How to Become a Lawyer: Law Schools & Careers
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Prospective lawyers must undertake a series of steps to practice law, including completion of undergraduate and graduate degrees, examinations and licensing processes. Prior to embarking in this journey, those interested should ask themselves why they want to become a lawyer and if they are willing to commit several years to studying law in order to do so. For those who answer affirmatively, the following guide outlines the various academic, skill building, and licensing steps required to begin a career practicing law. There can be an excellent payoff by the hard work it takes to become a lawyer — the median annual salary is $126,930, with salaries that exceed $200,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
How to Become a Lawyer
A bachelor’s degree is the minimum educational requirement for admission to law school. No singular field of study is recommended by the American Bar Association at this level. In fact, the ABA notes that students gain admission to law school from nearly every area of study, ranging from political science to mathematics. Common undergraduate majors for prelaw students include English, political science, economics, business, philosophy, and journalism. There’s no correct major to pursue to get into law school. But according to legal educators, prospective J.D. students who take classes they enjoy report better GPA scores. And given the importance of your undergraduate GPA in the law school admissions process, focusing on coursework you enjoy can help you become a competitive candidate.
Along with an undergraduate degree, the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is a core component of the law school admissions process. Admissions officers use scores from the LSAT as an objective measure to assess the knowledge and quality of applicants. The examination includes five multiple-choice question sections and an unscored writing sample. The LSAT measures candidates’ skills in critical areas of future legal work, including reading comprehension, information management, analysis and critical thinking, reasoning, and argumentation.
After finishing an undergraduate degree, some students choose to forego further education, while others gain professional experience in other fields prior to enrolling in law school. Regardless of the timing, prospective students should only consider law schools accredited by the American Bar Association. In addition to overall GPA, undergraduate coursework, and LSAT scores, other admission factors may include community service, organizational affiliations, and recommendation letters from educators, alumni or legal professionals. The Law School Admission Council is a great resource for students in the research phase of the law school application process.
The Juris Doctor (JD) is the nationally recognized degree for practicing law in the United States and is currently offered by 205 ABA-accredited law schools. Prospective students should have knowledge of the faculty, areas of study, tuition, and curriculum prior to applying. There are numerous specialties within legal practice and students should select a program that offers a focused curriculum in their area of interest. For example, students may choose to concentrate in areas of real estate, property, criminal, environmental, tax, or family law. Typically students can complete their Juris Doctor in three years of full-time study. Popular concentrations include:
Corporate law: Corporate or business law is a lucrative field with responsibilities such as the formation and dissolution of corporations, mergers and acquisitions, corporate disputes, and more.
Family law: Family law deals with legal relations between families such as marriage, divorce, domestic partnerships, adoption, and child welfare.
Labor law: Labor attorneys deal with relations between workers and employers, often representing one side or the other on matters including discrimination, compensation, and collective bargaining.
Civil rights law: Civil rights lawyers work to protect individuals’ civil rights, often representing individuals in matters against or relating to the government.
Health law: Health law is a broad field that focuses on everything related to healthcare, including healthcare policy, patents, and medical malpractice.
Intellectual property law: Attorneys in this type of law work to protect the intellectual property of clients through patents, trademarks, and copyright.
Tax law: Tax lawyers work closely with the tax code, often working on tax policy, and representing clients in tax matters.
Most states require lawyers to graduate from an ABA-approved law school and pass the state bar examination prior to qualifying in that state. Although each state sets its own testing guidelines, the bar exam is commonly a two day process: day one is spent completing the Multistate Bar Examination while day two focuses on writing examinations covering various legal matters. In addition to the bar examination, the state board of bar examiners also consider the candidate’s educational background, competence, character, and ability to represent others in legal matters prior to offering full legal licensure.
There are many opportunities for lawyers to advance their careers. Freshman lawyers generally start out as associates, working closely with seasoned lawyers to hone their craft. After several years of successful practice, attorneys may rise to become partners in a firm while others may choose to open their own law office. Some may move beyond practicing law and become a judge or shift into public positions. Lawyers may also pursue further education at both the master’s and doctoral levels. The Master of Law (LLM) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) are two common choices for lawyers interested in careers involving research and academic scholarship.
What Does a Lawyer Do?
Lawyers are licensed by their state’s bar association to represent clients on a wide range of legal matters. Law is a broad field, but professionals typically provide legal advice, perform research, gather information, draft legal documents, and more. A spectrum of options is available, allowing legal professionals to pursue opportunities in corporate, private, government, and international settings.
The BLS reports that the median annual wage for lawyers was about $126,930 in 2020, with the top 10 percent of earners taking home more than $208,000 per year. Those working in state and local government tend to earn less while lawyers specializing in financial and insurance law are in the top bracket.
Prospective lawyers considering where to practice law should also be aware that in 25 states, the annual salaries surpassed the national average. The District of Columbia topped this list in 2020, with lawyers taking home $197,100. Below is a list of the top ten paying states for lawyers in 2020, according to the BLS.
|States||2020 Average Salary|
Use the map below to compare salary estimates for lawyers by state:
Did You Know?
According to the 2020 Robert Half International Salary Guide for the Legal Field, 87% of lawyers said it’s challenging for their firm or company to find skilled legal professionals today.
Exploring Law Degrees
Undergraduate Degree Options
The educational road to becoming a lawyer begins well before law school. The path is varied, allowing students to customize their approach. For any undergraduate, choosing a major and starting down a career path can be challenging. For the student looking to select a prelaw program, it can be even more difficult given there is no singular path at the undergraduate level.
The American Bar Association (ABA) does not currently recommend any particular discipline to prepare students for advanced legal/law education. According to the ABA, students from nearly every educational discipline are admitted to law schools, ranging from English to history, political science to business. Popular undergraduate degree areas to consider include philosophy, economics, political science, journalism, and math.
Law schools examine the student’s background, grades, overall GPA, and scores from the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). The ABA recommends students pursue an undergraduate program that is broad in nature and affords the opportunity to develop core skills in the following areas:
These skills share a common trait--they are relied upon by lawyers in all legal fields. Law school teaches future lawyers how to think like a lawyer, and critical thinking and reading are the basis for judgment and evaluation. Students learn how to critically analyze their own thinking process. Lawyers must also be expert communicators who can prepare, understand, explain, and defend complex legal documents such as contracts or court opinions. Because the ultimate goal of legal practice is to win cases, the above skills are crucial for developing and presenting persuasive arguments.
Prospective students should be aware that some universities and colleges have prelaw advisors to assist them in selecting a major, preparing for the LSAT, gathering letters of recommendation, and applying to law school.
Advanced Degrees in Law
In order to practice law, students must typically complete an undergraduate degree, earn a Juris Doctor (JD) diploma, and pass their state’s bar examination. Having an understanding of the types of law degrees available will allow students to make practical, informed decisions about whether or not to pursue a career in legal services and law. There are six advanced programs that lead to different occupations within the field. These include:
- Juris Doctor (JD)
- Master of Laws (LLM)
- Doctor of Philosophy in Law (PhD)
- Doctor of Jurisprudence (JSD)
- Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD) or Doctor of the Science of Law (JSD)
- Doctor of Comparative Law (DCL)
The following sections will discuss the most common advanced degrees in law.
The Juris Doctor
The minimum educational requirement to sit for a state bar examination is a Juris Doctor degree from an ABA-approved institution. The degree typically takes about three years of full-time study to complete. According to the ABA, there are currently 205 approved higher education providers. Not to be confused with other degrees such as the Doctor of Science of Law, the JD is a professional degree specifically designed to train future lawyers and prepare them for the bar examination.
The Juris Doctor curriculum provides students with a broad education, covering modern issues in the legal system within the ABA-mandated 84-90 post- baccalaureate credit hours. The first year of the program is generally reserved for core coursework and an introduction to elective classes to provide students with a foundational understanding of legal procedure, policies, legal analysis, and writing.
Coursework during the second and third years consists almost entirely of electives, allowing students to fashion a specialized program of study. In addition, many law schools also offer students the opportunity to pursue a concentration in areas such as public law, advocacy, business law, appellate law, or international law. Some of the electives available may include:
A survey of the foundations of protecting intellectual property, including a review of the three major legal mechanisms in the field: trademark, patent, and copyright.
This course introduces students to the body of law concerning administrative agencies and includes the study of topics such as the Administrative Procedure Act and regulatory reform.
Legislation and regulation
In this class, students receive an introduction to the role of legislative bodies, including the study of statutes and regulations, from formation to enforcement, analysis to interpretation.
This class is designed to prepare students for future practice in corporate settings. It introduces them to corporate legal issues such as contract negotiation, dispute resolution, and joint ventures.
Below is a list of courses frequently offered within a JD program, alongside a list of skills and knowledge students should gain from the class.
Introduces students to the elements of practicing law, including legal analysis, policy, and writing.
Skills & Knowledge Gained
Students are introduced to the basic principles of contracts, including creation, termination, and alteration.
Skills & Knowledge Gained
Students gain an understanding of court procedures that do not involve criminal matters; includes the study of trial litigation, discovery process, and jurisdictional rules.
Skills & Knowledge Gained
Teaches students about the U.S. Constitution and how it structures the legal system.
Skills & Knowledge Gained
This course examines civil liabilities of conduct and topics such as medical malpractice and tort reform.
Skills & Knowledge Gained
The Master of Laws
The Master of Laws (LLM) is a specialized degree designed for practicing lawyers or professionals who have already graduated from a JD program. Traditionally completed in one year, the LLM provides a broad course of study that enhances a student’s knowledge of both law and legal theory. Examples of ideal candidates for LLM programs include judges, lawyers, law professors, and government officials. This degree usually requires students to complete 20 to 26 academic credit hours to qualify for graduation. The LLM curriculum structure is built on flexibility and diversity, allowing students to focus their studies in a particular section of law. Areas of specialization include international business, property, entertainment and media, civil litigation, and taxation, to name a few.
The practice of modern law does not occur in a vacuum, but at an intersection of multiple disciplines. Universities and law schools recognize that the field draws upon different areas. As a result, many offer dual or joint degree programs allowing students to earn an additional professional degree to complement their law education. Through these concurrent degree programs, students gain specialized expertise that prepares them for a range of professional opportunities. Some of the most common dual and joint degree programs include the following:
In these programs, students earn a Master of Business Administration to complement their Juris Doctor degree. Typically requiring approximately 124 credit hours of study, students can complete a JD/MBA in four years of full-time study distributed between the curricula of each area.
JD/MA or JD/MS
This option allows students to earn a JD and Master of Arts or Sciences degree in a range of disciplines, such as international affairs, political science, philosophy, engineering, or environmental science. Generally offered as a dual degree, these programs are designed for students who want to augment their legal expertise by developing specialized knowledge in another discipline.
The goal of JD/MPH program is to prepare students for a career in public health policy, health law, or a related industry. These programs are typically completed in 3-4 years of full-time study and combine two degree programs—the Juris Doctor and the Master of Public Health.
JD/MPP & JD/MPA
Students considering a career in public policy, administration, or government may earn a Juris Doctor/Master of Public Policy or Juris Doctor/Master of Public Administration to set them apart in the field. Traditionally, these joint programs require four years of full-time study and prepare graduates for leadership positions in public affairs and domestic and international policy.
The Juris Doctor/Doctor of Philosophy option is intended for students pursuing research or academic-based roles. Generally speaking, JD/PHD programs can be completed in six years and allow students to combine doctoral studies in any discipline with a Juris Doctor. Example fields include anthropology, history, political science, African-American studies, or psychology.
JD/LLM in Taxation
The Juris Doctor/Master of Laws in Taxation can usually be completed in 3-4 years of full-time study. The LLM in Taxation supplements the student’s legal training, preparing them to pursue a range of tax-related career opportunities both within and outside of tax law.
Modern legal practice extends into many different areas, with emerging and rapidly growing industries introducing a new layer of complexity to the practice of law. Through both electives and concentrations, students can focus their education, developing advanced knowledge to address industry-specific legal issues, problems, and concerns. Below is a short overview of five common legal concentrations available to law students.
This expansive area examines multiple facets of today’s modern economy. Students in business law concentrations explore the varied and sophisticated transactions and components of business, such as federal income taxation, mergers and acquisitions, bankruptcy, financial accounting, capital markets, and corporate finance.
Intellectual Property Law
One of the most rapidly growing specialties in law, intellectual property is concerned with trademarks, patents, and copyrights. Curriculum may include the study of cyberlaw, intellectual asset management, antitrust, Internet law, and patent strategies.
In the courtroom, criminal defense lawyers are tasked with representing clients accused of committing crimes. In addition to studying the theory of criminal law, the curriculum also introduces students to criminal procedures, evidence, national security law, white-collar crime, and trial practice.
When compared to other areas of legal practice, environmental law can be considered a relatively new specialty area. It deals with numerous statutes, from the Clean Water Act to the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act. The curriculum may cover topics such as land use controls, agricultural law, international environmental law, mediation, and water rights law.
Entertainment and Media Law
In this specialization, students prepare to practice law in music, television, film, and other creative industries. The curriculum intersects with intellectual property law, exploring topics such as copyright law, motion picture distribution, digital media, television law, and trademark law.
Doctorate degrees are designed for legal professionals seeking career opportunities in scholarly research. At this level, admission is extremely competitive. It is not unusual for a law school to only accept one or two doctoral students each year and to only consider students that graduated from the same institution. Although these degrees are the highest academic programs available in law, each has its own structure and purpose. The four options include:
Doctor of Philosophy in Law
The PhD in Law is ideal for JD graduates who wish to pursue academic research, scholarship, and teaching at the postsecondary level.
Doctor of Jurisprudence
The DSJ degree is designed for law graduates who hold an LLM and desire to pursue individual legal research and writing. The program culminates in a dissertation that should advance and make a significant contribution to legal scholarship.
Doctor of Juridical Science
The SJD degree is a research-focused program designed for students interested in performing legal research and writing in preparation for leadership roles in public positions or legal scholarship. Students must hold both a JD and an LLM from ABA-accredited institutions.
Doctor of Comparative Law
The D.Comp.L program is closely aligned to the DSJ degree, but concentrates on the comparative aspects of law, particularly international law, highlighting the differences among legal systems throughout the world.
PhD Skills Toolbox
Doctoral students build progressive, elevated skills in a range of areas. Some of these include:
Students are able to analyze issues, develop informed plans of inquiry, conduct research, and make data-driven recommendations.
Students develop an advanced understanding of legal issues, theory, and the legal system alongside critical reasoning skills.
Students gain advanced understanding in specialized policy areas or domains and are able to make expert recommendations in each area.
Students are able to communicate effectively, writing and speaking clearly for varied audiences and purposes.
Online Law Schools
Currently, no law school offers a fully online Juris Doctor degree approved by the American Bar Association. In order to sit for state bar examinations, students must earn a degree from an ABA-accredited institution. While fully online programs do not exist, some universities and law schools may allow students to complete some coursework via online learning formats. This includes students in dual, concurrent, or joint degree programs. For example, some dual programs--such as the JD/MPH program at the University of Minnesota--allow for a majority of non-law coursework to be completed via online learning.
Although online learning is somewhat limited in law school settings, pre-law students pursuing undergraduate degrees may pursue nearly every recommended bachelor’s degree entirely via online learning or through blended learning formats.
What to Consider When Selecting a Law School
There are numerous considerations when deciding to pursue a law degree. Prospective students need to ensure they are getting the right return on their investment by finding a law school that matches both their educational needs and career goals. Below is a list of factors students should review before deciding to apply to law school.
In nearly every state, law graduates are ineligible to sit for the bar examination if they haven’t earned a JD from an institution accredited by the American Bar Association. Passing the bar examination is the basic requirement to practice law.
Bar Exam Preparation
Traditionally, law schools prepare students to take the bar examination in the state the institution is located. Prospective students should consider where they want to practice law as that will influence where they attend school. However, some states have reciprocal agreements allowing graduates from one state to practice law in another after passing the bar examination.
Libraries and Research Resources
Attending law school means reading, and lots of it. Law students should consider the research facilities and libraries at their school of choice, examining the quality of the library collection, staff, research materials, and even hours of operation.
The success of any student hinges on faculty members. Prospective students should get an understanding of faculty member’s backgrounds, educational and professional experience, and areas of research. Faculty-student ratio is also important, as it is an indicator of how personalized the learning experience will be at each school.
Generally speaking, law students are not required to specialize when they graduate. However, students should review the institution’s curriculum prior to applying. Not all law schools have programs that suit the student’s individual’s interests and goals. Secondly, students seeking a well-rounded education should ensure the school offers a rich and diverse list of classes that complement coursework in general law.
Components of a Successful Career as a Lawyer
Through educational training, lawyers develop a range of professional skills, most of which revolve around information. Lawyers must be able to consume, digest, analyze, and process vast amounts of data.
The Law School Admission Council has distilled important legal skills into six areas:
Lawyers should be keen researchers, able to decipher complex legal documents and case studies. Another major skill is communication, both verbally and in written form, which enables proper conveyance of ideas to clients, arbitrators, legal counsel, juries, and the general public.
Lawyer Credentials &Certifications
Although certification has become an important part of the legal profession, formal board certification of lawyers is a fairly recent industry shift. Certification programs are entirely voluntary and lawyers not certified in a specialization (e.g. real estate law, environmental law) are not barred from practicing in that field. Lawyers may pursue certification from private ABA-accredited programs, state sponsored plans, and state-accredited private certifiers. For example, lawyers may gain board certification in multiple areas from the National Board of Legal Specialty Certification, including the following:
- Civil Pretrial Practice
- Trial Lawyer
- Family Lawyer
- Social Security Disability Lawyer
- Criminal Trial Lawyer
Tools and Technology for Lawyers
Like other fields, the legal industry is experiencing a growing integration of technology into everyday work. In addition to standard office tools and technology (e.g. computers, Microsoft Office, etc.), lawyers may use a variety of other specialized software to manage their work effectively. Some of these include:
- Accounting - ESI Software
- Document Management - LexisNexis HotDocs
- Project Management - Practice Technology Prevail
- Database Management - LexisNexis CaseMap
- Cloud Computing - CoCounselor, Clio, RocketMatter, and MyCase
Lawyer Job Growth, Prospects and Outlook
Nationally, the BLS projects a 4 percent growth of employment for lawyers between 2019 and 2029, translating to an additional 32,300 positions created during this time. Five of the most in-demand practice areas are detailed below.
Driven by an increase in proceedings, there is a growing need for skilled legal specialists in areas of commercial litigation and medical malpractice. Litigation is becoming an increasingly important practice area in the wake of the pandemic.
Insurance companies, hospitals, drug manufacturers, and other medical providers are increasingly hiring attorneys to handle litigation, insurance defense, payment disputes, compliance, and patient privacy.
Bankruptcy, Restructuring, and Insolvency
Many individuals and companies find themselves in financial distress in the wake of the pandemic and are hiring attorneys to help them through the bankruptcy and restructuring process.
Businesses need attorneys to help them review business agreements, renegotiate contracts, and reduce corporate risk. Part of this increase is driven by the pandemic, while part is due to financial institutions transitioning from the London Interbank Offered Rate, meaning contracts must be revised.
Labor and Employment
Businesses are hiring labor and employment attorneys for issues related to office reentry after the pandemic, employee health, safety and privacy, wrongful terminations, and more.
States with the best employment outlooks include Colorado, Texas, and Utah. Below is a list of the ten states expected to see the largest percentage of employment opportunities for lawyers between 2018 and 2018.
Curious about lawyer job growth in your state? Select a state below for more information about employment and job growth for this career.
Related Legal Careers
Becoming a lawyer is not the only career path available to those interested in this area of work. A diverse, wide-ranging industry, legal services offers prospective students a wealth of career opportunities that diverge from the actual practice of law.
Postsecondary non-degree award
Court, Municipal, and License Clerks10.6%
High school diploma or equivalent
High school diploma or equivalent
Judicial Law Clerks9.8%
Doctoral or professional degree
Title Examiners, Abstractors, and Searchers
High school diploma or equivalent
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook
What do related careers pay?
In addition to the practice of law, there are numerous related career paths. Some are naturally progressive, such as becoming a judge or legal professor at a university while others are ideal for those interested in legal services that don’t want to go to law school. Below is a table of salary data for related careers in the legal field.
Lawyer and Related Job Salaries
Becoming an attorney typically requires four years of undergraduate school and three years of law school for a total of seven years.
There are plenty of majors that can help you on your journey to becoming a lawyer, including criminal justice, philosophy, political science, psychology, and more. Legal educators argue that students are most successful when they study subjects they enjoy.
Although the career comes with a lucrative salary, becoming a lawyer can be a strenuous process. You must make it through three rigorous years of school, as well as two exams: the LSAT, to be accepted in law school, and the bar exam — an examination you must pass to become a licensed attorney.
Related Careers at a Glance
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