How to Become a Lawyer in the United States

Six Parts:Succeeding in High School and CollegeApplying for Law SchoolGoing to Law SchoolFinding Work as a LawyerGoing Beyond AcademicsLawyer Resume

Do you want to become a lawyer? This is often one of the most difficult professions to enter due to the high competition and time required obtaining degrees, but it can be one of the most rewarding (and high-paying!) jobs out there. Here are the steps you need to take in order to become a lawyer in the United States.

Part 1
Succeeding in High School and College

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    Learn to succeed at school early on. The path to becoming a lawyer is a long and competitive one, so it's a good idea to start with your best foot forward as soon as possible. The better your grades are in high school, the better you'll be set up for the rest of your life.
    • The goal after high school, as before, is getting into the best possible undergraduate school consistent with good grades and stellar test scores. See the GPA section below and How to Get Into an Ivy League School.) After that, you can get into the best possible law school. Getting a job in this field will be a lot easier with good grades and the name of good schools under your belt, so hit those books! It may not feel like it's paying off, but it can in the long run.
    • Decide early on if the law school path is right for you. Succeeding “at school” as a bet on a business that values this so much is very different from learning at school (with the occasional failure and bad grade) and succeeding in life generally. In particular, see if you do well at sample law school admission tests and study material early on to know if admissions and the first few jobs will be an uphill battle before single-mindedly taking on a law-school-admission focused education path. “Go for broke” too optimistically, and, well...!
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    Participate in your high-school debate or mock trial team. This will help you develop skills that are essential to a career as a lawyer. You'll be able to find out if your personality fits the mold and if this is the right track for you. It'll also jump start your high school resume!
    • Keep in mind that most lawyers don't spend a lot of time in the courtroom. Life isn't an episode of Law & Order, unfortunately. When you're debating (or even studying most of the subjects you'll study), it's not to prepare you to be a hard-hitting inquisitor. (If you like that, consider a career as a police or civil investigator as well as law!) It's to help you find flaws in arguments, determine between opinions and facts, and think on your feet.
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    Go to a 4-year undergraduate college. Every U.S. law school will require you to have an undergraduate degree -- preferably from a reputable university. While you by no means have to be pre-law, it's a good idea to study English, public speaking, government, history, philosophy, economics, and mathematics.
    • While you're here, take advantage of all the resources you have at your disposal. Pad your résumé as much as possible. Do volunteer work. Affiliate your self with campus politics (be selective in how you report this and politically charged student activities to particular law schools). Run for student government and be the president of an upstanding organization, all while holding down a steady job. The more you can handle right now, the less the woes of law school will surprise you. And the better you'll look on paper!
    • Consider an LL.B. The most efficient way to become a lawyer in the United States may be to become a lawyer outside of the United States! Many other “common law” jurisdictions (basically those with traditions of court systems and authority like America's, such as the British Commonwealth), unlike the lawyers' association to which much of the country has handed over regulation of unsurprisingly costly entry into the profession through accreditation standards, do not require a costly (even considering subsidies and less fluff may make it less so there), time consuming, marginally relevant, burdensome, and thus widely inaccessible to much of society preliminary four-year degree in an unspecified subject first. You can go straight to law! Then, arrive back home well-prepared to benefit from legal expertise at a great law school in an LL.M. program, spend a few years in a state that permits that and a bar exam for entry, and reciprocal-admit to where you like. While you're at it, you've taken an elusive study-abroad program that is not only actually productive but actually saves money.
      • Did you know that American law degrees were known as LL.B.'s until the law schools changed the name to “Juris Doctor” to facilitate doctor-level compensation for this more MBA-like degree? (Thus explaining the title LL.M., master of laws, for additional specialized training, and LL.D., now sometimes S.J.D. to match, for a true Ph.D.-style research program degree.) Some even exchanged old LL.B. degrees for “J.D.'s"!
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    Maintain a high GPA. A minimum 3.0 GPA will be required for almost every law school in the country, but for the record, that's probably not good enough. You'll want the highest GPA possible to get good financial aid and get into a stellar law school. If you're serious about becoming a lawyer, partying away your college years isn't a viable option.
    • Most colleges don't factor your particular major into the application, so choosing a very difficult subject may come at a disadvantage since your GPA might suffer. The exception is for those interested in Intellectual Property law. To sit for the Patent Bar (which is required in addition to the Bar) you will need a degree in a technical science or math. (Think biology, chemistry, electrical engineering, computer science, etc.)
    • A difficult college and classes are thought to count for something to law schools. But not quite as much as the grades that less difficult ones will give much less competition for (and may have much more of—science departments are notoriously stingy in their attempts to weed out less qualified students, unfortunately destroying alternative careers in the process, so check grade distribution data and be sure you're somewhat familiar with the subject before enrolling.)
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    Become familiar and cordial with a professor or two. You will need their letter of recommendations for law school. Do well in their classes and be an engaging student. This will be easier with smaller classes and can be focused on in the latter half of your undergrad career.
    • Really, "become familiar and cordial with a professor or two" is code for "network with as many people as possible." Rising up the law ladder is going to be a lot easier if you get in good with influential people. A lot of this will be about who you know, in addition to what you know.
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    Graduate while thinking ahead. If you want to go to law school straight after undergrad, you'll need to be preparing during the entirety of your senior year. By the winter of your final year, you should have the LSAT taken and have your applications sent off. There's no harm in taking a gap year though, for the record!
    • Ask for recommendation letters months before you need time. Lots of professors and professionals are pressed for time and may need reminding to get around to your letter, but stop and think about all the benefits that will help you succeed one day. Start working on your application materials and studying well before the deadlines can even be fathomed. You'll be less stressed out if you balance your time from day one.

Part 2
Applying for Law School

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    Register for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). It's a half-day standardized test required for admission to all ABA-approved law schools, most Canadian law schools, and many non-ABA-approved law schools. It provides a standard measure of acquired reading and verbal reasoning skills that law schools can use as one of several factors in assessing applicants. The test is administered four times a year, normally at various universities and colleges.[1]
    • Many law schools require the LSAT be taken by December for admission the following fall. However, taking the test earlier (June or October) is often advised.
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    Study for the test. Actually, you should be doing this well in advance and spending time on it even to the minor neglect of other matters, considering success on it is as important as the rest of your classes—soon to be irrelevant except for some residual study and writing skills--combined. A 180 is a perfect score on the LSAT. Because of its importance, many students take a preparatory course to obtain the highest score possible, although disciplined study of course techniques from books may be as effective as hand-holding through them by a tutor. More information can be found on LSAC's website, including deadlines and fees (you'll be looking at around $300[2]).[3]
    • Although the LSAT is not often the best measure of a prospective law student's performance in law school, many law schools place substantial weight on scores on the LSAT, often approaching the weight given to college GPA. (The reason these are so important is that they are somewhat objective, especially the standardized test, so that they can be compiled for rankings, objective data of results rather than inputs such as bar exam scores is hard to come by or even manipulated as with short-term circularly school “funded employment”.) Take the LSAT very seriously. Some schools even give more attention to the LSAT than GPA.
      • If your GPA isn't the best, you can score well on the LSAT and it will be heavily taken into account. Scoring higher is also a factor for financial aid with most schools.
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    Apply to several ABA (American Bar Association)-accredited law schools. Certain schools are recognized by the state and certain schools aren't recognized at all -- don't consider these. They're not really worth your time. In today's job market, to stay viable, you'll need to go to ABA-accredited institution. Many candidates apply to three categories of schools:
    • Wish schools -- "Wish I could get in but probably too competitive for my credentials."
    • Middle of the road -- "My credentials are the same as the average student these schools admit."
    • Safety -- "Lower tier than I would like, but a safe bet I will get in if other schools don't come through."
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    Choose wisely. Application fees are high, so you can't just go around sending applications like you're giving out flyers. U.S. News and World Report publishes a widely-followed ranking of law schools that may be worth consulting before sending applications. To drill it in further, the better the school you go to, the more likely you are to have a sustainable career. Do your research before you commit to anywhere.
    • The job market for lawyers currently isn't pretty. In fact, across the country, twice as many people pass the bar as there are job openings. The only states that are producing fewer lawyers than they need are Wisconsin and Nebraska (and New York has the most).[4] In other words, competition is fierce.
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    Resist the urge to apply to every school sending application fee waivers. Unfortunately, some schools are trying to generate a large base of rejected applicants by waiving application fees. Doing so makes their applied vs. accepted number seem higher and their school more selective. Although some schools may actively recruit you, you should apply with common sense.
    • Most applicants apply to at least four schools.[5] If you don't get into the one you want, know that you're in good company. So many people are trying to get in, it's impossible for them to take even all the qualified candidates.

Part 3
Going to Law School

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    Form a plan for survival. Many respected full time law programs will not permit you to work your first year. Even if they allow you to, they will strongly advise against it since your program will essentially be a full-time job.
    • People will tell you that law school is crazy; that's an understatement. Law school will drive you crazy. It will wreak havoc on your sleep schedule, your social life, and your conception of reality. In order to make it, you cannot turn to alcohol or any other bad habit. In the three year program, only the strong will survive. Think of it as the educational Hunger Games. May the odds be ever in your favor.
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    Take out as few loans as possible. For a top-notch education, you could easily spend $150,000, all things included. Having said that, here's a sad should-be-kidding-but-this-is-real-life fact for you: Avoid racking up as much debt as you can. Your financial stability and fiscal responsibility will be taken into account when you become part of the job market. Having triple figure debt to your name won't get you started off on the right foot.
    • This is why having awesome grades is so important. You want to be handed free money to make your way through these next three years. Sure, you'll eventually get summer internships and maybe a part-time job, but grants are where it is at. Get your education (at least partly) paid for, and you'll be sitting pretty.
    • Some law firms offer very highly paid “summer associate” internships. You'll be busy, but earn a lot of money and learn a lot about the world of big business while possibly preparing yourself more for a public service career through reduced debt than you would by helping with very basic matters for a few weeks.
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    Devote yourself to the program. Expect to spend very large amounts of time reading cases, researching case law, writing detailed briefs, and preparing to answer questions in class. Join a study group with people in your program early on. You'll all need the support!
    • Some professors are wonderful people and open to all kinds of debate, and others are...not. Do not antagonize them but participate with questions that are asked to be asked, like a “push poll.”
    • Just as stated in the undergrad process, get involved in a few different activities to balance you out and pad your résumé. Get involved in various organizations, boards, reviews, and seek out titled positions. The more driven and resourceful you look (and the more people you meet), the better for your career.
    • You'll probably have a concentration, but this by no means locks you into a certain career path. Your emphasis is malleable and can morph as you go along. If a variety of things interest you about the process, don't feel pressure to only pick one. Save that for years down the line.
    • Some tracks of study—which are the ones where subject knowledge, rather than just thought process practice, works in law—have multiple tiers of prerequisites. Start on them early.
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    Learn the tricks of the “trade”. Law school courses have some distinctive characteristics besides a single all-important final exam.
    • There is typically not as much to learn as in a complex undergraduate course, and it doesn't change much. It is bulked out by teaching basic principles from long court opinions to compare and contrast to situations at hand. This is like teaching a science course's 300-page half of an extremely dense textbook from the ten thousand pages of research papers involved. Except, in the law course, the original material comprises only a few hundred pages, not very large and without the equations. While learning to pick out key ideas from cases is an important skill, doing it time and time again is wasteful and disadvantages you on the typically strict score curves. Instead, get “outline” summaries of the cases and detailed ones of the lectures (learning stenography to make review take a few minutes with random access wouldn't hurt), preferably for your particular course. Making them can be a good way to study.
    • The tests are typically in the form of an essay question, but scored by checking off a series of boxes. One should not get to the point with a concise argument a client or judge would appreciate. Instead, one should regurgitate every basic principle that ties in to some part of the essay question, preferably in a semi-organized but not necessarily elegant way. Writing fast is important. Mediocre typing beats great writing, if permitted; learn to type fast or write fast, perhaps cursive/Graffiti style, and use an efficient implement such as a gel-ink pen.
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    Take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination. After your first year of law school, you'll probably have to take the MPRE -- a standardized test that evaluates your knowledge on the standards of professional conduct. It's currently $73 to take; when you need it by and the score you need to pass is determined by your location.[6]
    • Only Maryland, Washington, and Wisconsin do not require the MPRE. Connecticut and New Jersey waive the need for the test if you have a grade of C or better in your ethics course in law school.[6]
    • California currently requires the highest score (86)[7], with many other states only right behind (19 require a score of 85). The lowest score acceptable (in a few states) is 75.[6]
    • Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Nebraska require that you have the MPRE on file before you take the bar. Iowa requires it months in advance.[6]
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    Get professional experience. If you have time, get a position at a law firm while you are a student that involves serving as an assistant, messenger or file clerk. At the very least, do a summer internship program. This is a great way to gain experience and build contacts for when you do graduate.
    • As you meet people, you'll get immersed into more resources, propelling you along your path. You'll eventually find clerical work at a firm or other organization related to your interests (ideally speaking, of course). Your professors should lead you on your way and your friends will help keep your head above water.
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    Research the jurisdiction where you hope to practice. While in law school, research the requirements for bar admittance in the jurisdiction where you want to practice and fulfill those requirements. Every area is a little different, and if you ever plan on moving, you'll need to know those, too!
    • You should have a pretty good grasp on what type of work you want to get into about now. You could be a litigator, where time will actually be spent in the courtroom, or you could be corporate lawyer, mediator, or work for the government -- where you'll be trying to stay away from the courtroom!

Part 4
Finding Work as a Lawyer

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    Line up a job. If all goes according to plan, you'll have a job lined up prior to taking (and passing) the bar. A company you worked with or have interest in may tell you they'll offer you a job, contingent upon you passing the bar. Pass it and you're good to go!
    • Obviously, things don't always happen this easily. If you don't have a job lined up, you don't have a job lined up. But know that it is possible to start looking earlier rather than later -- you don't have to have all your ducks in a row before you hit the market running.
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    Pass the moral character screening process. In addition to knowing your stuff and jumping through all the hoops, you've gotta have a clean criminal record. Nobody wants a criminal representing a criminal. To make sure you're of the stuff that it takes, you'll go through a process (that can take up to six months) verifying your ability to take on this job. The Committee of Bar Examiners’ Subcommittee on Moral Character is who takes care of this, for the record.
    • You'll have to provide references, give your fingerprints, and generally show you're honest, trustworthy, financially responsible (hence the need for lack of debt), and that you respect the law. If you haven't had any major run-ins with the law, don't sweat this.
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    Pass a state bar exam. Typically, you take and pass the bar exam the summer after you graduate from law school. Once you pass the exam, you become a certified lawyer! 7 years later and you're finally there!
    • Currently, 13 states administer the Uniform Bar Examination (where the Multistate Bar Examination is 50% of the weight). There's also an essay examination (MEE) and a performance test (MPT).
    • The MBE consists of 200 questions, 190 of which are scored. They are distributed in the following categories: Constitutional Law (31), Contracts (33), Criminal Law and Procedure (31), Evidence (31), Real Property (31), and Torts (33).
    • Most of this can be learned through a commercial bar preparation course the summer after law school or even through written materials. But as with other standardized tests, you'll need ones tailored toward the test, not a teacher's idea of the most important parts of the subject.
      • If you're looking for bar specifics, everything you need to know can be found online at the National Conference of Bar Examiners website.
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    Secure a job. Finding a position is the most difficult part of the process since the nation is flooded with attorneys. You will find this step much easier if you have made yourself known at a law firm by having worked or interned there, as mentioned above, and graduate with excellent grades.
    • The good news is that you're looking at a really well-paying profession! The bad news is that getting one of those well-paying gigs isn't super easy. It depends on the type of work you want to get into and what sacrifices you're willing to make. For many successful lawyers, career comes first, second, and third.
    • Make a name for yourself. The open-ended discretionary nature of the legal profession means that quality is notoriously difficult for employers, clients and the public to judge directly. (And surely established high-paid interests would like them to think so.) Thus, the emphasis on the amount of talent and resources consumed in courses of study and fancy “shock and awe” law firm lobbies. A big corporate practice may hide your painstaking typing behind layers of senior employees and name partners, but a courtroom is open to the public and a few people working together on a low-budget but important public interest matter will get noticed. So if you're working to be the best, get out there where people will see well you can help them!

Part 5
Going Beyond Academics

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    Maintain high ethical standards. History has taught that great opportunities and stellar reputations belong to those individuals who observe the highest of ethical standards. It is important to always abide by the Rules of Professional Conduct. Never compromise your integrity.
    • You know that moral screening process you had to go through? Well, that's gotta be kept up. If it comes to light that you're not maintaining these standards your career and reputation become at risk. Be smart and do the right thing. It's in your best interest.
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    Find a great mentor. To become a great name in the legal profession, you need a mentor whose integrity matches your own personal values and with whom you can establish a rapport. While you go through grad school and your first paying gigs, cultivate your relationships. You'll be glad you did.
    • Asking someone to be your mentor isn't really how it works. When you find someone, it'll sort of just sink into place. You'll feel a connection and know when it's the right fit. Just because someone has a great reputation doesn't mean they'd be a great mentor for you.
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    Have a genuine concern for your clients. As any great lawyer will tell you, your clients should be treated with the greatest respect. While upholding the law is your first responsibility, your clients come at a close second.
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    Maintain flexibility. A flexible mindset will enable you to schematically address the turns and twists you may encounter in the legal profession. The path you end up taking will not be the path you saw yourself upon.
    • Your career path will probably not go like this: Graduate from law school, start making millions. It'll be full of obstacles and hard work (as if the schooling wasn't enough). If you stay flexible, you'll be able to recognize an opportunity when it knocks, and better yourself from there.
    • Cases are much more about knowing the laws that can apply, often from codes, and understanding the factual principles than law schools would suggest through their strained analogies to court opinions (and those in some outlying famously controversial cases they teach about, perhaps for that reason). Don't hesitate to take on whatever you need to resolve them: the law should generally make sense all in all, and you can help.
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    Stay up-to-date. Keeping up to speed with the latest laws and changes in technological approaches will give you an edge and elevate your chances of success as a lawyer. The world is changing so quickly now it's imperative that you stay on the edge.
    • Many states, schools, and local bar associations offer continuing training and classes to keep their elite on top. Laws are constantly changing, so this is a necessary part of your career. Hopefully, your employer will encourage you to take part in this -- but you should do it for yourself, too![8]

Lawyer Resume

Sample Lawyer Resume

Sample Associate Lawyer Resume


  • Look for schools in your state to avoid out-of-state tuition costs.
  • Schools sometimes consider soft factors such as experience, hobbies or number of others applying from your state to enhance the diversity of their class. It's a factor, but don't rely on it.
  • Research other sites and find out which students with grades and LSAT's similar to yours are getting accepted.
  • You will need to sign up with the Law School Admissions Council, which will coordinate your scores, paperwork and recommendation letters for the application process. You must go through this agency; it isn't an option.
  • Some places are a bit wonky, like California. Technically, technically', you don't have to go to law school to become a lawyer there. You just need to study underneath a professional for at least four years. While this is possible, know that it's...not reassuring to others.[9]


  • Law school is extremely stressful and time consuming. Make sure you have a good support system in place and can balance the requirements.
  • Stay out of trouble. Although a misdemeanor or a felony does not automatically prevent you from becoming a lawyer in most states, a criminal record will severely hinder your career.

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