People spend their entire lives building their assets and wealth. And when it comes to ensuring it’s protected when they pass away, one legal professional steps in to play an instrumental role: estate lawyers.
By counseling clients through the myriad rules of estate law, they help ensure that plans for end-of-life are well documented and their wishes will be followed.
So, how do you become an estate lawyer? In this guide, we’ll share everything you need to know—from the education requirements to professional development opportunities.
What does an estate attorney do?
Estate lawyers are licensed legal professionals who specialize in end-of-life planning. They help clients manage their assets during their lifetime, and create a distribution plan after their death. This includes their property, investments, vehicles, personal belongings, and savings.
When it comes to their daily responsibilities, estate lawyers draft legal documents, like wills and trusts. They mediate and resolve disputes among beneficiaries when a loved one passes away. They provide counsel on retirement planning, life insurance policies, and charitable contributions. Estate lawyers also sometimes participate in probate litigation for clients.
Education required to become an estate lawyer
As with other legal fields, it requires a significant amount of education to gain a license to practice estate law. Read on to gain a closer look at the steps involved in becoming an estate lawyer.
Gaining a relevant bachelor’s degree
An estate lawyer’s educational journey begins in university, where they’ll obtain their bachelor’s degree. Even at this seemingly early stage, there are several ways to prepare for a career in this specialized practice.
While you don’t need a particular major to apply to law school, some may be especially advantageous. Accounting can, for instance, be a major asset as it equips you with a solid foundation of the financial and tax implications that arise in estate planning. Majors in pre-law, business, and finance are all equally good options.
To keep the doors open for the law school of your choice, you’ll need to keep your GPA high. As you near the end of your degree, you’ll also need to prepare for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Available four times a year, it assesses reading comprehension, reasoning, and writing skills. It’s best to start studying early: in fact, most students carve out 250-300 hours to prepare for the standardized test.
About half of the ABA-accredited law schools also accept Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Tests in lieu of LSATs for law school admissions, which is offered year-round. Before you start applying, be sure to read up on all the considerations for those pondering law school.
Attending law school
Law school is essential to becoming an estate lawyer—you can’t become one without it. As you begin to choose where to go, a number of factors will come into play, including cost, location, and employment outcomes. For guidance on where to apply, see our post on law school rankings.
During your first year of law school, you can expect to take a range of courses that lay the groundwork for law, from civil procedure to torts. As your second and third years allow you to specialize further, it’s worth registering for courses like wills and estate planning, taxation, family law, and asset management (if they’re offered).
Classes aside, law school is a great time to work on developing the skills you will need as a future estate lawyer. For example, submitting papers for law reviews or other legal journals can help polish your research and writing skills.
Volunteer programs, externships, and legal clinics can provide on-the-ground training in estate planning—which can set you apart when you graduate. One option is the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program that provides experience in tax returns. Wills for the Underserved is another excellent program that teaches law students how to create wills by pairing them with volunteer estate planning lawyers.
Once you’re equipped with your JD, you’ll need to take the bar examination in order to obtain your license to practice law. Each state has their own requirements, but most will have a multiple-choice test with written essays.
Practical tips for how to become an estate lawyer
While law school provides a wide exposure to many legal practice areas, your journey to becoming an estate lawyer truly begins after graduation. Below are some strategies for developing your skills as an estate lawyer.
Apply for jobs as estate planning lawyer
You can choose from a number of paths as you begin your career in estate planning law. One of the most common starting points is to join a law firm that practices in estate law, whether that’s a large national firm or boutique one. Doing so will help you gain real-world exposure and the mentorship needed to develop your skills.
You can also look at in-house roles, non-profit organizations, government agencies like the IRS, or educational institutions. As you prepare to send out applications, you’ll want to devote a good amount of time to your resume and cover letter. We’ve put together helpful tips to get you started.
When applying for jobs, be sure to highlight any relevant workplace experience. Potential employers want to see you understand the inner workings of a law firm and possess the practice management skills you need to be successful in your career.
Most modern day firms use legal technology, so if you can show off that you can use these tools to maintain efficiency and help their clients, you’ll have a competitive edge over the candidate pool. Take a look at how to write a legal resume and cover letter to show off your technical skills and more.
You can also take part in Clio’s Academic Access Program, which offers free Clio access to instructors, administrators, and students in both clinical and classroom settings.
Network with estate lawyers
Networking can make all the difference in an estate lawyer’s career. So, make it a priority to connect with other estate lawyers in your organization. This can increase your chances of finding mentors and open the door to rewarding career opportunities down the line. Need a bit of guidance? Our attorney networking guide shares tips to get you started. And, of course, don’t forget to keep an eye on the best legal conferences to network and stay up to date on the latest legal news and regulations.
Find estate planning lawyer mentors
Even if your firm doesn’t practice estate planning (or does very little of it), you can still gain experience and valuable insights through external mentorship.
There are a variety of ways to seek out lawyers who practice in this area and learn from them. For instance, you may want to consider joining professional organizations, such as the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils. The ABA also has a Section of Real Property, Trust and Estate Law, which hosts an annual conference.
Use continuing legal education resources on estate planning
Estate planning law requires an ongoing commitment to learning. Continuing Legal Education (CLE) ensures you get your required hours in, while keeping track of the latest news and updates in estate planning. The ABA has great on-demand CLE resources targeted towards estate planning. Clio hosts several throughout the year too, like our webinars targeting estate planning firms.
Consider additional education and certifications
Many universities offer certificates and degrees that further deepen your understanding of estate planning law. This includes Master of Laws (LLM) in estate planning and tax law, as well as state sponsored certification programs (which you can learn more about here).
Curious to learn what other practice areas are out there for you? Take a look at our resource hub, how to become a lawyer, which covers the pathways to become a lawyer in areas like:
- Criminal law
- Environmental law
- Corporate law
Final notes on how to become an estate lawyer
A multitude of aspiring lawyers are drawn to estate law as it offers the chance to help clients protect their assets and plan their financial legacy. The stakes can be high in this field, but those who enter it find it to be particularly rewarding because of the meaningful difference they make. And as populations continue to age, estate law is becoming a field that’s increasing in importance.
More than ever, technology plays an integral role in helping set law students up for success. Be sure you’re entering the workplace with the right tools and skills so you can succeed in the estate field. That looks like gaining hands-on experience managing daily tasks of running a law firm, technical experience in matter management, and a thorough understanding of the tools you’ll need to succeed at the business of law, as well as the practice of it. Learn more about how Clio gives free access to its software to instructors, administrators, and students through its Academic Access Program.