Lawyers must have a law degree and must also typically pass a state’s written bar examination.
Becoming a lawyer usually takes 7 years of full-time study after high school—4 years of undergraduate study, followed by 3 years of law school. Most states and jurisdictions require lawyers to complete a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). ABA accreditation signifies that the law school—particularly its curricula and faculty—meets certain standards.
A bachelor’s degree is required for entry into most law schools, and courses in English, public speaking, government, history, economics, and mathematics are useful.
Almost all law schools, particularly those approved by the ABA, require applicants to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). This test measures applicants’ aptitude for the study of law.
A J.D. degree program includes courses such as constitutional law, contracts, property law, civil procedure, and legal writing. Law students may choose specialized courses in areas such as tax, labor, and corporate law.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Prospective lawyers take licensing exams called “bar exams.” Lawyers who receive a license to practice law are “admitted to the bar.”
To practice law in any state, a person must be admitted to the state’s bar under rules established by the jurisdiction’s highest court. The requirements vary by state and jurisdiction. For more details on individual state and jurisdiction requirements, visit the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
Most states require that applicants graduate from an ABA-accredited law school, pass one or more written bar exams, and be found by an admitting board to have the character to represent and advise others. Prior felony convictions, academic misconduct, and a history of substance abuse are just some factors that may disqualify an applicant from being admitted to the bar.
Lawyers who want to practice in more than one state often must take the bar exam in each state.
After graduation, lawyers must keep informed about legal developments that affect their practices. Almost all states require lawyers to participate in continuing legal education either every year or every 3 years.
Many law schools and state and local bar associations provide continuing legal education courses that help lawyers stay current with recent developments. Courses vary by state and generally cover a subject within the practice of law, such as legal ethics, taxes and tax fraud, and healthcare. Some states allow lawyers to take continuing education credits through online courses.
Newly hired attorneys usually start as associates and work on teams with more experienced lawyers. After several years, some lawyers may advance to partnership in their firm, meaning that they become partial owners of the firm. Those who do not advance within their firm may be forced to leave, a practice commonly known as “up or out.”
After gaining a few years of work experience, some lawyers go into practice for themselves or move to the legal department of a large corporation. Very few in-house attorneys are hired directly out of law school.
Part-time jobs or summer internships in law firms, government agencies, and corporate legal departments provide valuable experience. Some smaller firms, government agencies, and public-interest organizations may hire students as summer associates after they have completed their first year at law school. Many larger firms’ summer associate programs are eligible only to law students who have completed their second year. All of these experiences can help law students decide what kind of legal work they want to focus on in their careers and may lead directly to a job after graduation.
Analytical skills. Lawyers help their clients resolve problems and issues. As a result, they must be able to analyze large amounts of information, determine relevant facts, and propose viable solutions.
Interpersonal skills. Lawyers must win the respect and confidence of their clients by building a trusting relationship so that clients feel comfortable enough to share personal information related to their case.
Problem-solving skills. Lawyers must separate their emotions and prejudice from their clients’ problems and objectively evaluate the relevant applicable information. Therefore, good problem-solving skills are important for lawyers, to prepare the best defense and recommendations for their clients.
Research skills. Lawyers need to be able to find those laws and regulations which apply to a specific matter, in order to provide the appropriate legal advice for their clients.
Speaking skills. Lawyers must be able to clearly present and explain their case to arbitrators, mediators, opposing parties, judges, or juries, because they are speaking on behalf of their clients.
Writing skills. Lawyers need to be precise and specific when preparing documents, such as wills, trusts, and powers of attorney.