Lawyers play essential roles in our everyday lives. To start, these professionals help individuals plan their estates, protect their intellectual property and recover personal injury losses.
A lawyer who passes the bar exam and joins their state’s bar association can officially call themselves an attorney. There are more than 1.3 million practicing attorneys in the United States.
If you’re wondering how to become a lawyer, you’re in the right place. In this article, we cover the steps required to build a fulfilling career as a lawyer.
What Does a Lawyer Do?
Lawyers provide legal advice and representation for individuals, businesses and organizations. Their responsibilities may include:
Providing legal advice that is in a client’s best interest
Representing clients in court
Interpreting laws and regulations
Researching legal issues and analyzing data
Filing legal documents, such as wills and contracts.
Different types of lawyers specialize in different legal fields, such as corporate law, environmental law, tax law, family law, criminal law and intellectual property law.
Top Skills for Lawyers
Lawyers typically need a variety of skills and knowledge, depending on what type of law they practice. For example, a tax lawyer should understand accounting principles and have top-notch analytical skills.
Certain skills are necessary for every type of lawyer, regardless of specialization. The tops skills for lawyers include:
Research and analytical skills
Communication skills, including writing and speaking
How to Become a Lawyer
If you’re wondering how to become a lawyer, you should prepare for a rigorous process that leads to a fulfilling career. In most cases, prospective lawyers need to complete education and licensing requirements. This includes taking a state bar exam, and each state has its own requirements for the bar.
Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
A bachelor’s degree is the first step you must take toward completing the education requirements for becoming a lawyer.
You don’t need to pursue any specific pre-law major during undergraduate school to qualify for law school. When choosing a major, first consider what type of law you want to practice, and take classes that are related to this subject area. For example, if you want to practice corporate law, you may want to pursue a business administration bachelor’s degree.
All aspiring lawyers should take courses that will help develop their problem-solving, communication and research skills.
Take the LSAT or GRE
The Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) is a standardized examination that assesses students’ readiness for law school. Traditionally, passing the LSAT has been required for admission to law school in the United States. However, this has changed in recent years.
In 2016, Arizona State University began accepting the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) standardized exam as an alternative to the LSAT. Harvard Law School followed suit the next year. Graduate students typically take the GRE before pursuing graduate work in various fields.
Currently, many law schools—including Columbia, Cornell, Yale and others accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA)—have started accepting the GRE rather than only LSAT scores.
This change means many prospective law students who have already taken the GRE are no longer required to take additional examinations to gain admission to law school. This broadens the applicant pool by encouraging more students to apply.
Complete Law School
If you want to become a lawyer, you should plan on completing law school to earn your juris doctor (JD). This degree is typically a three-year program. Completing law school gives you the knowledge and skills you need to pass the bar exam.
In addition to passing the LSAT or GRE, expect to write a law school personal statement as part of your JD program application.
Earning a JD is the traditional and most common path to becoming an attorney. However, some states offer other options as alternate routes to starting a law career.
In California, Virginia, Washington and Vermont, you can become a law reader—or an apprentice—instead of earning a law degree. Each of these states has different requirements, which may include several years of study under the guidance of an experienced judge or attorney, studying for a set number of hours or passing a baby bar exam.
Wyoming, New York and Maine do not require lawyers to hold a JD degree, but they do require a certain number of hours in law school.
In Wisconsin, as long as you have a JD, you do not have to pass the bar exam to become an attorney. If you choose to not earn a law degree, you’ll save money associated with law school costs, but you may be less prepared for the bar. In addition, many law firms want the lawyers they hire to have JD degrees.
Not earning a law degree may have been common in the days of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, who became lawyers without law degrees, but it is uncommon now.
After you have completed your education, you can begin the process of earning a license to practice law. The steps outlined below are typically required to begin practicing law, but specific requirements may vary among states.
Become an Attorney-at-Law
People sometimes use the terms “lawyer” and “attorney” interchangeably, but there is a difference. When you have passed the bar exam and become a member of the bar association in your state, you’ll officially be an attorney at law. An attorney has to be a lawyer, but a lawyer is not necessarily an attorney.
Lawyer Salary and Job Outlook
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), lawyers earned a median annual salary of $127,990 as of May 2021. Precise salaries vary by industry and geographical location. For example, on the higher end, the average annual salary for lawyers is $198,820 in Washington, D.C., and $179,060 in New York, according to the BLS.
The BLS projects employment opportunities for lawyers to increase by 10% from 2021 to 2031. This rate is twice as fast as the average projected job growth for other careers nationwide.
Individuals and businesses will always need legal work, according to the BLS, but as law firms attempt to cut back on their expenses, paralegals and legal assistants may take on more of the work traditionally completed by lawyers.