This guide on how to become an attorney or a lawyer, is designed to be a simple, straight to the point detailing of the process of becoming an attorney. While there definitions of attorney and lawyer do have some subtle distinctions, in the United States they are used synonymously. In addition to answering the question of how to become a lawyer or attorney, below we also address common questions such as how many years is law school and how long does it take to become a lawyer. We hope this will help you start down the path to a fulfilling career as an attorney.
What Does an Attorney Do?
An attorney functions as a counselor or representative for individuals who need the assistance of someone who has expert knowledge of the law. The term ‘attorney’ is reserved for lawyers who engage in the practice of the law in courtroom settings, although their activities are not strictly confined to that environment. Attorneys act as advocates for people who’ve been charged with a crime, are under investigation as a criminal suspect, are involved in a lawsuit, or are otherwise engaged in activities with legal ramifications.
Attorneys perform a broad range of duties, depending on the type of law they practice and the specific needs of their clients. They may work as prosecutors or defense lawyers in trials, negotiate settlements or plea deals in civil or criminal cases, draft and file contracts or other legal documents, advise clients about their various legal options, or conduct research into legal matters on a client’s behalf. Ultimately, their primary responsibility is to implement strategies and pursue actions that will maximize their clients’ chances of achieving an optimal result, under the terms of existing statutes and legal regulations.
You might also be interested in learning how to become a mediator, a good alternative to becoming an attorney.
How Much Does an Attorney Make?
The practice of the law is a lucrative profession. In 2019, the median salary for attorneys and lawyers was $122,960 per year. Individuals who own their own practices generally make less than attorneys who work in large, established firms. In 2019, attorneys and lawyers who worked for the federal government had the highest annual median wages in the profession, at $144,300.
Attorneys can find employment opportunities or clients in any state or city. The number of practicing attorneys in the United States is expected to grow by four percent between 2019 and 2029, which is exactly the average growth rate for all careers combined.
How Long Does it Take to Become an Attorney
In general, it will take a little more than seven years to become an attorney or lawyer. This includes four years studying for a bachelor’s degree and three years in law school. If you already have your bachelor’s degree, then it will take about three years to complete your law school studies. However, the answer to the question of how many years of college to be an attorney isn’t completely cut and dry at seven because some students are able to shorten this time by taking on an above average course load, and others may require an extra semester or more if they progress more slowly or have to repeat courses. Read on for more details.
How to Become an Attorney: A Step-by-Step Guide
Here is our step by step guide showing you how to become a lawyer or attorney at law.
Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree
Law school admittance requires a bachelor’s degree, along with reasonably high grades. While law schools won’t penalize you or reward you for choosing a particular degree program, you should select a course of study that will help you develop your reading and analytical skills while learning how to construct logical arguments.
Consequently, many aspiring law students choose majors in social studies or the humanities. Some of the fields of study that can help prepare you for law school include philosophy, political science, history, English, psychology, and economics (or, pre-law, if you can find a school that offers that undergraduate major). You could also benefit by choosing a major in science and mathematics, since the technical subject matter will require you to absorb and comprehend complex information, similar to what you’ll be asked to do in law school.
If you have an interest in property law and decide to practice it as a specialty, you’ll need an undergraduate science or engineering degree. Prospective property law attorneys must take and pass the Patent Bar Examination, and you’ll only be qualified to take this exam if you have scientific or technical training.
Your chances of being accepted into law school will be enhanced by a high grade-point average (at 3.50, or even higher for the best law schools). Therefore, you should choose a major that truly interests you and will motivate you to perform at your best.
Step 2: Pass the Law School Admission Test (or the Graduate Record Examination)
You must successfully complete the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) to gain admittance to a law school approved by the American Bar Association. The first part of this comprehensive examination includes multiple choice questions that will assess your reading comprehension, logical reasoning, and analytical reasoning skills. The second part of the LSAT consists of a 35-minute written essay, which will test your capacity to craft well-structured, convincing arguments about contentious or complicated legal subjects.
The LSAT has traditionally been administered at various sites across the United States four times each year, in February, June, October, and December. However, it is currently being offered exclusively online, in a remotely proctored virtual environment. It is necessary to register ahead of time for the LSAT, at a cost of $200.
While most law schools still require the LSAT, a growing number are accepting the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) as an alternative. At the present time, approximately one-fourth of American Bar Association-approved schools will admit students based on their GRE scores.
Step 3: Seek Admission to Law School
Law schools accept students with bachelor’s degrees based primarily on their grade-point averages and their LSAT (or GRE) scores. Most schools publish statistics that reveal GPA and LSAT data of the students they admit, which can help you narrow your potential choices.
To complete your law school application, you’ll also need to supply letters of recommendation from professors, or possibly from employers or colleagues if you’ve been out of school and have been working for the past several years. You’ll also be expected to submit a detailed written personal statement, introducing yourself and explaining your long-term goals and ambitions.
These additional requirements won’t weigh as heavily with evaluators as your test scores and undergraduate grades. But having good recommendations and submitting an impressive personal statement can increase your chances of being accepted, if your application is considered borderline.
Assuming you qualify for admission, there are many factors to consider when choosing a law school. They include cost, geographical location, reputation and ranking, the available specialties or concentrations, and attendance options (full-time, part-time, virtual, or partially virtual).
Step 4: Choose a Specialty and Get a Juris Doctor Degree
Aspiring attorneys must graduate from law school with a juris doctor (JD) degree, or law degree, in order to practice law. Law schools award JD degrees to those who complete a demanding three-year curriculum, which will include extensive classroom instruction along with practical experience acquired during internships, externships, and/or clerkships with law firms, judges, or public institutions.
A JD degree program will prepare you to prosecute or defend cases and clients in courtroom settings. It will also prepare you to take and pass the state bar exam, which is the final hurdle you must surmount before becoming a licensed attorney.
As a part of your approved curriculum, law schools will allow you to choose specialties or areas of concentration. Some of the most popular concentrations among law students include:
- Corporate or business law
- Criminal law
- Constitutional law
- International law
- Health care law
- Intellectual property law
- Securities law
- Immigration law
- First amendment law
- Environmental law
- Patent law
- Civil rights law
- Real estate law
- Tax law
Having an established specialty can improve your career prospects. Regardless of your choice of specialty, you can expect to graduate from law school in three years if you study full-time, which means it will take at least seven years of education before you’re ready to become an attorney.
How many years is law school? Typically it is three years.
Step 5:Pass the State Bar Exam to Gain an Attorney’s License
Even with your JD degree in hand, you will still have to pass the Bar Exam before you’ll be licensed to practice law in courtroom settings.
There is no universal Bar Exam that qualifies you to become an attorney anywhere in the United States. Each state has its own Bar Exam, and you’ll have to pass the bar in your state of residence if you plan to pursue your career there. Unless you’re exempt under reciprocity agreements, if you later move and want to practice law in your new state, you’ll need to pass that state’s Bar Exam before you’re eligible to do so.
The Bar Exam is a two-day test that is graded on a pass/fail basis. You can always take the Bar again if you fail it the first time, or multiple times, but in most states the exam is only offered two times each year, usually in February and July.
In all but two jurisdictions (Wisconsin and Puerto Rico), you’ll need to complete an ethics exam called the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination, or MPRE, before you’re allowed to sit for the Bar.
Step 6: Launch Your Career as an Attorney
Even beginning attorneys have an extraordinary variety of career options to explore, especially if they were a top student in their law school, or have strong letters of recommendation based on their performance during internships, externships, or clerkships.
About three-fourths of licensed attorneys work in private practice. Of this group nearly two-thirds have their own practice, or work in firms with five or fewer lawyers. The remainder are on staff in large firms, where they are more likely to practice a particular field or variety of law, based on their training, background, and personal interests.
Many licensed attorneys find employment with the government, at the local, state, or federal levels. If they specialize in criminal law, they may work in prosecutor’s offices or as public defenders. Alternatively, they may secure employment in the legal departments of government agencies, virtually all of which need the services of trained lawyers and attorneys to represent their interests (or the interest of the constituencies they represent) from time to time.
More experienced practitioners may be hired to serve as in-house attorneys for corporations or banks. In-house attorneys are called on to act as advocates for their employers in a broad range of circumstances, possibly involving complaints filed by competitors, government agencies, stockholders, employees, public interest groups, or members of the general public. In-house attorneys tend to be more highly compensated than their peers, which is not surprising since they generally represent large companies with significant profit margins.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, compensation wise, are public interest lawyers and attorneys. These individuals work for nonprofit or community organizations, providing low-cost legal services to those who are economically, socially, or culturally disadvantaged. They might work on issues involving employment or housing discrimination, environmental abuse, animal exploitation, domestic violence, or child welfare.
Pros and Cons of a Career as an Attorney
Opportunities to practice law are so diverse that you should have no trouble finding concentrations or fields that bring you enjoyment or allow you to indulge your idealism. Attorneys always have the option of starting their own practice, where they can control their working conditions and choose their clients as carefully as they’d like. The practice of the law is an intellectually challenging profession, and you’ll feel a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment when you win a case or gain the upper hand in a negotiation. Attorneys in general are very well compensated, and if you rise to the top of the profession you could become quite wealthy.
When they’re involved in a case, attorneys are often required to work brutally long hours. They must frequently deal with serious stress, as they know the quality of their performance could decide someone else’s fate. While starting a solo practice is an option for more experienced attorneys, at the beginning of your career (and sometimes for much longer) you’ll likely function as an employee with limited authority to choose your clients. Occasionally, you may be assigned to represent people whose values you don’t share and whose practices violate your personal code of ethics.
Important Characteristics of a Successful Attorney
As advocates before the court, attorneys must possess outstanding verbal and written communication skills. They must be personable, charismatic, composed, and focused when performing in front of judges or juries, and eloquent and persuasive when preparing legal documents. They must also be excellent listeners, so they don’t miss the revelations and important details that emerge from their interactions with witnesses or with opposing attorneys and their clients.
Successful attorneys should be perceptive students in general and in particular when studying the law, since legal statutes and regulations are often complex and written in language inaccessible to the layman. Aspiring attorneys must be hard-working and disciplined, in order to handle the intellectual challenges and immense workload associated with law school. Once they start practicing the law attorneys must maintain that dedicated approach, to make sure they’re always prepared to execute their duties and meet their responsibilities to their clients and to the legal system in general.
We hope this article on how to become an attorney, or how to become a lawyer, has answered your questions and helped you to make a decision. Even if that decision was to eliminate the possibility of becoming a lawyer, we would be content to hear that this guide has helped you move forward. In the future we plan to have more guides that details specific paths, such as how to become a corporate lawyer or how to become an immigration lawyer, and even how to become a prosecutor, district attorney, defense attorney, patent attorney, tax attorney, real estate attorney, judge, etc. So the next time someone asks you, “how do you become a lawyer?” or “how many years to become a lawyer?” hopefully you will direct them here and help them on their journey!
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