Career Guide for Lawyers in the U.S.

Written by
Rebecca Smith

Jul 21, 2020

Jul 21, 2020 • by Rebecca Smith

Lawyers can act as prosecutors representing the government in criminal proceedings, represent plaintiffs in civil cases, or act as defense attorneys in both civil and criminal cases. In order to become a lawyer, you must first complete a Juris Doctor (JD) degree and pass the bar exam in the state in which you wish to practice, and you will also need to go to law school. Lawyers will usually have a specialization in one aspect of law, such as criminal justice, family law, trademark, copyright, or maritime law. They may also be hired by companies in advisory roles to comment on contracts or other aspects of corporate law. 

Lawyers can initiate lawsuits and represent citizens, corporations, or the U.S. government, but they can also serve in certain advisory roles. Experienced attorneys can teach at colleges or universities, become executives of major corporations, or even enter the political sphere. Before becoming politicians, several U.S. presidents were also lawyers, including Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Lawyers can also go on to become judges.

But what are the practical steps one takes to become a lawyer? A JD is a doctoral degree, and usually takes around three years to complete. However, first you will need to go to law school. The vast majority of law schools will require you to earn a bachelor's degree before you can apply; however, most schools do not require you to have a specific undergraduate major. Some of the most common undergraduate degree choices for law school hopefuls are political science, pre-law, or liberal arts degrees like philosophy, history, or English.

The next major step in applying to law school and becoming a lawyer is taking the LSAT exam and earning a good score. Also known as the Law School Admission Test, this notoriously difficult and lengthy exam will test you on four different sections: analytical reasoning, logical reasoning, reading comprehension, and writing. The test is typically about 4 hours in length. The average score on the exam is 150, with a “good” score being considered 160. Top-tier Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale are usually looking for candidates with scores in the top 2.5% range, which is 170 and above. The best way to earn scores in this range on the LSAT exam is to enroll in LSAT prep, especially an online LSAT course. Online LSAT courses will offer both structure and flexibility, which is crucial considering most law school hopefuls begin preparing before earning their bachelor’s degree and have busy schedules with work and other engagements. Doing well on the LSAT can affect your entire career, as it will dictate which law schools you get into, which can dictate which firms will hire you, what kind of positions you can apply for, and what kind of clients you can work with. The higher your LSAT score, the more likely you are to gain admittance to a prestigious law school and thus work with higher-profile or more meaningful cases and clients.

A few years ago, several law schools started accepting the Graduate Records Examination, otherwise known as the GRE exam, for admission to their law school. The GRE is a standardized test that is an admissions requirement for many graduate schools in the United States and Canada. Today, many of the top law schools in the country, such as Harvard Law School, accept either the GRE or the LSAT exam for admission. The GRE test is offered several times per year in more than 1,000 locations worldwide, making it easily accessible. 

After completing law school, you will need to take and pass your state’s Bar Examination. Before this, most people will begin their hands-on career training while still enrolled in law school. You can do this by working in a clerkship or an internship at a local law firm, or by working for a non-profit organization such as those commonly found at law school clinics. Those who undertake these options will have the opportunity to work with both experienced lawyers and real clients, practice the drafting and presentation of motions, work with opposing counsel, and conduct case investigations. Most law students will not be accepted for an internship until after completion of their first year of law school, which is a great way to solidify everything they learned during their first year. These internships are not only great to add to their resumes, but they help reinforce everything learned during law school; from learning to work remotely to filing motions in various case types. Many law students continue their internship with the same law firm every summer, until graduation, and even accept a job at that firm after graduation.

At this point, law school graduates will usually either apply to work at an established firm, or, more rarely, start their own private practice. Some recent graduates make themselves more desirable to big firms by offering to work pro bono. New hires will often have to work their way up the ranks of a firm and may have to complete additional state-required training protocols.