Formal requirements to become a lawyer usually include a 4-year college degree, 3 years of law school, and passing a written bar examination. However, some requirements vary by state.
Becoming a lawyer usually takes 7 years of full-time study after high school—4 years of undergraduate study followed by 3 years of law school. Most states and jurisdictions require future lawyers to complete a juris doctor (J.D.) degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). ABA accreditation signifies that the law school—particularly its curricula and faculty—meets certain standards.
A bachelor’s degree is required for entry into most law schools, and courses in English, public speaking, government, history, economics, and mathematics are useful.
Many law schools, particularly those approved by the ABA, also require applicants to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), a test that measures applicants’ aptitude for the study of law.
As of August 2011, ABA had approved 200 law schools; others were approved by state authorities only. Admission to law schools—especially the most prestigious ones—is competitive because the number of applicants greatly exceeds the number that can be admitted each year.
A J.D. degree program includes courses such as constitutional law, contracts, property law, civil procedure, and legal writing. Law students may choose specialized courses in areas such as tax, labor, or corporate law.
Law students often gain practical experience by participating in school-sponsored legal clinics, in a school’s moot court competitions, in practice trials under the supervision of experienced lawyers and judges, and through research and writing on legal issues for a school’s law journals.
Part-time or summer jobs in law firms, government agencies, and corporate legal departments also provide valuable experience. These experiences can help law students decide what kind of legal work they want to focus on in their careers. These experiences may also lead directly to a job after graduation.
Becoming licensed as a lawyer is called being "admitted to the bar" and licensing exams are called "bar exams."
To practice law in any state, a person must be admitted to its bar under rules established by the jurisdiction’s highest court. The requirements vary by individual states and jurisdictions. For more details on individual state and jurisdiction requirements, visit the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
Most states require that applicants graduate from an ABA-accredited law school, pass one or more written bar exams, and be found by an admitting board to have the character to represent and advise others. Lawyers who want to practice in more than one state must often take separate bar exams in each state.
After graduation, lawyers must keep informed about legal developments that affect their practices. In 2011, 45 states required lawyers to participate in continuing legal education either every year or every 3 years.
Many law schools and state and local bar associations provide continuing legal education courses that help lawyers stay current with recent developments. Courses vary by state and are generally related to the practice of law, such as legal ethics, taxes and tax fraud, and health care. Some states allow lawyers to take their continuing education credits through online courses.
Newly hired attorneys usually start as associates and work with more experienced lawyers or judges. After several years, some lawyers may be admitted to partnership and become partial owners of the firm they work for. Some lawyers go into practice for themselves or move to the legal department of a large corporation.
A few experienced lawyers may be nominated or elected to judgeships. Other lawyers may become full-time law school faculty or administrators. For more information about judges and law school faculty, see the profile on judges, mediators, and hearing officers, and the profile on postsecondary teachers.
Analytical skills. Lawyers help their clients resolve problems or issues. As a result, they must be able to analyze large amounts of information, determine relevant facts, and propose viable solutions.
Interpersonal skills. Lawyers must win the respect and confidence of their clients by building a trusting relationship so that clients feel comfortable and share personal information related to their case.
Problem-solving skills. Lawyers must separate their emotions and prejudice from their clients’ problems and objectively evaluate the matter. Therefore, good problem-solving skills are important for lawyers to prepare the best defense or recommendation.
Research skills. Preparing legal advice or representation for a client commonly requires substantial research. All lawyers need to be able to find what applicable laws and regulations apply to a specific matter.
Speaking skills. Lawyers are hired by their clients to speak on their behalf. Lawyers must be able to clearly present and explain evidence to a judge and jury.
Writing skills. Lawyers need to be precise and specific when preparing documents, such as wills, trusts, and powers of attorney.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition