If you’ve landed on this blog, then you’re probably trying to figure out how to become an attorney. Lawyers are in demand, and qualifying as an attorney opens doors to an exciting, varied career path.
Lawyers operate within a number of specialist fields, and one day can be very different to the next. To become an attorney, you have to undertake several years of academic study and training. The process is hard work, but it’s worth the while if you end up with a job you love.
If you’re interested in pursuing a career in law, here’s a step by step guide to how to become a lawyer. This comprehensive guide will help you discover more about the processes of studying and qualifying, as well as providing useful information about the best law schools, salary expectations and what life is like as a lawyer.
How To Become a Lawyer: The Foundational Steps
To qualify as an attorney, you have to complete a series of steps. State requirements vary slightly, but most stipulate the same pattern.
At high school, you’re probably still weighing up your options when it comes to choosing what subjects to study at college and which college to go to. The good news is that you can study almost any course at college if you want to become an attorney. To get into college, you’ll need to achieve good grades, and it’s wise to focus on doing well in your tests to get the scores you need to pursue your chosen career path.
The entry requirements will depend on the college you choose and the undergraduate program you follow, but prospective law students tend to have a very impressive academic record. If you are seriously considering a career in law, it’s beneficial to make use of career advice provided by your school at this stage to learn more about the role and the opportunities available. It’s also helpful to have a look around different colleges, get a feel for them and explore your options in terms of courses and programs before you make a decision.
To study law, you’ll need to complete an undergraduate program at college. The range of subjects that is open to students who want to try and get into law school is vast, and most law schools won’t specify which majors students should choose. Popular options include history, English, mathematics, and economics.
If you have an interest in property law, this is sometimes an exception to the rule, and some schools will insist upon a degree in math or a political science subject, such as biology, chemistry, computer science, or electrical engineering. Candidates who wish to work in this area are often required to take two Bar exams.
To get into law school after completing an undergraduate program at college, it’s important to maintain an excellent record. Students will need to demonstrate that they have the academic prowess needed to pursue a career in law, and in most cases, this means keeping the GPA at a minimum of 3.0.
While you’re at college, it’s wise to take advantage of opportunities that will benefit you in your career as a lawyer, for example, getting involved in debating societies, taking classes in public speaking and attending careers fairs and workshops.
Taking the LSAT (Law School Admission Test)
Following graduation, the next step is to take the LSAT. This is a test, which is required by almost all ABA-certified law schools in the US and some in Canada.
This is a standardized examination, which takes place over a half-day period. The aim of this test is to determine your analytical and critical thinking skills and your verbal reasoning and reading skills. This is an assessment of your aptitude and your suitability for a law program. Most law schools will pay attention to your college GPA score, as well as your LSAT result when deciding whether or not to offer a place.
The LSAT can be taken at locations all over the country, and sessions are planned four times a year. If you have a relatively low GPA score, performing well in the LSAT will increase your chances of getting into law school. If you pass the LSAT, you can usually start a law course the following semester.
Once you’ve completed your LSAT, and you’ve been offered a place at law school, you’ll need to successfully navigate your way through the program to be eligible to sit the bar exam, which enables you to practice law in the US. The law degree course is usually 3 years, and it culminates in a JD, or Juris Doctor. Over the course of the degree, students will take a diverse range of modules that are designed to educate them about the legal system and how it works, and to develop skills that will be required in the practical world of work.
The program includes specialist areas, and candidates can choose to pursue different areas of interest. If you manage to complete the JD, you’ll be well on your way to becoming an attorney. Most people choose to study for a law degree on a full-time basis, but it is possible to study part-time. In this case, the course is usually 4 years, rather than 3.
Passing the MPRE
Before you can sit the Bar exam, you will be required to take the MPRE, the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination. This is a multiple-choice ethics test, which takes 2 hours to complete. The exam is available across multiple locations three times per year.
Taking the Bar Exam
This is the holy grail for law students. The final stage of the journey to becoming an attorney is also the most challenging. Bar exams are notoriously difficult, and in some parts of the US, the average pass rate is below 50%. It’s incredibly important to prepare thoroughly for the Bar exam and to make sure you’re ready when your test date comes around. The exam consists of different parts, which are designed to test your knowledge of state and national laws and your ability to apply what you have learned to real-life scenarios. Some states offer their own individual bar exam, while others have chosen to use the Uniform Bar Exam.
Bar Exam Information
The Bar exam is set by the Board of Bar Examiners. Many students will take an exam that is state-specific. If you plan to work in different states, you may need to take more than one Bar exam. The normal process for sitting the Bar exam is as follows:
- Applying for and sitting the MPRE (Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination)
- Applying for and sitting the Bar examination
- Completing fitness and suitability tests to be admitted to the Bar
The Bar exam typically involves a series of sections. The exact format may vary according to the state, but most commonly, the test involves:
- MBE (Multistate Bar Examination): this is a 6-hour test, which comprises 200 multiple-choice questions that cover areas including tort law, contracts, institutional law, criminal law and processes, real estate and property and civil procedure.
- MPT (Multistate Performance Test): this part comprises 2 sections, each lasting 90 minutes. The questions are designed to test skills related to problem-solving, written communication, dealing with ethical dilemmas and organizing and overseeing legal projects.
- MEE (Multistate Essay Examination): this is a 3-hour test that involves 6 essay questions that cover family law, real estate and property, constitutional law, business, civil procedure, criminal law, torts, and trusts and estates.
- State-specific questions and essays
Some law schools will also permit students to take the Universal Bar Exam, a two-day exam that comprises the MPT, MBE, and MEE.
Bar Exam Review Courses
Many students choose to take a Bar review course before sitting their exam. This is a means of getting used to the format of the tests, practicing questions and learning from model answers. There are several review courses, and if you already have an employer, they may be willing to cover the cost for you.
Online Resources and Tips for Passing the Bar Exam
There is a vast selection of books on offer to help students prepare for and pass their Bar Exam, but many people also enjoy studying online. You can find practice questions online, and there’s also a wealth of resources available to help you get yourself ready for the exam. Examples include:
This website has a huge selection of articles that are designed to prepare you for the exam, covering all aspects from theoretical study and revision to coping with stress and reducing anxiety.
This portal provides sample questions for the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE).
The National Conference of Bar Examiners offers an array of study aids, which are available to download or access through an online learning platform.
This website provides suggestions for those looking for sample questions and online learning platforms.
If you’re preparing for the Bar exam, this online toolbox may come in handy.
Study tips: how to pass the Bar exam
When you’ve worked hard for several years and all that’s standing in the way of the job of your dreams is a test, you want to give yourself the best chance of passing, so preparation is key. The Bar exam requires dedication and commitment beforehand. This is not a test that you can just turn up and take. Most people prepare for months.
Before you take the exam, it’s wise to bear these tips in mind:
- Take a Bar review course: Bar review courses are specially designed to help you improve your chances of passing the exam. Courses are put together by skilled, knowledgeable employees who study papers and analyze previous questions to create courses that focus on areas that seem to be hot at the moment. Taking a review course can help you get used to the kinds of questions you can expect to face, and also enable you to develop your skills when answering and responding to questions. You want to be able to give the right answer, but you also need to be able to present your response in the right way, and doing this course will almost certainly improve your result.
- Commit to revision and studying: it’s really important when your Bar exam is looming to take time out to revise, to study, and to set yourself up for the test. You might have to turn down social invitations and devote most of your time to your desk, but it will be worth it in the end if you get the outcome you want. Be prepared to sacrifice a couple of months. Although it’s really important to work hard and make plenty of time for study, it’s crucial not to overdo it and burn out. Take regular breaks, stretch your legs, exercise, and get out and about to breathe in fresh air. If you feel yourself getting stressed, take some time out to clear your mind and unwind before returning to your desk.
- Stick to a schedule: many people find it challenging to strike the right balance when they’re studying. They either study too much, and the process becomes stressful and difficult, or they don’t do enough work. The key lies in creating a schedule that suits you. Factor in time for study and downtime. You’ll find that you can focus for longer and that you feel better if you have a plan of action that enables you to have an hour or so off every day. With so many topics to cover, it’s critical to spread your time between subjects and to ensure you focus on areas that you think could let you down. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.
- Try different learning techniques: we all learn in different ways, and you might find that some methods work better for you than others. Most people respond well to visual cues, so make flashcards, watch clips and use diagrams and images.
- Utilize practice questions: doing practice questions is one of the best ways to get yourself familiar with the exam format and to learn how to respond to questions succinctly while ensuring that you provide all the relevant information. You can never do too many practice questions.
- Be confident: confidence can play a major role in how you feel about your Bar exam. Think positively and have confidence in your abilities.
Bar Exam Pass Rates
The Bar Exam has a reputation for being incredibly tough, and most students approach it with a degree of trepidation. Pass rates vary hugely according to location, and it seems to be much more difficult to pass the exam in some states than others. In 2017, ten states had pass rates of over 70%, with rates highest in Oklahoma, Missouri, New Mexico, Iowa, and Idaho.
California had the lowest pass rate at 44%. The state averages provide an interesting insight, but it’s perhaps more useful to look at specific schools when considering how to become an attorney. Even though rates are very low in California, for example, students at UCLA achieved a pass rate of 86%. The average pass rate for New York was 61%, but rates soared to 98% at Columbia and New York universities.
If you pass the Bar exam, you will be able to start practicing law, and the next step is to look for a job.
To practice law in the US, candidates must be admitted to the Bar after passing the Bar exam. In most cases, one Bar exam will be sufficient, but in some scenarios, candidates may need to sit two exams. If you plan to practice in more than one state, you might have to take Bar exams in your chosen states. As well as excelling in the exams, you must also be deemed fit to work as part of the certificate requirements. Your background will also be taken into consideration. If you have prior felonies, or you have a history of substance abuse, for example, this could prevent you from being admitted to the Bar.
The Top 10 Law Schools
There is an impressive selection of law schools available in the US. If you’re looking for inspiration to help you choose the best school for you, here are the top 10 law schools:
- Yale University
One of the most famous universities in the world, Yale’s law school boasts an illustrious list of alumni. Past students at this law school include Bill Clinton and Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
- Stanford University
Hot on the heels of Yale, Stanford University is a perennial high-flier in the law school listings. Stanford is known for its academic record, but it’s also the home of the fun-packed, hot weather activity, fountain hopping.
- Harvard University
Harvard adopts a practical approach to lawyer training, and all candidates undertake pro bono work before graduating. Famous faces that have graced the corridors include Barack and Michelle Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts.
- University of Chicago
The University of Chicago has an excellent reputation in the field of law, and it is also known for its vast library, which can house 3.5 million books. The library has featured in movies, including Divergent.
- Columbia University
A fantastic place to study in the heart of New York, Columbia University boasts the second-highest number of Nobel prize winners after Harvard University.
- New York University
New York University’s law school is known for its versatile programs, which enable students to combine subjects or take dual programs linked to other colleges. Notable alumni include former NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliabue.
- University of Pennsylvania
Penn law students can study dual courses, as well as taking specialist modules, and all candidates must complete at least 70 hours of pro bono work before the end of the program. Penn students are accustomed to the quirky tradition of throwing toast onto the pitch at football games. It is said that the tradition dates back to the prohibition, when it was forbidden to drink alcohol. Before each game, over 20,000 pieces of toast are thrown onto the field.
- University of Virginia
The University of Virginia offers students the chance to study abroad during the program. A long-established institution, this university was founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819.
- University of Michigan- Ann Arbor
The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor provides an option to get started on the course early, with summer admissions available. This university has a tradition for setting couples up for life, with a folk tale that states that any two people that kiss under the Engineering Arch at midnight will get married.
- Duke University
Completing the list of the top 10, Duke University is known for its sporting prowess, as well as its excellent law school. Coach Mike Krzyzewski, also known as Coach K, is officially the most successful college basketball coach in history. In February 2019, he won his 1,123rd game.
How To Get Hired at a Good Law Firm
When you’ve been through the rigors of law school, and you’ve emerged the other side having passed the infamous Bar exam, the next step is to get a good job. Here are some top tips to help you get hired at a firm with an excellent reputation:
- Start your search as early as possible
There are no guarantees of walking into a legal job after finishing law school, and it’s always beneficial to start looking for suitable roles as soon as you feel ready to take that next step. Be proactive in your search, look out for vacancies and roles on a daily basis, and consider signing up with specialist recruiters. Take part in networking events, take advantage of opportunities offered by your law school’s careers department, and keep an ear to the ground for upcoming positions.
- Give yourself the best possible chance while in law school
It’s very easy to get carried away with studying and preparing for exams at law school, but it’s so advantageous to plan for the future too. Give yourself the best chance of getting a job while you’re still at school. Work hard to get the best results, and take advantage of chances to progress your career and improve your application. You could apply for internships or training workshops in the summer, for example, and it’s also useful to develop key skills through courses like those designed to help you prep for interviews or hone your debating skills.
- Polish your cover letter, resume and application
When you apply for jobs, you may be required to submit tens, even hundreds of applications. You should tailor each one to suit the role and the employer. Read through your answers carefully, make sure your application is relevant to the firm, and create cover letters that make employers want to find out more about you. It can be incredibly difficult to stand out from the crowd, especially in a competitive field where everyone has impressive credentials.
- Be prepared to be flexible
Lawyers are in demand, but there are areas where opportunities aren’t as plentiful as others. If you’re prepared to be flexible in terms of location, you might find that it is easier to get a job. Look for regions and cities where the number of jobs is increasing, and try and match your skillset to opportunities. You might not be as marketable in one place as you are in another. It’s always useful to analyze trends and take an interest in what’s going on in the world of law. If you can try and stay ahead of the curve, you might stand a better chance of outperforming the competition.
- Make use of interviews
In many cases, it can be incredibly tough to even get to the interview stage, so if you do get a call, take full advantage of the platform you’ve been given to impress. Prepare thoroughly, research the firm, and be confident. Show off your personality, be enthusiastic and passionate about the role and make sure you do everything in your power to persuade the people in front of you that you’re the best candidate for the job. You don’t want to leave the room wishing you’d done more or feeling like you haven’t sold yourself in the best way possible. It’s very common to experience anxiety and fear when going to an interview. If you do find that you struggle with nerves, and it’s holding you back, it’s worth taking some classes and doing practice interviews to get used to the scenario and build your confidence.
Networking is hugely beneficial in the law sector. People often like to help those they know, and most attorneys have an expansive network of contacts. Even if you don’t know people directly, you may be referred by a friend of a friend, for example. Go to networking events, try and get your name out there, and don’t be afraid to approach partners and ask about potential opportunities.
Salary Expectations and Career Potential: How Much Do Lawyers Earn?
Salaries for attorneys depend on a number of factors, including the type of work they do, the clients they work for, and their level of expertise and experience. Partners and attorneys who have a very high profile can demand millions of dollars per case, but most commonly, attorneys earn up to $100,000 per year.
The average salary for US attorneys in 2018 was $89,000. In terms of earning potential, attorneys can earn vast sums. If you’re experienced, you take on high-profile cases, and you choose to specialize in areas that are typically well-paid, you might find that your salary is above average. Practice areas that tend to attract higher payments include:
- Corporate law
- Medical law
- Tax law
- Intellectual Property
- Criminal law
Attorneys have the option to work in a range of different settings, and the role is increasingly diverse. With a law degree, you can work for different types of employers and clients and take on a range of different cases. Most lawyers spend their time in the office, occasionally going to court. Some have private clients, some work for corporations, authorities or organizations, and some do pro bono work or represent charities and nonprofits.
World-changing Court Cases
Often, we see things in the news, or we hear people talking about current affairs or events or stories that have occurred or unfolded locally that inspire us to think about different career options. In the case of training to become a lawyer, many aspiring attorneys have made the decision to take this path due to historical cases, media headlines or family members that have made an impression. Here are some examples of impactful court cases:
- Brown vs Board of Education: in 1954, Linda Brown challenged the ruling that she couldn’t attend the Sumner School in Topeka due to the color of her skin. The case was made that separating white and black students went against the constitution.
- USA vs Nixon: in 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that the President of the United States could not executive his privilege to withhold evidence from a jury during a trial.
- Pennzoil vs Texaco: known as the King of Torts, attorney Joe Jamail won a case against Texaco, which resulted in Pennzoil being awarded $10 billion in compensation and damages.
- Obergefell vs Hodges: in 2015, same-sex marriage was legalized across all states.
Skills Needed To Be a Great Lawyer
Lawyers require a diverse skillset. Some of the most important skills needed to excel in a career in law include:
- The ability to listen
- The ability to act under pressure
- Problem-solving and critical thinking
- Verbal communication skills and powers of persuasion
- Negotiation and diplomacy skills
- Conviction and confidence
- Being perceptive within different settings and environments
- Having a good memory
- The ability to digest information and understand complex terminology
- Possessing a varied vocabulary
- Expressing yourself succinctly and confidently
Many people grow up with aspirations to become a lawyer. It’s not easy to get there, but if you do succeed, this can be a very rewarding career. The path is relatively long, and there are some major obstacles to overcome along the way, but if you’re prepared to work hard, and you know that this is the right path for you, an exciting, satisfying and potentially lucrative career awaits.