Roadmap to Becoming a Lawyer


Hannah Cardenas

Hannah is a Marketing and Sales Support Operations Coordinator who covers Special Counsel’s West Coast and Legal Tech divisions from our San Francisco office. She has degrees in both Sustainability and Sociology from Arizona State University, where she graduated summa cum laude from Barrett, the Honors College. Outside of work, Hannah loves traveling, live music, and working in her garden.

According to the American Bar Association, in 2019 there were 1.3 million lawyers in the United States. How exactly do you go about achieving the ambitious goal of joining their ranks? This post will give you an overview of the traditional road to becoming a lawyer, and what to do when you get there.

Get an Education

Consider aligning your undergrad education program to your career path

Depending on how early in your career path you know you want to be in the legal industry, start by enrolling in a four-year university program to earn a bachelor’s degree. You may consider getting a degree that strengthens your understanding of a particular field of knowledge related to the legal career path you are considering, but this is not required. It is worth mentioning that prestigious law schools have a lot of academically-successful applicants, so it behooves you to earn top marks and take part in extracurriculars, internships, and professional experiences that will strengthen your law school application.

Make a strong impression on your professors

Later in this process, you will need letters of recommendation to apply to most law schools, so it’s wise to get to know your professors by actively participating in class and going to office hours. Find a professor doing work in a meaningful field to you; they could be an invaluable resource for career advice. You can also consider doing independent study or research with a professor, which would lay the foundation for a great recommendation as well as bolster your resume.

Consider becoming involved in Moot Court extracurricular activities

Moot Court cases are often based on real cases that are pending before an appellate or a supreme court—so you get real world applications and knowledge! The experience typically culminates with a formal oral argument in a courthouse before a panel of real judges and is a great chance to get firsthand experience of what you will do as a lawyer. In these spaces you can practice skills that will be beneficial to you within your legal practice, including:

  • Drafting memorials or memoranda
  • Developing your legal writing skills
  • Working with a team to craft legal arguments and strategies
  • Participating in oral arguments in front of an audience

ACE your LSATs

In the United States, you are required to submit Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) scores along with your undergraduate transcripts when applying for law schools. The LSATs are usually taken during your junior year of undergraduate study. LSATs test critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and reading skills. Prep courses can help you excel and receive a high score, which helps you appear more desirable to a greater number of law schools, the most prestigious of which are very competitive. It is typical to study for the LSATs for months, so don’t take test prep lightly!

Choose the right law school for you

Now it’s time to figure out where you want to attend law school. Depending on your grades, extracurricular activities, and LSAT scores, your chances of being accepted will vary. You can search to see law school rankings based on best education for value, employment rates among graduating classes, demographic and diversity statistics, practical training opportunities and more.

Earning a Juris Doctor (JD) from a more prestigious law school will entice hiring firms and corporations in the future, so it’s important to consider your options carefully. Location is another factor that will dramatically impact your life, so don’t forget to consider things like local weather conditions, cost of living, public transportation options, etc. You will also need those letters of recommendation I mentioned, which should be collected from academic faculty or people who know you well and can speak highly of your academic potential. Submit your applications and cross your fingers! It can take months to hear back, so consider practicing some serious self-care after submittal.

Earn your JD (Juris Doctor)

You’ve been accepted at a school that’s just right for your needs! Now it’s time for you to complete a three-year law school program to earn your Juris Doctor degree, commonly known as a JD. Study hard, rest when you can, and learn a ton! And start prepping nice and early for the Bar Exam.

The Bar Exam

To be able to practice law in the United States, you must pass the bar exam, a rigorous pass/fail exam typically lasting two or three days. It is only held twice annually, in February and July. There are two sections: an essay section about general legal principles and state laws, and the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), which is 200 standardized questions about common law.

The essay section varies depending on which state you are in, and some states also choose to conduct performance tests. California is one of those states, and the California bar is commonly regarded as the most challenging in the country. To give you an idea, the California bar pass rate was 31.4 percent in February 2019! Pass/fail rates can vary widely by state; in 2017, Texas had a 64.88% pass rate, Florida had a 55.4% pass rate, Washington had a 67.68% pass rate, and Georgia had a 58.27% pass rate, to name a few.

You can only practice law in states where you have passed that state’s bar exam, so be sure you know which state(s) you want to practice in before registering. To prep yourself for success, consider enrolling in a bar review course beforehand. You can take the bar more than once, but the hefty amount of prep and the cost of test registration make it a tough pill to swallow twice. Check out a few expert tips on studying for the bar exam from Ericka Heyder-Seeley, co-chair of the NC Bar Association’s Bar Exam Committee, a 10-year bar exam tutor, and 3-time bar exam veteran!

Career Pathways

Start as an Associate

You passed the bar! You can now legally work as a lawyer in the US. Many first year lawyers begin their careers as associates at a law firm, working under more senior lawyers and partners. Armed with a bit of experience and a better understanding of the legal landscape, new opportunities in your career will open and you’ll be faced with two primary options: working for a firm, or moving to an in-house position.

Firm vs In-House

In a large firm you will likely have support staff assistance, a variety of departments to work with and learn from, and top-down training methods—however long hours and hard days are to be expected. Some prefer to work for small firms—the salary will be lower, and you may not be afforded as many supportive resources, but you’re less likely to work demanding 80+ hour weeks.

In an in-house role, you function as the attorney for a sole corporation. Since you only work for one client, there is no pressure to find new clients or worry about billable hours. It’s generally the perception that in-house lawyers work less hours than firm lawyers, but this can vary based on the company and you’re working for. Another major difference is that in-house lawyers need to be generalists, “triaging” a wide variety of legal tasks.

You may eventually choose to start your own practice or take time away from a salaried position to contemplate your options. During those times, you can always work as a contract attorney (often remotely) to supplement your income. Studies show lawyers are moving away from private practice, toward business (both as inside counsel and in non-law positions).

Interview negotiations: Know your worth

Whether you’re interviewing for your first legal role or a veteran in the legal industry, make sure you walk into any interview negotiation with a solid understanding of your worth. Special Counsel’s Salary Guide for Attorneys and Legal Professionals provides insights to national and regional salary and total compensation figures, singing bonuses, relocation bonuses, as well as exploring which non-traditional benefits are trending. Don’t sell yourself short, and don’t ask for compensation far above the average in your area—both of these scenarios make you look bad as a candidate.

Utilize a reputable recruiter

Using a recruiting service can be a valuable resource. Not only are they helpful for landing you your first role, but they can also be a huge help in making lateral moves later down the line. The best recruiters have a solid network of hiring managers and HR personnel at a wide variety of firms and companies, small and large. Once you impress a recruiter, they can vouch for you on a personal level when speaking with hiring managers, which is a great way to stand out in a sea of applicants. Here are a few ways working with a legal recruiter can benefit you:

  • Direct you to opportunities most likely to achieve your ideal work-life balance and career goals
  • Assist in optimizing your resume and application materials
  • Walk you through the firm’s interview process and finesse your interview strategy
  • Share position listings that are not publicly available
  • Negotiate a job offer on your behalf, including compensation

So are you ready to become a lawyer?

Ultimately, there are a vast number of career paths in the legal field and the unique opportunities for flexibility, work-life balance, non-traditional benefits and remote options is only growing. When you’re ready to begin your job hunt, take a look at available positions in your area and reach out to one of our recruiters to learn more about the latest hiring trends and opportunities.

Attract & Retain Top Talent

With a rapidly changing industry, it's vital to offer the right compensation and set the right expectation. With our Salary Guide, get detailed job descriptions, industry insights and local salary data to equip your managers with hiring confidence and expertise.

Get your copy »

Get email updates about more content like this.


| Next articles in The Column blog |

Get the foundation you need to hire the best legal talent.

Request your copy of our 2021 Salary Guide »