What Degrees & Credentials Do You Need to Be a Lawyer?

Oct 20, 2021

What degree do you need to be a lawyer? Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a lawyer. Get a quick view of the requirements and details about degree programs, job duties, and bar licensure to find out if this is the career for you.

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How Much Education Do You Need to Be a Lawyer?

What degrees do you need to be a lawyer? Potential lawyers need Juris Doctor (J.D.) degrees to practice law. The education path typically takes a total of seven years to complete, including four years of undergraduate coursework and three years of law school. After earning their lawyer degrees, lawyers must pass their state's bar exam and complete any other requirements necessary to be licensed before they can practice law. Some lawyers choose to specialize in a particular area of law by earning further degrees.

Undergraduate Degree

A bachelor's degree is required for admission into law school. Although the American Bar Association (ABA) notes that there are no specific undergraduate majors that best prepares aspiring lawyers for law school, it suggests that students complete coursework that stresses problem-solving, writing, critical reading, research, and oral communication. Accordingly, students may consider completing courses in English, political science, business, economics, and mathematics.

Juris Doctor (J.D.) Degree

What degree does a lawyer need? Admission to Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree programs is generally competitive. All ABA-approved law schools require applicants to sit for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). The LSAT is an fundamental part for admissions into law school. The LSAT tests various essential skills for first year law students which include reading comprehension, writing, and reasoning. The LSAT is comprised of two parts, multiple choice and written essay.

Along with LSAT scores, admission is determined by an applicant's education, work experience, propensity for law, and general character. Some applicants may be required to sit for interviews and submit certified transcripts.

J.D. degree programs typically take three years of full-time study to complete. The first year of law school usually focuses on general law courses, such as contracts, criminal law, and legal writing. In the final years, students usually develop a specialty, such as corporate or labor law.

To gain additional experience with law and the legal process, students may participate in mock trials, contribute to law journal publications, and receive hands-on, supervised training in legal clinics. Some programs also incorporate clerkship programs, in which students work with attorneys at law firms and legal departments. Clerks may be responsible for drafting legal documents, working with judges, and conducting legal research.

After obtaining a law degree, lawyers must take the bar exam and choose the state they will be taking the bar exam. In most jurisdictions, the bar exam is offered once in February and once in July. There are various formats of the test which include the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), the Multistate Performance Test (MPT), the Multistate Examination (MEE), the Uniform Bar Examination, and state specific multiple choice and essays.

Each applicant for the bar exam is also required to provide evidence that they have good moral character, honest conduct, and the ability to perform the obligations and responsibilities of practicing as an attorney. Many states also require applicants to submit a set of fingerprints and provide a list of every place the applicant has lived since the age of 18, every job held, every speeding ticket, any arrests or criminal charges, and any school disciplinary actions. These requirements vary by state.

Advanced Law Degrees

What degrees do lawyer have? Lawyers who wish to specialize in specific concentrations of law may consider enrolling in a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree program. These programs generally last one year and focus on specialized fields, such as business or international law. Requirements vary according to the law school but typically entail 21-26 course credits.

Some law schools may offer joint J.D./LL.M. degree programs, which take 1-1.5 years of study in addition to J.D. degree programs. The ABA does not accredit any legal education programs besides J.D. degree programs.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

In 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported an annual median wage of $122,960 for lawyers in general. The top paying industries at that time included cable and other subscription programming; motion picture and video industries; highway, street, and bridge construction; computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing; and engine, turbine, and power transmission equipment manufacturing. The BLS predicted average growth of 4% for lawyers from 2019-2029. Strong competition for jobs was expected, and lawyers with experience who are willing to relocate will have the best employment prospects.


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