By Dr. Gary L. Deel | 01/31/2024
Becoming a lawyer is both a fulfilling journey that requires an educational background and a dedication to studying law for the lifetime of your career. The law is ever-evolving, and lawyers must perpetually build on their existing knowledge to address changes and shifts in the legal landscape.
Prior Coursework and Foundational Studies
What subjects do you need to become a lawyer? There are a number of foundational subjects that – taken at both the high school and undergraduate college levels – can assist with preparation for a successful journey through law school and for working in the law field.
One such subject is English. Strong communication skills are essential for lawyers, and English classes can help you develop proficiency in reading, writing, and speaking. Good oral and written communication skills are crucial for legal research, brief writing, and courtroom presentations by future lawyers.
Another potentially helpful subject is mathematics. Although not directly linked to legal studies in a formal sense, studying mathematics can definitely aid in the development of thinking and problem- solving abilities, and such skills are essential in the field of law.
Philosophy and ethics are a third useful area. Legal cases often involve ethical dilemmas, and courses in philosophy can equip you with critical thinking skills for navigating these issues and establishing a strong ethical foundation.
A fourth area of potential value would be social sciences. Gaining knowledge in subjects such as psychology, sociology, or anthropology can provide insights into human behavior and societal dynamics that prove beneficial when interacting with clients and handling difficult legal matters.
On a related note, foreign language skills can also be critically helpful. If you have aspirations of providing legal services to clients from different cultural or linguistic backgrounds, learning one or more foreign languages can be advantageous. Also, attorneys working in the arena of international law will almost always need to know a foreign language in order to provide future legal work.
Other Subjects Worth Studying
It's important to note that successful attorneys and legal scholars come from a variety of different backgrounds and educational paths. For example, I entered law school and became a lawyer with a prior background and education in hospitality management. Now, I use my legal skills to assist with cases related to hotels, restaurants, and other hospitality industry matters.
I also had law school classmates who came from backgrounds in accounting, law enforcement, environmental policy, politics, and many other academic areas. So there isn’t really a “wrong” choice with respect to prior education before attending law school.
But by incorporating a diverse array of subjects into your journey toward becoming a lawyer, you can acquire a well-rounded education that enhances your ability to excel within the legal profession.
The Juris Doctorate Degree
To pursue a career in law, it is important – and, in most U.S. jurisdictions, necessary – to obtain a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree. This type of degree is typically a three- to four-year graduate program that specializes in legal studies. A law degree is considered a professional terminal degree in the United States.
I have previously hosted podcast episodes about how law school is a transformative process for many students. During a typical law school program, you will delve into subjects related to all aspects of legal substance and procedure.
Typical Law School Curriculum
In law school, most students in a bachelor's degree program will be exposed to a regimented curriculum that encompasses the foundational principles of legal knowledge that are necessary for lawyers to effectively practice law and competently represent their clients. For instance, students may study subjects such as law, contracts, torts, criminal law, property law, civil procedure, legal research and writing, evidence, and ethics and professional responsibility.
Most first-year law students will take classes in Constitutional law. In order to interpret and enforce the law effectively, it is essential that law students grasp the principles and intricacies of the Constitution.
Another subject commonly studied by first-year law students is contracts. Law students must acquire solid knowledge about the creation and enforcement of legal agreements, as this area is an important aspect of practicing law.
In later law school years, students will typically study torts. The subject of torts and tort law helps prepare students to deal with civil wrongs and cases involving injuries to persons and property.
By contrast, criminal law explores the subjects that encompass crimes, their elements, and the various procedures followed in different cases to prosecute criminal offenses.
Law students will also learn about property law. Addressing the rights and interests related to estates as well as personal property is the focus of this subject. It is essential for any licensed attorney working in real estate and other related fields.
Civil procedure can take up to two semesters to complete in most law schools. Courses in this subject study the rules and protocols involved in litigating cases within a civil court setting.
Legal Research and Legal Writing
Legal research and writing are also a typically required part of any academic program in law schools. Through these classes, students acquire skills in conducting research and crafting persuasive legal documents like briefs and memoranda for litigation.
Law schools usually offer classes on evidence, where law students study the rules governing evidence presentation in court. These skills are particularly essential for trial lawyers in building successful cases.
Ethics and Professional Responsibility
Along with the traditional legal curriculum, law students must also study ethics and professional responsibility. Through these subjects, students gain an understanding of the codes and regulations that lawyers must adhere to, including ethical obligations incumbent upon legal professionals.
Knowledge of ethics and professional responsibility is particularly important. Most modern state bar exams include a component specifically aimed at testing knowledge of ethics and professional responsibility.
Elective Classes in Law Schools
Finally, as with most college degree programs, there is usually an elective requirement for study. With an array of optional classes to choose from, students can customize their learning experience by selecting courses aligned with their interests and career aspirations.
Typical elective subjects that help students to better understand the legal system include:
- Administrative law
- Family law
- Environmental law
- Intellectual property
- Labor law
- Corporate law
- Criminal justice
- Tax law
- International law
- Intellectual property law
In addition to the actual classroom curriculum of a typical law school program, participating in activities like debate clubs, mock trial teams, and other extracurricular pursuits can be helpful. These extracurricular activities involve both public speaking and critical thinking, and they can offer serious advantages for students honing their skill. These kinds of activities enable the development of skills and abilities that are critical to the legal profession, such as the art of argumentation and persuasion.
Specialty Law Degrees
In addition to the traditional J.D. programs that most lawyers pursue, there are also a number of other specialty paths and degrees that scholars may choose in order to address the specific aims of their career ambitions.
One such degree option is called a Master of Laws (LL.M.). An L.L.M. degree is typically pursued by lawyers who wish to specialize in an area of law, such as taxation, international law, or intellectual property.
SJD or JSD
A second specialty degree is called a Doctor of Juridical Science (S.J.D. or J.S.D.). This doctoral degree path is focused on research, and it caters to individuals interested in pursuing a scholarly career within the field of law.
Combined Degree Programs
Lastly, there are also a number of combined juris doctor degree programs through which students can earn both a J.D. and another professional or academic degree through a joint program offering. These programs typically allow students to simultaneously earn a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree along with a master's degree, such as a J.D./M.B.A. (Master of Business Administration) or a J.D./M.P.A. (Master of Public Administration). There are even J.D./M.D. programs for students who may have an interest in medicine.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Lawyer?
The amount of time it takes to become a lawyer can vary based on a number of factors, such as your location, your educational path, and your personal circumstances. However, in the United States (and other westernized countries), the general timeline to become a lawyer follows a certain pattern.
The first step is obviously the completion of an undergraduate degree (i.e., a bachelor’s degree at minimum). This degree usually takes around four years to complete. Although there is no specific major explicitly required for law school, most law students come from fields such as political science, history, English, or other related disciplines during their undergraduate years.
It's important to maintain a solid academic performance while you're taking classes for your undergraduate degree, since your grades at the undergraduate level can influence your chances of getting into law school.
Law School Admission Test
The next step – usually completed while finishing the final year or so of your undergraduate degree studies – is to take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) and earn a decent score. A good LSAT score can help improve your odds of being admitted to different law schools (and particularly higher-tier schools) by the law school admission council.
The LSAT is essentially a logic, critical thinking, and problem-solving test – and it contains many components similar to traditional IQ tests and high school Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs). The scores on the LSAT can range between 120 and 180. The current average score across law school admissions is 159, according to Best Colleges.
Applying to Law School
Upon completing your bachelor's degree and taking the LSAT, you will need to apply to law schools and select a school. When choosing a law school, it is critically important to find a school that is accredited by the American Bar Association; most state bar exams require that applicants earn their degree from an ABA-accredited law school.
Completing Law School
Once you choose a school, you will need to attend law school for around three to four years on a full- or part-time basis in order to obtain the Juris Doctor (J.D.) law degree. As previously discussed, many law schools provide education and training through various courses covering key aspects of law as well as legal research and writing skills development. Additionally, you may have opportunities for internships and practical experiences that can really help to hone your skills before you seek to become a lawyer.
Passing the Bar Exam
Once you finish your studies in law school, the next step towards becoming a lawyer is to prepare for and successfully take the bar exam in your jurisdiction. The amount of time it takes for students to prepare for the bar exam can vary from person to person and jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Many aspiring lawyers dedicate months to intensive studying, and the pass rates for most bar exams are not terribly high.
Bar exams are extremely challenging – usually consisting of both multiple choice (quantitative) and essay (qualitative) components. They commonly take one or more days to complete, and the process to pass the bar exam is exhausting.
In my own career, I have taken and passed two state bar exams (Florida and Nevada) – and these exams were by far the most daunting academic undertakings of my professional student career. I studied for months on end prior to each exam, and I credit those efforts to my ability to pass both exams. Simply put, not studying (or studying poorly) for bar exams is not an option for those who want to enter the legal field and work in a law firm.
Assuming you pass the bar exam, you will be eligible to obtain a license as an attorney and practice law within your chosen jurisdiction.
If your state’s own bar examination has reciprocity with other states and jurisdictions, you may be able to petition for admission to those other state bars as well.
For example, in the Midwest region of the United States, many states utilize what is called the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE). This exam is a standardized bar exam for state application. Consequently, a law student who passes the MBE in one state can apply for admission to practice law in any other state that utilizes the MBE as well.
But it’s important to note that not all states share such reciprocity. For example, the state bar for Florida does not have reciprocity with any other states, so students who pass the Florida state bar exam are only eligible to practice law in Florida. To practice anywhere else, they must take separate bar exams.
The Entire Process
The entire journey of attaining a law degree and becoming a lawyer in the United States typically takes around seven years after completing high school. This figure includes the four years of undergraduate education, three years of law school, and several months dedicated to preparing for the bar exam. But it's important to keep in mind that some individuals may take longer due to pursuits of specialized degrees like a Master of Laws (LL.M.) or Doctor of Juridical Science (S.J.D.), which can further extend the timeline.
Also, if students do not take a full-time course load throughout their academic careers at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, this type of course load can delay the completion of the process as well. Some students might choose to enroll in law school on a part-time basis or during evening hours.
The ABA limits the number of hours that full-time law students are permitted to work during their law school studies, so the part-time option may be attractive to some students because it allows them to balance their legal education with other obligations such as work. This option is exactly what I did when I was in law school, but law students should be aware that it may also prolong the duration of their studies.
It's worth noting that, internationally, each country has its own requirements and timelines for becoming a lawyer, and students should prepare accordingly. The process can be very different from one country to the next, depending on education and licensure requirements. If you have plans to become a practicing attorney outside of the United States, it is crucial that you thoroughly research and understand the requirements in your desired jurisdiction(s).
To Become a Lawyer, Lifelong Learning Is Necessary
Embarking on the path to becoming a lawyer is a demanding and intellectually stimulating endeavor that necessitates a strong foundation and a commitment to rigorous study and lifelong learning. For prospective lawyers, it is vital to cultivate thinking abilities, research proficiency, effective writing skills, reading comprehension, and competent communication. By planning your education journey efficiently and actively pursuing meaningful educational experiences, you can embark on a rewarding career in the legal field.