The Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Lawyer in the US
Becoming a lawyer in the US is a profession to which many aspire, yet few achieve. Academic requirements are intense and typically take seven years to complete. Even after these requirements are met, students must sit for and pass the notoriously rigorous bar exam before being accepted to their jurisdiction's bar.
Why, then, is this such a sought-after goal? Aside from a fulfilling career, having a law degree can be very lucrative for the top 25% of lawyers who make an average annual salary of $194,580. In contrast, the bottom 10% earn $61,400. The difference between them? Planning.
Most of the 1.3 million lawyers in the US spend their days working on behalf of their clients in criminal and civil litigation and other legal proceedings. However, the prestige and salary of your first post-bar admission position rest on your bar results, the law school you attended, and how you spent your time outside of your legal education.
Having a clear understanding of the path ahead could be the difference between the lucrative legal career of your dreams and tedious eighty-hour weeks pushing paper for menial pay. This article provides a blueprint for how to become a lawyer so you can be amongst the elite who not only become lawyers but also find fulfilling employment.
US Bar Licensure Requirements
There are various paths to becoming a lawyer, but the most common path follows the steps below.
- Obtain a bachelor's degree
- Pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT®)
- Obtain a Juris Doctor Law Degree (JD)
- Complete the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE®)
- Pass your state's bar exam
These steps appear simple when presented as a numerical list, but each represents a serious challenge that requires serious preparation and determination. Below we discuss how to optimize each step and set yourself up for success.
Obtain a bachelor's degree
Earning a bachelor's degree is typically a prerequisite for admission to an accredited law school where you can earn a JD. What you major in is less important than how well you do, and choosing something you're interested in typically leads to higher engagement and better grades.
That said, the American Bar Association (ABA) recommends cultivating the following skills throughout your undergraduate experience, whether it be through academics, internships, extracurriculars, summer jobs, or life experience:
- Critical reading
- Writing and editing
- Oral communication and listening
- Organization and management
- Public service and promotion of justice
- Relationship-building and collaboration
- Background knowledge
- Exposure to the law
Choosing oceanography or astronomy as your major is workable if that's what interests you. Furthermore, there are many areas of law, some of which may benefit from a lawyer with a science-based degree. However, some degrees have been favorites among undergraduate students who go on to law school. According to the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) report for 2020-2021, they are:
- Political Science
- Criminal Justice
- Arts & Humanities
It's unsurprising that the above popular pre-law majors involve exercising many of the skills that the ABA recommends cultivating before law school. If you're not passionate about a STEM subject area or unsure about which major to choose, you may want to consider one of the above.
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Your GPA will largely determine which law schools you can attend. Being admitted to a top 10 law school typically requires a bare minimum GPA of at least 3.59, but even then, admission is far from guaranteed. It is possible to get into law school with a GPA as low as 2.9, but this will severely restrict your options. Consider what GPA is achievable given the major you choose.
Pass the LSAT
In 2022, the ABA voted to do away with using standardized tests like the LSAT as requirements for law school admission. However, these changes are not slated to go into effect until 2025, giving law schools time to prepare new ways to measure competency.
In the meantime, the LSAT remains a critical stepping stone on your path to becoming a lawyer. The LSAT is an online exam that tests skills necessary during the first year of law school (i.e., reasoning, writing, critical thinking, etc.) and consists of two components:
- Multiple-Choice - Divided into four 35-minute sections, which test for reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning. One section is unscored and composed of pilot questions for future exams.
- Writing - Presents a decision problem with two options. You must choose one and defend your choice. You are not graded on choosing the "correct" answer but on your persuasive writing skills. You'll have 35 minutes and can complete the writing component as early as eight days before the multiple-choice section.
The LSAT is typically proctored nine times annually. You can take it three times in a single testing year and a total of seven times over a lifetime. You must register for the LSAT via an LSAC online account and pay a registration fee of $215 (for 2022-2023). To date, four LSAT dates have been released. Registration deadlines and exam dates for the US (including Puerto Rico & US Virgin Islands) and Canada are tabulated below.
LSAT Dates 2023
Top 10 law schools typically won't even look at an LSAT score below 162. If your aim is the Ivy League, you'll need to land in the top 75th percentile or higher of LSAT examinees. However, as with your GPA, the lower your LSAT score, the more limited your options become.
Obtain a Juris Doctor law degree
Fortunately, almost everyone who takes the bar exam within two years of graduating from an ABA-accredited law school passes. But law school isn't easy. JD programs are very intense and typically require three years of full-time study. To increase your chances of successfully making it through law school, here are some actionable tips:
Graduating with a JD from a law school accredited by a state board or the ABA is generally a requirement to sit for the bar exam and become a lawyer in every jurisdiction except for California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.
Exceptions and workarounds regarding prelegal educational requirements do exist, but these are unique to each jurisdiction. View this chart for an overview of every jurisdiction, or visit the board of bar or supreme court website of your desired jurisdiction. Check out this chart if you plan on getting your legal education in a foreign country.
Complete the MPRE
Passing the MPRE is required to practice law in every US jurisdiction except for Wisconsin and Puerto Rico. The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE®) administers the MPRE to assess a candidate's knowledge of professional codes of conduct for the legal industry as outlined in the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and the Model Code of Judicial Conduct. You must have an NCBE account to register.
The MPRE is administered three times a year and requires a registration fee of $150. Deadlines and details are shown in the chart below.
|Accommodations Application Deadline||Registration Deadline Fee: $150|
|March 28/29, 2023||December 5, 2022||January 26, 2023|
|August 9/10, 2023||April 24, 2023||June 8, 2023|
|November 2/3, 2023||July 24, 2023||September 12, 2023|
Examinees will have two hours to answer 60 multiple-choice questions, of which 10 are unscored pilot questions for future exams. Subjects and subject frequencies are as follows:
|MPRE Frequency Chart|
|Regulation of the legal profession||6-12%||5-8|
|The client-lawyer relationship||10-16%||5-8|
|Conflicts of interest||12-18%||6-9|
|Competence, legal malpractice, and other civil liability||6-12%||3-6|
|Litigation and other forms of advocacy||10-16%||5-8|
|Transactions and communications with persons other than clients||2-8%||1-4|
|Different roles of the lawyer||4-10%||2-5|
|Safekeeping funds and other property||2-8%||1-4|
|Communications about legal services||4-10%||2-5|
|Lawyers' duties to the public and the legal system||2-4%||1-4|
The MPRE is typically taken before sitting for the bar exam. However, some states allow candidates to take the MPRE after successfully completing the bar exam. Furthermore, each state has different MPRE minimum passing scores. Check your jurisdiction's board of bar or supreme court website for details.
Pass your state's bar exam
Passing your state's bar exam is the final obstacle before being admitted to the bar and becoming a practicing lawyer. 41 jurisdictions (39 states) have adopted the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE®), which we cover in detail below. Most of the remaining non-UBE jurisdictions have combined one or more components of the UBE, such as the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE®), with a state-specific essay component.
Most readers will eventually sit for the UBE—a two-day exam consisting of the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE®), Multistate Performance Examination (MPT®), and MBE.
|UBE Structure and Subjects|
|MEE||30%||Six 30-minute essay questions administered over one 3-hour session||Business Associations, Civil Procedure, Conflict of Laws, Constitutional Law, Contracts and Sales, Criminal Law and Procedure, Evidence, Family Law, Real Property, Torts, Trusts and Estates, Secured Transactions|
|MPT||20%||Two 90-minute tasks that simulate real-world lawyering assignments||Covers application of legal reasoning over pure knowledge|
|MBE||50%||200 multiple-choice questions administered over two 3-hour sessions||Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law and Procedure, Evidence, Real Property, Torts|
|UBE Structure and Subjects|
|Format||Six 30-minute essay questions administered over one 3-hour session|
|Subjects||Business Associations, Civil Procedure, Conflict of Laws, Constitutional Law, Contracts and Sales, Criminal Law and Procedure, Evidence, Family Law, Real Property, Torts, Trusts and Estates, Secured Transactions|
|Format||Two 90-minute tasks that simulate real-world lawyering assignments|
|Subjects||Covers application of legal reasoning over pure knowledge|
|Format||200 multiple-choice questions administered over two 3-hour sessions|
|Subjects||Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law and Procedure, Evidence, Real Property, Torts|
Bar exam costs and fees vary dramatically from state to state. It's essential to familiarize yourself with your state's board of bar examiners or supreme court website and ensure you meet all requirements by their deadlines.
Pass rates vary from state to state, but most first-time takers pass, while repeat takers typically fail because they haven't changed their original strategy. Check out these tips on studying for the bar exam to get an idea of what's to come.
What's Next After Passing the Bar in the USA?
Upon passing the bar, you will still have to take an oath in court and be sworn in, and depending on your jurisdiction, you may have to take an additional state component. You are now ready to practice law, but first, you must find someone willing to pay you.
Apply for a job
Any connections you made during law school or internships will come in handy here. Don't feel shy about reaching out to law professors for recommendations, especially those who taught subjects you're interested in. Your law school should also have a career services center with resources to help current students and alums find a job.
Put yourself out there. Attend state bar association mixers where you can meet practicing lawyers. Speak with practicing attorneys at informational interviews. Reach out to law firms with your resume. Don't settle. Don't wait for a position to fall in your lap. It may well, but it likely won't resemble your dream position.
If you want to maintain your license, you'll have to keep up to date with continuing legal education (CLE). Rules regarding license renewal vary by state. Each board of bar has its own fees, deadlines, steps, and stipulations. Some states require three hours of CLE every year. Some require 25 or even 45 hours every three years. You can get a general overview of CLE by jurisdiction here, but you should also check your state board's website for details.
Bar Exam Reciprocity
Bar exam reciprocity refers to the portability of an exam score from one jurisdiction to another. Reciprocity is important to consider if you want to transfer states in the future. Some states, like Hawaii, don't offer reciprocity. Others, like Colorado, have reciprocity with most states. And still, others will admit lawyers who have been practicing law in other states.
Taking the UBE makes your score more portable to participating jurisdictions. However, each jurisdiction has different minimum passing scores, and your transfer score typically has to meet that threshold.
How to Become a Lawyer as an International Student?
It is possible to practice law in the US if you received your legal education in a foreign country. However, it depends on the jurisdiction to which you are applying. For example, some jurisdictions require additional education for international students, others allow admission for examination based on legal work experience, and some don't allow either.
If you want to become a lawyer as an international student, you must first determine which states allow foreigners to take the bar exam. Alternatively, apply to ABA-accredited law schools in the US.