Working as an attorney is one of the most prestigious occupations in all parts of the world. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that pursuing a law degree requires a lot of time and effort. But how long does it actually take to become a lawyer?
In the United States, educational requirements for a prospective attorney take at least seven years to complete, broken down into an undergraduate degree of four years and a graduate law school degree of three years. Still, things aren’t that simple, as there are additional exams to take and certifications to obtain along the way.
If you are thinking about a career in law, note that there is no such thing as the fastest way to become an attorney. There are no tricks or hacks - everything has to be done right. Here’s an overview of all the steps you need to take on your path to a successful career in law, with details on how long they typically last.
Complete a Bachelor’s Degree Program
To be considered for a graduate program in law, students need to complete an undergraduate program first. A bachelor’s degree is a minimum educational requirement for law school, and it usually takes four years to obtain.
Consider signing up for a pre-law program if there is one offered by your college. However, bear in mind that the American Bar Association doesn’t require you to choose a particular field of study at this step of your path to becoming an attorney. While the ABA notes that students can gain admission to law school with a degree in any subject, majors pre-law students usually go for are English, sociology, philosophy, economics, political science, criminal justice, and journalism.
Since there isn’t one correct field of study to pursue, the smartest approach would be to opt for the subject you really enjoy. Focusing on the coursework you’re good at will help you score a high GPA and thus become a competitive candidate for a Juris Doctor program.
Prepare for and Pass the Law School Admission Test
Preparing for the LSAT should be the second step on your path to becoming a lawyer. In addition to completing an undergraduate program with a high GPA, taking and passing the LSAT is another core part of the process of applying for graduate programs in law. As this is a standardized law school entrance exam, admission officers use prospective students’ LSAT results to gauge how successful the candidates may be in the programs they’re applying for.
The examination consists of five sections of multiple-choice questions and a writing sample which is administered at the end of the test. The LSAT measures law school hopefuls’ information management, reading comprehension, logical and analytical reasoning, and argumentation - essential skills for anyone who wants to become a lawyer.
Even though your LSAT scores aren’t the only thing law school admission officers will take into consideration while evaluating your applications, it’s still important to devote at least a few months to studying and thorough preparation for the test. The higher you score, the easier you’ll find it to get into your preferred law school.
Review Your Options and Complete Law School Applications
After obtaining their Bachelor’s degree, some students choose to continue with their education right away, while others prioritize gaining professional experience in other fields before starting law school. No matter which path you chose for a lawyer’s education and training, only consider applying for programs at recognized law schools. You can’t become a lawyer unless you pursue a graduate degree at a school accredited by the ABA. The good news is there are more than 200 ABA-approved law schools in the US, so you’ll have plenty of options to choose from.
In addition to your undergraduate GPA, LSAT scores, and the coursework you’ve done at the undergraduate level, other accomplishments may help you impress admission officers: organizational affiliation, community service, and recommendation letters from legal professionals, educators, or alumni. While in the research phase of lawyer training, remember that you can turn to the Law School Admission Council for resources and advice on the law school application process.
Pursue Your JD Degree
Prospective law practitioners must obtain a Juris Doctor degree, also referred to as the first degree in law. Considering that law school combines classroom learning with practical experience, it helps future attorneys gain the knowledge they need, develop critical thinking, and prepares them for a career in law by introducing them to some of the most common scenarios they’ll come across throughout their careers.
How long does law school take, you may wonder? Should you decide to attend law school full-time, you can expect to finish the program in three years. However, if you decide to go to law school part-time, it’ll take four years to complete your studies.
There are several specialties within the field of law, so make sure to select a program that offers a curriculum within your area of interest. Here’s an overview of some of the most popular specialties:
- Labor law: The job of a labor attorney is to deal with relations between employers and employees, typically representing one of the two sides on matters such as compensation, discrimination, and collective bargaining.
- Family law: Becoming a lawyer in the field of family law means that your day-to-day duties will involve legal relations between and within families, such as adoption, marriage, divorce, and child welfare.
- Corporate law: This is one of the most lucrative legal fields. Working as a business or corporate lawyer involves responsibilities such as forming and dissolving various types of business entities and dealing with mergers, acquisitions, and corporate disputes.
- Tax law: Tax lawyers need to be aware of all the relevant tax legislation as they offer counsel on the topics of income tax, tax deductions, and corporate transactions. Additionally, these law practitioners represent their clients in tax matters and often work on tax policy.
- Patent law: How long does it take to become a patent lawyer? In addition to following the same educational path all future lawyers must pursue, patent attorneys must also prepare for and pass the patent bar exam administered by the US Patent and Trademark Office. A patent lawyer’s job description involves providing legal advice on many aspects of intellectual property.
- Civil rights law: In the broadest sense, the work of civil rights lawyers entails protecting the civil rights of all individuals, often by representing them in court in matters against or relating to the government.
And how long does it take to become a lawyer after completing your undergraduate degree? Well, there are a few more steps you need to take to kick-start your career.
Pass the Bar Exam
After obtaining your JD degree, the next step involves taking the bar exam for the jurisdiction where you intend to work as a lawyer. The examination is designed to determine whether a candidate possesses all the skills and knowledge needed to practice law. Preparing for the exam and receiving the results can both take up to a few months on top of law school duration.
Note that bar exams in some states are notoriously difficult to pass, so make sure you study thoroughly. Once you pass the exam, you’ll be eligible for official admission to the Bar. Still, you won’t get admitted automatically - prospective lawyers also need to pass their State’s Bar Association’s character and fitness review along with an extensive background check. In addition to obtaining all the education required to be a lawyer, you also need a clean record.
Apply for Jobs
As soon as you’ve met all the requirements in terms of education and certification, you’ll be ready to enter the legal jobs market. Attorneys can work with the government, nonprofits, private practices, or other types of organizations, so there’s a wide variety of job opportunities for law practitioners to advance their careers.
Newly graduated lawyers usually start their careers as associates, working closely with experienced lawyers. After a few years in a law firm, successful attorneys may be offered an opportunity to become partners while others may lean toward opening their own office.
Proving that a degree in law can open many doors, some attorneys shift into public positions or become judges.
Finally, it’s also important to mention that after completing your JD degree, you can keep pursuing your educational path at postgraduate levels. If you are interested in research and academic scholarship, Master of Law and Doctor of Philosophy are two obvious choices. Note that most LLM programs take up to two years, while the process of becoming a Doctor of Philosophy in Law lasts from four to eight years.