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How to Become a Lawyer | Steps to Becoming an Attorney

 How to Become a Lawyer | Steps to Becoming an Attorney

Entering the legal profession is no small task, so the choice to become a lawyer should not be made lightly, experts say. Getting a license to practice law in the U.S. generally requires years of strenuous effort and often involves acquiring significant student loan debt to cover the cost of law school.

But a legal career often leads to a six-figure salary. The median annual pay among lawyers in the U.S. in May 2021 was $127,990, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Here are some key steps involved in becoming a lawyer.

Step 1: Learn About Legal Jobs and Careers

Someone considering a career as a lawyer should first conduct research on the legal profession. The Law School Admission Council's "Discover Law" portal, for instance, includes information about what it's like to be a lawyer and how to prepare for law school.

Linda Sugin, law professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York, advises students to talk with lawyers in their community to get a sense of the variety of job options in the field. There are many specializations to choose from, such as aviation law, sports and entertainment law, corporate law, real estate law, immigration law and criminal law.

"Lawyers are in a service profession, so our primary role is to help our clients," she says. "Aspiring lawyers need to think about their social and emotional skills, their personal resilience, as well as their intellectual skills. ... We also have an obligation to all legal institutions and to the democratic system. Young people who have a strong sense of ethical obligation, personal integrity and commitment to justice, I think those are really important attributes."

Step 2: Develop Communication and Reasoning Skills and a Strong Work Ethic

After determining that the legal profession is a good fit, students should look for academic and extracurricular experiences that will help them develop skills necessary to be a great lawyer.

Because law schools do not require specific undergraduate coursework – applicants hail from all academic backgrounds – potential attorneys have the flexibility to take the college courses that interest them most.

Steven Freedman, associate dean of admissions at the University of Kansas School of Law, advises aspiring lawyers to take at least several upper-level humanities classes, since reading, writing and research skills developed in those courses are critical to most legal jobs.

Courses in social science are also helpful, since they cultivate societal awareness and teach people skills. It's also beneficial to take analytical courses of some sort, whether in philosophy or science, technology, engineering or math – STEM fields – since logical reasoning is a fundamental component of the legal profession.

"I actually don't think that students are helped much by taking some kind of a pre-law curriculum in undergrad," Sugin says. "What law students need to do is read carefully, think critically and communicate effectively. Those are the three most important things."

One great way to prepare for a career as a lawyer is to get involved with a speech and debate team or a mock trial team. Those extracurricular activities can help students learn to argue persuasively, lawyers explain, adding that drama also provides solid preparation for a legal career since the performing arts emphasize public speaking skills.

Even an activity that doesn't initially appear to be related to the practice of law, such as playing a sport, writing for a school newspaper or doing volunteer work, could prove useful to aspiring attorneys if it helps them develop personal discipline and collaboration skills.

Step 3: Study for the LSAT or GRE

The Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, is the traditional law school entrance exam, the one that most prospective law students take in order to qualify for law school. However, prospective law students may also have the option to take the Graduate Record Examinations General Test, or GRE.

The higher the LSAT score, the more competitive a law school applicant usually is. But even if you end up with average scores, remember that admissions committees also consider other components of your application.

"Law schools take a holistic approach to reviewing candidates, and there's rarely any single factor that will get you in or keep you out of law school," Freedman says. "But it is true that law school admissions can be a competitive process. So factors like LSAT and GPA can be very important in terms of gaining admission to the schools that you're looking at. So definitely take both of those seriously." 

How to Become a Lawyer | Steps to Becoming an Attorney

Step 4: Get Into Law School and Earn a J.D. Degree

Some law schools are highly selective, so applicants to those schools should keep that in mind when preparing their applications. When evaluating candidates for a J.D., or juris doctor degree, admissions officers consider multiple factors, including college GPA, test scores, the personal statement and resume.

Legal industry experts advise J.D. applicants to attend a law school that has a track record of preparing people for the type of job they desire.

Judith Szepesi, a partner with the Nicholson De Vos Webster & Elliott intellectual property law firm in Silicon Valley, suggests assessing the return on investment of a law degree at a school by comparing the cost of the degree with probable future earnings.

Full-time J.D. programs typically last three years and usually are rigorous, especially during the first year, experts say.

"Students should be looking for the best fit for them. It's not one size fits all," Sugin says. "I think it's really important for students to understand that different law schools have different cultures. They have different academic emphases, they have different alumni networks. It's a different community that you are going to enter into when you choose different law schools."

Step 5: Get Admitted to the Bar Where You Intend to Practice

To practice law in the U.S., aspiring attorneys generally must pass the bar exam in the jurisdiction where they intend to practice. And each state has it's own bar requirements. Wisconsin, for instance, offers "diploma privilege," which exempts graduates of the University of Wisconsin—Madison and Marquette University law schools from the exam.

Some state bar exams are notoriously difficult. It's important for aspiring attorneys to take them seriously and study thoroughly, experts say.

Students should soak up as much knowledge as they can during law school, since they will need that knowledge to pass the bar, says Elena Langan, dean and professor of law at Touro University's Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center in New York.

J.D. students should realize that the goal of taking a law school course isn't simply to get an A; the point is to master the material covered, she says. "You, in essence start preparing for the bar exam from Day One."

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