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How to Become a Lawyer

lawyer
Advising clients as to their legal rights and obligations often requires a great deal of research.
Credit: Andrey Burmakin | Shutterstock

Lawyers represent individuals, businesses, or government agencies who are involved in legal disputes. Lawyers, or attorneys, must advocate for their clients in court by presenting evidence and arguing cases. They must also advise clients as to their legal rights and obligations, which often requires a great deal of research.

There are many different types of careers for those wanting to practice law, and the requirements for becoming a lawyer differ from state to state. If you’re considering becoming a lawyer, you’ll want to be well-informed as to the qualifications needed for the job, where you can expect to find work, and how much you might earn annually.

What lawyers do

Lawyers serve clients as advocates and advisors in a number of different ways, and depending on the type of law an attorney practices, he or she will possess a different title. For example, criminal attorneys, also known as defense attorneys, work for individuals who have been accused of a crime. Defense attorneys who are employed by government agencies — instead of private firms — are known as public defenders.

Prosecutors, on the other hand, work for government agencies and are responsible for presenting cases against individuals or corporations that have been accused of a crime.

Some attorneys don’t prosecute or defend accused criminals at all, but instead work in different areas of civil law, such as family law, environmental law, real estate law, or personal injury law.

Regardless of what kind of lawyer you wish to become, you can expect to perform a great deal of research about the cases you represent. Luckily, there are many online legal databasesto which lawyers can subscribe. And many law firms and private attorneys employ paralegals or legal assistants to help them with research and other time-consuming activities, such as correspondence with courts and police bureaus.

Most states require that lawyers attend continuing education workshops and conferencesthroughout their careers. Many states also require that lawyers who practice within their jurisdiction are members of the state Bar Association, which carries with it certain responsibilities as well as professional benefits.

Where lawyers work

The majority of lawyers worked for private or corporate legal offices as of 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. Other attorneys work for local, state, and federal governments or are self-employed.

A lawyer’s place of work is usually an office; however, many lawyers spend a great deal of time traveling to meet with clients at their homes, in hospitals, or in prison. Although some attorneys, like litigation attorneys, specialize in representing their clients in a courtroom, others rarely bring cases before a judge.

Most attorneys work full time, and their hours vary greatly depending on the type of law they practice and how many clients they have retained. Typically, lawyers who work in private practices or for large law firms have very demanding schedules and work long hoursconducting research and preparing cases.

Salaries for attorneys vary greatly depending on the type of law that is practiced, the experience of the lawyer, and the type of organization for which an attorney works. The median annual wage for lawyers in 2010 was $112,760 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Becoming a lawyer

Requirements for practicing law vary from state to state, but all states require that practicing lawyers possess a bachelor’s degree, a degree in law from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association, and pass a written bar examination.  

In order to gain admission to law school, applicants must complete the Law School Admission Test(LSAT), and certain prerequisite undergraduate classes are also helpful for admission, such as public speaking and government.

Once admitted into law school, many aspiring lawyers find it beneficial to participate in school-sponsored legal clinics, court competitions, and mock trials, all of which are designed to prepare students for their careers in law. Law students often work part-time for law firms, government agencies, or corporate legal departments to gain experience and network with future colleagues.

Upon completing law school, aspiring attorneys must pass a state licensing exam for each state in which they’d like to practice. The scores received on these bar exams, as well as other criteria, determine whether an attorney will be permitted to practice within a particular state. For more information on state by state requirements, visit the National Conference of Bar Examiners.