How to Become a Lawyer in USA [Step-by-Step Guide]

Entering the legal profession is neither an easy task nor to be taken lightly. Getting a license to practice law in the U.S. requires years of strenuous effort and a huge amount of student loans to cover the cost of law school. The outcome – a legal career often leads to a six-figure salary. In this post, we will walk you through the step-by-step process of how to become a lawyer in USA.

There is a recent surge of interest in law and many people are wondering how to become a lawyer in the United States. Let us see how you can become a lawyer and what it is like to be one. It usually takes 7 years of full-time study after high school—4 years of undergraduate study, followed by 3 years of law school to become a lawyer in the USA. Most states and jurisdictions require lawyers to complete a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA).

Step-1: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree Program

The minimum educational requirement for admission to law school is a bachelor’s degree. Common undergraduate majors for prelaw students include English, political science, economics, business, philosophy, and journalism. There’s no specific major to pursue to get into law school.

Step-2: Pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)

Along with an undergraduate degree, the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is the main criterion for the law school admissions process. Admissions officers use scores from the LSAT to assess the knowledge and quality of applicants.

The LSAT measures candidates’ skills in critical areas of future legal work, including reading comprehension, information management, analysis, critical thinking, reasoning, and argumentation.

The LSAT is an exam created by the Law School Admission Council to become a lawyer. It is conducted in 200 cities throughout the world.

Step-3: Identify Law Schools and Complete Applications

It is advisable to enroll in law schools accredited by the American Bar Association. In addition to overall GPA, undergraduate coursework, and LSAT scores, other admission factors may include community service, organizational affiliations, and recommendation letters from educators, alumni, or legal professionals.

Step-4: Complete Juris Doctor (JD) Degree

A Juris Doctor is an undergraduate degree (or professional doctorate) that helps you in becoming a lawyer in the United States and Canada.

A Juris Doctor (JD) is a degree recognized nationally for practicing law in the United States and is currently offered by 205 ABA-accredited law schools. Prospective students should have a thorough knowledge of the faculty, areas of study, tuition, and curriculum before applying.

There are numerous specialties within legal practice and you should select a program that offers a focused curriculum in their area of interest. That is you may choose to concentrate in areas of real estate, property, criminal, environmental, tax, or family law.

It takes three years to complete the JD degree.

General requirements for JD application:

  • A bachelor’s degree or equivalent of a 4-year undergraduate degree in any subject with a good GPA
  • Register for the Law School Data Assembly Service (LSDAS)
  • LSAT scores
  • Personal Statement
  • Recommendation Letters
  • TOEFL scores if English is not your native language
  • Financial documents showing proof of funds

Popular Specialization Areas of Law

  • Corporate law: or business is a lucrative field with responsibilities such as the formation and dissolution of corporations, mergers and acquisitions, corporate disputes, and more.
  • Family law: Family law pertains to legal relations between families such as marriage, divorce, domestic partnerships, adoption, and child welfare.
  • Labor law: deals with relations between workers and employers on matters including discrimination, compensation, and collective bargaining.
  • Civil rights law: Civil rights lawyers work to protect individual’s civil rights, often representing individuals in matters against or relating to the government.
  • Criminal law: this is one of the more common areas of law and provides students with the necessary training to become prosecutors, defenders, or lawyers with a firm.
  • Health law: Health law is a vast field that focuses on everything related to healthcare, including healthcare policy, patents, and medical malpractice.
  • Intellectual property law: lawyers in this field work to protect the intellectual property of clients through patents, trademarks, and copyright.
  • Tax law: Tax lawyers work closely with the tax code, often working on tax policy, and representing clients in tax matters.
  • Estate law: is concerned with the protection of assets during a client’s lifetime. It also encompasses the distribution of those assets after death. This type of law degree specialization requires students to learn about the legal implications of wills, living trusts, debts, liabilities, and more.

The Cost of Attending Law School in USA

The cost of law school in the US is steep as you will be spending for a four-year program that includes both tuition and living expenses. You can take out loans, but paying them back after graduation could be a long process.

On average, annual tuition would be around $42,000 per year. Additionally, there will be living expenses – $16,000 – $20,000 per year.

Becoming a lawyer in the United States has many factors that must be kept in mind. The cost of law school is only one of them, but other important factors are location, accreditation, and the number of years completed.

Step-5: Pass the Bar Examination

Generally, lawyers need to graduate from an ABA-approved law school and pass the state bar examination prior to qualifying in that state. Although each state sets its own testing guidelines. The bar exams are specific to each state and each area of law.

How to Become a Lawyer in USA

The Bar Exam is a two-day process: day one is spent completing the Multistate Bar Examination while day two focuses on writing examinations covering various legal matters.

In addition to the bar examination, the state board of bar examiners also considers the candidate’s educational background, competence, character, and ability to represent others in legal matters prior to offering a full legal license.

Before writing the Bar exam, aspiring lawyers must write and pass an ethics exam known as the MPRE – Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination. The MPRE is a two-hour, 60-question multiple-choice examination developed by NCBE that is offered three times a year. It is a prerequisite for writing the bar exam in all but three U.S. jurisdictions – Maryland, Wisconsin, and Puerto Rico.

Career Prospects After Graduating from Law School

Once you graduate from law school, the most important decision is where to practice. There are many places in the United States where you can become licensed as a lawyer- New York, California, and Florida are just a few to name, states with large populations.

After you graduate from law school and pass the bar exam, there are many options for you and you need to decide what type of position you want to be in. If you choose to work as a lawyer, then work as a divorce attorney or criminal defense attorney. There are also a variety of governmental positions for which you can apply.

Earnings

The median annual wage for lawyers was $127,990 in May 2021. JD graduates earn in the range of $54k – $150k per annum and the average is $86,528 per year.

Jobs and Higher Studies

There are many opportunities for lawyers. Freshman lawyers generally start as associates, working closely with senior lawyers to sharpen their craft. After several years of practice, you may become partners in a firm while others may choose to open their own law office. Some may move beyond practicing law and become a judge or shift into public positions.

You may also pursue further education at both the masters and doctoral levels. The Master of Law (LLM) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) are two common choices for lawyers interested in careers involving research and academic scholarship.

LLM Degree

Although an LLM is not a necessary qualification to have when you want to become a lawyer in the United States, many of the skills needed can be learned – or at least enhanced – by studying an LLM program.

Essential skills such as reasoning, presentation, research, and communication skills are all intrinsic parts of studying an LLM program. Therefore if you want to become a lawyer and are interested in expanding your knowledge in a particular field, an LLM degree can be helpful to enhance your CV and career prospects.

How to Become a Lawyer in USA from India

 It can sometimes be difficult to practice law in the U.S. as a foreign-trained lawyer, but it’s not impossible.

Each state has different requirements, so how you go about it can depend on where you live and want to work. Potential lawyers must sit for the bar exam in the state where they hope to practice. New York and California are popular destinations that offer the most flexible requirements.

A foreign law graduate who did not pursue a 2-year law degree or who qualified from a non-common law jurisdiction needs to pursue an LLM in the US, before being eligible to take the Bar Exam. This option is typically the one used by Indian lawyers who want to obtain US qualifications as well.

State-Specific Regulations for New York

A foreign-trained lawyer will fall into one of two categories in this state: Their foreign education will transfer to the U.S. system, or they won’t.

Education will usually transfer if a foreign-trained lawyer has completed a program that was at least three years in duration and was focused on English common law. These attorneys can sit for the bar after receiving an Advance Evaluation of Eligibility from the Board.

All other foreign-trained attorneys must complete a Master of Laws (LLM) degree program that meets certain qualifications before they can sit for the bar exam.

California State Requirements

Like New York, the California State Bar has relatively liberal admission standards for foreign lawyers. In fact, it might be even easier to sit for the bar exam in California than it is in New York.

Foreign-trained lawyers who have been admitted to practice law in a jurisdiction outside the U.S. are often eligible to take the bar exam in California without completing any additional requirements.

A foreign-trained attorney who has not been admitted to practice outside the U.S. can still be eligible to take the bar exam after completing an LLM degree program. The program must cover four separate subjects that are tested on the California Bar Exam.

Other Popular States in USA for Foreign Law Graduates

  • Vermont
  • Georgia
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

Alternative Career for Foreign Law Graduates in USA

You can also use your foreign law degree in a number of ways without becoming a fully-admitted state bar member. One common option is to become a foreign legal consultant (FLC).

An FLC is a foreign-trained lawyer who has set up a limited practice in the U.S. Thirty-one states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have foreign legal consultant rules in place.

Conclusion

Attending a law school is a must in order to become a lawyer in the United States and it is important to be realistic. The legal industry is undoubtedly competitive and difficult so make sure that you know what it takes and proceed accordingly.

Featured Image Source: UC Davis

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.

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Jaya Ghosh
A former legal eagle (Advocate), an avid reader, a passionate traveler, and an administrative professional with almost 20 years of experience both in the academic and NGO sectors.
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