What Education is Required to Be a Lawyer?

Written by Mike Robinson
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Law student walking towards law degree

If you’re setting out on the path to be a lawyer, what are the educational requirements you will have to meet? Determining the education required to be a lawyer can be a confusing process, especially considering variations among different states. In this article, we provide a general overview of the education required to become a lawyer in the United States.

It’s important to note that requirements vary widely between states. Accordingly, the best way to ensure you are meeting your legal education requirements is to consult with your state’s bar association. Nonetheless, this overview can give you a sense of what your legal journey will look like.

The apprenticeships typically require a minimum number of weekly hours worked in a legal practice for a specified period of time, some of which must be under the direct supervision of an attorney. This also requires a certain number of study hours. In California, legal apprentices must pass the First Year Law Students’ Examination, or “Baby Bar,” before continuing their studies and eventually taking the bar exam.

How to become a lawyer

Assuming you take the traditional route of becoming a lawyer, including going to law school, below are the steps involved in that process.

Obtain your bachelor’s degree

Student walking with books at university

Law schools generally require a bachelor’s degree before admission. However, most law schools will allow you to apply without having received your degree yet. Some law schools may not even require an undergraduate degree, although you should check with the school of your choice.

What type of education is required to be a lawyer? At the undergraduate level, the answer is fairly simple—none in particular.

For the vast majority of attorneys, there are no particular undergraduate study requirements. Nonetheless, the American Association of Law Schools (AALS) recommends that prospective law students focus on experience and coursework that helps them develop essential skills for law school—critical reading and writing, oral communication, problem-solving, research, and organization. The AALS specifically points to some majors which might fit that bill, such as political science, criminal justice, history, and philosophy.

One important exception here is for patent attorneys, who must be admitted to practice before the United States Practice and Trademark Office (USPTO). In order to take the USPTO’s registration exam, known as the Patent Bar exam, you will generally need at least a bachelor’s degree in a specified field of engineering or science. You may qualify without such a degree based on the completion of engineering or science-related coursework.

Regardless of your exact path, the keys to undergraduate success are to earn a high GPA and consider extracurricular activities and volunteer work, in order to broaden your horizons and develop a strong law school application.

Take the LSAT

Person studying for the LSAT at a table

Another essential element of a legal education is taking the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). The purpose of the LSAT is to test for skills necessary for law school success, including reading comprehension, reasoning ability, and writing skills.

The primary part of the LSAT is a four-section multiple-choice test with questions intended to measure reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning. Each section takes 35 minutes, with all four sections taking three hours to complete for the standard test-taker.

The second part of the LSAT is a written essay, known as LSAT Writing, which is administered online using the test taker’s computer. One can complete LSAT Writing up to eight days prior to the multiple choice test. The essay—which is not scored—measures your ability to make a written argument.

For law schools considering applicants, undergraduate grades and the LSAT score are the primary factors. Accordingly, the higher your LSAT score, the better your chances of acceptance into a prestigious law school. Writing the LSAT multiple times is possible if you aren’t happy with your score.

The LSAT is administered on a monthly basis at different locations throughout the world. Registration is required to take the test, and it is advisable to register as early as possible once you know you will be sitting for the exam.

Finish law school

If you are able to maximize both your undergraduate GPA and your LSAT score, you should be able to get into law school. It typically takes three years of law school to obtain your law degree, known as a Juris Doctorate (JD).

The law school curriculum generally covers some core areas of law for the first year and a half, such as criminal law, civil procedure, property law, and contracts. During this time, law students can also expect to learn the basics of legal writing and research. After the midpoint of the three-year law school journey, law students can then choose to take more specialized courses, such as bankruptcy, tax law, or environmental law.

Many law students will seek to earn placement on their school’s law review or other legal journals, to develop and demonstrate their writing and research skills. Students can also apply for externships and legal clinics that will allow them to observe real-world legal activities. Getting high grades in law school, as well as obtaining reputable positions such as law review membership, will generally be an advantage in gaining legal employment after graduation.

It’s also important to seek a well-rounded education that exposes the student to the realities of practicing law. Many facets of the profession, such as working at law firms, will be vastly different from your law school experience. Accordingly, take advantage of any experiential opportunities that interest you while you are still in school.

Sit for the bar exam

You must take and pass the bar examination before you’re licensed to practice law in a state. Bar exams tend to be comprehensive, difficult, and a test of endurance. Depending on the state, the exam will take two or three days. Moreover, bar exams are generally only available twice a year. This raises the stakes for each exam. Accordingly, you will need to study hard and should take a bar preparation course.

Even after passing the bar exam, there will likely be other requirements that will vary from state to state. For example, you may need to pass a professional responsibility exam. Many states also have character and fitness requirements. For example, they might require prospective attorneys to allow background checks or explain any criminal histories.

A final word on the education required to be a lawyer

Person sitting at desk with laptop

The education required to be a lawyer is difficult and arduous, but it can also be quite rewarding. There are many reasons that lawyers enjoy their work and even come to love the practice of law. It is important to plan and prepare for each step of the way. It’s also good to have contingencies in place for any unexpected delays, such as not passing the bar exam.

The lengthy legal education process can also tend to be discouraging at times. Whether it’s an unexpectedly low LSAT score, or failing the bar exam, these are temporary setbacks.

Keep your chin up and keep moving forward, even through adversity. This attitude will pay off many times over in your legal career. After all, the legal profession can be stressful, but the stress is manageable with the right strategies and attitude. Why not start developing those beneficial strategies and attitudes during the course of your legal education?

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