools offer students part-time status in which they can take courses to earn their degree over the span of four or five years.
Where should you apply to law school? You must consider several factors. First, a lot depends on your grades and LSAT score. Do not spend time applying for a college that will not accept you. If you did not score well on your LSAT and you have an above average GPA, for example, don’t apply to school equivalent to Harvard or Yale. You can find law school acceptance rates and acceptance criteria online to help narrow your search.
Once you determine the best schools for you, take some time to figure out if you qualify for scholarships. I know several former law school students wo attended a less prestigious school because they were offered scholarships. Remember that you must get good grades to maintain the scholarship. Do your research so you know the requirements.
Step 4 – Pass the bar exam
Time-to-completion: several months
You must pass the bar exam in the state in which you want to practice law. The bar exam is the last step in becoming a licensed lawyer. The bar exam is notoriously difficult. The exam is designed to test if you meet the minimum competency required to practice law in a given jurisdiction. It is scored on a pass/fail basis; if you fail, in California, you can retake the bar exam an unlimited number of times. Every state has different exam rules, and some state bar tests are more difficult than others.
You can take the bar exam in any state you wish to practice law. Before you apply to take the test, ask yourself a few important questions. The first and most obvious: where do you want to live and practice law? Next, ask which states reciprocate and allow lawyers with five or more years’ experience to practice law without retaking the bar exam. In these states, with enough experience, you could practice law without having to take the bar if you previously passed the exam in a different state. This is important as it allows you to move around with little effort.
Today, California does not allow reciprocity. Given that, most states do not allow California lawyers to transfer without taking their state test. So, if you take the California bar exam, make sure you want to stay in California for the long term.
It takes anywhere from six to eight years to become a lawyer.
The truth is, becoming a lawyer is no easy feat. It requires years of hard work and dedication. The good news is that your education can really payoff in the end. Lawyers earn among the average highest annual salaries in the U.S. The U.S. News and World Reports says the average attorney in the United States makes more than $125,000.00 a year. In addition, you will grow considerably as a person during your time studying to become a lawyer.
Law students should attempt to soak up as much knowledge as they can during law school, since they will need that knowledge to pass the bar
– Elena Langan, law professor, Jacob D. Fuchsber Law Center
Your first step toward becoming a lawyer can start today—think about your interests, decide your favorite field of study, and get to work earning your undergraduate degree to set yourself on a path to a career in the legal field! I enjoy it and have made a successful career out of it—who knows, we may cross paths in the legal community or courtroom!