How to Become a Lawyer & Practicing Attorney

The Definitive Guide to Becoming a Successful Law Professional in Your State

Tips for Hiring a Criminal Defense Lawyer

Written by eLawTalk Editorial Staff • Last updated Dec. 14, 2023

Career Overview | Steps to Become | State Requirements | Education Options | Certifications and Specialization | Employment | FAQs

The legal profession is a challenging and rewarding field, offering diverse opportunities for those who choose to begin on this journey. Whether inspired by courtroom dramas on television or driven by a passion for justice, becoming a lawyer requires dedication, hard work, and strategic planning. This comprehensive guide provides a roadmap to navigate the complex path from undergraduate education to finally practicing law, and eventually learning how to become a lawyer and practice law.

What you’re about to learn at a glance:

Becoming a lawyer requires an undergraduate degree, LSAT prep, law school education, and passing the bar exam.
Successful legal careers require critical thinking skills, practical experience through internships/clinics, and networking for career opportunities.
The legal job market outlook is positive with salary expectations varying significantly. Alternative careers in the legal field are also available.

The Path of a Lawyer/Attorney (An Overview)

The journey toward a career in law typically begins with undergraduate education. This is the opportunity to develop critical thinking, communication, and research skills essential for success in law school and beyond. Although no specific major is required for law school admission, the most popular choices of bachelor’s degree (according to the Law School Admission Council) in 2022 included:

  • History

  • Philosophy

  • Political Science

  • English

After undergraduate studies, preparing for the LSAT is the next major step, a critical component of law school admission. Law schools also consider an undergraduate’s GPA and other factors when evaluating applicants.

A great deal of study and education is required to obtain a juris doctor degree.

Finally, selecting the right law school is crucial. Attending an American Bar Association (ABA)-accredited institution increases the chances of finding employment after graduation. By considering factors such as location, student housing, cost, reputation, and bar passage rates, aspiring lawyers can make an informed decision when choosing among most law schools.

By making an informed decision, prospective lawyers are on the path to a rewarding career.

Undergraduate Education

Although no specific major is necessary for law school admission, earning a bachelor’s degree and honing crucial skills during undergraduate studies is vital. The ability to think critically, communicate effectively, and conduct thorough research will serve as a strong foundation for legal studies and a successful career.

Among the popular majors among aspiring lawyers are those that emphasize analytical reasoning and problem-solving. Ultimately, undergraduate years should be spent honing the skills and knowledge that will prepare law students for the rigors of law school and the demands of the legal profession.

Law School Admission Test (LSAT)

The LSAT, also known as the law school admissions test, is an integral component of the law school admission process and is administered by the Law School Admission Council. This test gauges an aptitude for studying law, assessing reading comprehension, reasoning ability, and writing skills, helping law schools determine a law student’s potential for success in their programs.

A high LSAT score can significantly boost a prospective student’s chances of gaining admission to a prestigious law school and ultimately securing a rewarding career. As such, it’s crucial to dedicate ample time and effort to prepare for this important examination, using study resources and practice tests to maximize your performance on test day.

Selecting a Law School

Selecting the appropriate law school is a significant decision with profound implications for a future career in the legal field. When selecting a law school, law students should consider factors such as:

  • Location

  • Cost

  • Public or private institution

  • In-state or out-of-state

  • Comparative public reputations of the schools

  • Demand for graduates from employers

  • Educational requirements

  • Career objectives

  • Return on investment

It’s also essential to attend an ABA-approved law school, as most employers will not consider hiring students who have attended a unaccredited institution.

By carefully weighing these factors, law students can make an informed decision that best aligns with their personal and professional goals.

Required Steps to Becoming a Lawyer

Becoming a lawyer requires a solid educational background and the ability to make key decisions. The journey typically begins with:

  1. Earning a bachelor’s degree

  2. Acing the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)

  3. Pursuing a law degree at an accredited law school

  4. Finally, the crowning achievement: passing the bar exam to earn the license to practice law.

The journey requires several years of dedication to study law and master the art of drafting and interpreting legal documents. Aspiring law students need to enhance key skills, including listening, comprehension, and problem-solving, in order to represent clients effectively. Additionally, financing a legal education may require exploring various sources of financial aid, such as scholarships, grants, or student loans.

Remember, the road to becoming a lawyer is paved with ambition, determination, and the thrill of overcoming challenges.

Lawyers must go through years of education being they can practice law

Navigating Law School

Lawyers must go through years of education being they can practice law

Once admitted to law school, prospective law students have only just embarked on their journey. Navigating the challenging curriculum and gaining practical experience are crucial aspects of a legal education. In the first half of a law school journey, students focus on mastering core legal subjects, such as contracts, torts, and civil procedure. In the latter half, they’ll have the opportunity to specialize in a chosen field of law and delve deeper into more specific areas of interest, such as tax law, real estate law, business law, environmental law, or international law.

Besides academics, gaining practical experience is fundamental to a legal education. Internships, externships, and legal clinics provide invaluable hands-on learning opportunities, allowing future lawyers to apply theoretical knowledge to real-life situations. Moreover, networking and professional development are key components of a law school experience, as they can help forge connections with peers, professors, and potential employers that can prove beneficial in a future career.

Core Curriculum and Specializations

Law school curriculum begins with a focus on core legal subjects that provide a solid foundation for a legal education. During the first eighteen months of law school, students learn fundamental topics such as:

  • Criminal law

  • Civil procedure

  • Property law

  • Contracts

  • Constitutional law

  • Torts

  • Legal research and writing

While progressing through studies, students have the opportunity to specialize in a chosen area of law. Depending on their interests, they may decide to pursue courses in specialized areas such as bankruptcy, tax law, or environmental law.

The combination of a strong core curriculum and specialized courses will equip lawyers with the knowledge and skills necessary to excel in a legal career.

Practical Experience

Acquiring practical experience in law school is crucial for honing the skills needed for a future career. Internships, externships, and legal clinics provide the opportunity to observe actual legal proceedings and apply theoretical knowledge in real-life situations.

Practical experience helps lawyers practice law and better serve their clients

These hands-on experiences help to develop crucial skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and client interaction, ultimately enhancing employability upon graduation. Plus, practical experience can bolster a resume, making prospective lawyers more competitive in the job market and better prepared for the challenges and opportunities in the world of law.

Since 2015, the job skills required for attorneys have changed by nearly 25%. Rather than legal writing and research, today’s attorneys are expected to be skilled in legal advice, contract negotiation, and compliance.

Networking and Professional Development

Networking and professional development form key parts of a law school journey, as they can open doors to career opportunities and help forge lasting connections with peers, professors, and potential employers. Participating in conferences, joining student organizations, and engaging in moot court competitions are just a few ways to expand a professional network and enhance legal skills.

Additionally, excelling academically and attaining esteemed positions, such as law review membership, can improve the chances of securing legal employment post-graduation. By actively engaging in networking and professional development opportunities, law school graduates will be better positioned to navigate the competitive legal job market and achieve success in their chosen fields.

Licensing and Bar Exam Preparation

To be able to officially practice law, lawyers must obtain a license by passing the bar exam. This critical milestone requires a thorough understanding of state-specific requirements, knowledge of the exam format, and effective use of study resources. Keep in mind that eligibility requirements for the bar exam may vary by state, and include additional exams such as the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) and character and fitness evaluations.

The bar exam format also varies by jurisdiction, with many states adopting the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) to test the knowledge and skills necessary for competent legal practice. It’s helpful to employ effective study strategies and resources to succeed on the bar exam, such as bar review courses and practice exams. By dedicating ample time and effort to prepare for the bar exam, future lawyers increase their chances of passing on their first attempt and staring on the path for a long career in law. Approximately 78% were able to pass the bar exam on their first attempt in 2022.

Prospective lawyers must commit a great deal of time studying to pass the bar exam

State-Specific Requirements

Understanding the state-specific licensure requirements is vital while preparing for the bar exam. Many states require aspiring lawyers to pass the MPRE, an ethics examination that evaluates an understanding of the rules governing the professional conduct of lawyers.

In addition, bar examiners will assess character and fitness, considering factors such as:

  • Criminal history

  • Academic integrity

  • Financial responsibility

  • Mental health

By becoming familiar with the specific requirements of a jurisdiction, future lawyers are better equipped to navigate the licensing process and ultimately obtain a license to practice law.

Bar Exam Format and Content

The format of the bar exam varies by jurisdiction but generally includes multiple-choice questions, essay questions, and performance tests. Many states have adopted the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), a standardized examination that assesses the knowledge and skills necessary for competent legal practice.

The UBE consists of the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE), and the Multistate Performance Test (MPT). By understanding the format and content of the bar exam in a jurisdiction, students can tailor study strategies accordingly and maximize their chances of success.

Study Strategies and Resources

Success in the bar exam hinges on effective study strategies and resources. Comprehensive bar review courses, for example, can help to master the material and reinforce an understanding of key concepts. Courses can be in-person, virtually, or video and audio lectures. Practice exams can familiarize students with the format and content of the bar exam, boosting confidence and improving test-taking skills.

By employing a combination of effective study strategies, such as creating a personalized study plan, dedicating time to memorization, and taking breaks to rest and rejuvenate, students can be well-prepared to tackle the bar exam and embark on a fulfilling career in law.

Lawyer Requirements By State

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Legal Job Market and Salary Expectations

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an eight percent growth rate for lawyer employment from 2022 to 2032, indicating a positive job outlook.

The majority of practicing lawyers can expect higher than average salaries

However, lawyer salaries can vary significantly based on industry, location, and experience. Career advancement opportunities for lawyers are plentiful, from law firm partnerships to in-house counsel positions or judicial appointments. The majority of attorneys work for private law firms, but options to pursue other legal career paths are abundant for those who hold a law degree.

Job Outlook and Growth

The job outlook for lawyers is positive, with the BLS projecting an eight percent growth rate from 2022 to 2032. This growth is driven by factors such as the demand for legal services and the availability of legal jobs, as many lawyers transfer to different occupations or retire.

Career advancement opportunities for lawyers include acquiring expertise in a particular area of law and cultivating relationships with other professionals in the field. With a favorable job outlook and numerous opportunities for growth, a career in law can be both professionally and personally rewarding.

Salary Ranges and Influencing Factors

Lawyer salaries can significantly differ by industry and experience. In 2022, lawyers earned a median salary of $135,740, with the highest-paid ten percent earning more than $239,000 and the lowest-paid ten percent earning less than $66,470.

Salaries differ across industries and geographic location with lawyers in Washington, D.C., earning an average of $226,510 annually in 2022, compared to those in Mississippi who earned an average of $80,540.

Career Advancement Opportunities

A variety of career advancement opportunities are available for those who are interested in advancing their legal careers. In law firms, it’s possible to become a partner, taking on greater responsibility and earning higher compensation.

In-house counsel positions, representing a specific corporation, offer additional responsibility and the opportunity to engage in diverse legal matters. Judicial appointments provide the chance to serve as a judge in a court of law and engage with a wide range of legal issues.

By actively pursuing career advancement opportunities and honing legal skills, lawyers are better positioned to navigate the competitive legal job market and achieve success in a chosen field.

Diverse Practice Areas in Law

The legal profession encompasses a diverse range of areas to practice, allowing lawyers to specialize in fields that align with their interests and passions. There are legal specialties suited to a variety of unique talents and aspirations including:

  • the world of criminal law

  • the complex transactions of corporate law

  • the pursuit of justice in public interest law

  • the protection of creative works in intellectual property law

Criminal law is one option for those with a law degree

By specializing in a particular area of law, lawyers have ample opportunities to hone their skills and knowledge, becoming a valuable asset to clients and potential employers. As the legal landscape continues to evolve, lawyers who are well-versed in specialized legal fields will be better positioned to navigate the complexities of the profession and offer expert guidance to those in need of legal representation.

Criminal Law

Criminal law focuses on representing clients facing criminal charges and navigating the often complex criminal justice system. In this field, lawyers can encounter a wide range of legal issues, from white-collar crime to violent offenses, and work tirelessly to protect the clients’ rights and interests.

The curriculum in law school covers topics such as criminal procedures, evidence, national security law, and trial practice.

A criminal defense lawyer’s role is to:

  • Provide legal representation to individuals accused of committing criminal acts

  • Ensure that they receive a fair trial

  • Advocate for the best possible outcome in their case

Corporate Law

Corporate law involves advising businesses on a wide range of legal matters, including:

  • contracts

  • mergers

  • acquisitions

  • corporate governance

Corporate lawyers work closely with business clients, helping them navigate the complex legal landscape and ensuring that their operations comply with relevant laws and regulations.

This type of law can be a rewarding field, offering the opportunity to work on a variety of transactions and play a vital role in shaping the future of businesses and industries. Depending upon the industry, corporate lawyers may be the only legal counsel in the corporation or may be among a team of attorneys.

Public Interest Law

Public interest law seeks to provide legal representation to traditionally underrepresented individuals and interests, often through nonprofit organizations and legal aid clinics. Lawyers in this field advocate for clients in areas such as civil rights, environmental justice, and consumer protection, working to ensure that all members of society have access to the legal system and receive fair treatment under the law.

Those pursuing a career in public interest law have the opportunity to make a meaningful impact on the lives of individuals and communities in need of legal representation.

Intellectual Property Law

Intellectual property law is the fastest-growing field of law. This specialized area deals with the protection and enforcement of patents, trademarks, and copyrights, ensuring that creators and innovators receive credit and compensation for their work. Intellectual property lawyers work with clients to secure and defend their rights to creative works, inventions, and other valuable intellectual assets.

This field of law offers a unique opportunity to combine a range of legal expertise with a passion for innovation and the arts, helping clients navigate the complex world of IP law and protect their valuable creations.

A student researching in a law school library

Balancing Work-Life Demands in a Legal Career

A student discussing a case with a lawyer in a courtroom

Striking a balance between work and life demands for those in the world of law can be a challenge, as lawyers often face long hours, high stress, and demanding workloads. However, by developing effective time management skills, setting boundaries, and prioritizing self-care, lawyers can successfully maintain a healthy work-life balance while pursuing a career in law.

Keep in mind that finding the right balance may require trial and error, as well as the willingness to reassess and adjust priorities as their career progresses. By remaining adaptable and prioritizing well-being, those entering the field of law are better equipped to enjoy a fulfilling personal life, while simultaneously managing the rigors of a challenging career.

Besides the traditional path of private practice or government work, several alternative legal careers are open to those with a legal background. Some examples include:

  • Legal consultants

  • Mediators

  • Law professors

  • Compliance officers

  • Politicians

Mediators, legal consultants, and compliance officers are among the non-traditional careers for lawyers

These roles offer diverse opportunities for individuals seeking a different path in the legal profession.

These alternative careers allow those who have a law degree to leverage their legal expertise and skills in new and exciting ways, providing additional avenues for personal and professional growth. Those progressing on their legal journey may wish to consider alternative legal careers that align with different interests and passions.


Embarking on a career as a lawyer is a challenging and rewarding journey, one that requires dedication, perseverance, and strategic planning. From selecting the right undergraduate degree and acing the LSAT to navigating the rigors of law school and passing the bar exam, the path to becoming a lawyer is paved with ambition and determination. With a diverse range of practice areas and alternative legal careers available, there’s a path suited to any lawyer’s unique talents and aspirations. By prioritizing a work-life balance and remaining adaptable in the face of challenges, future lawyers can achieve success in their legal careers and make a lasting impact on the lives of others.

Frequently Asked Questions

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