What Does It Take To Be A Lawyer?

Okay, this doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with bankruptcy or debt relief. But I was doing some presentations at local high schools in May and some of the students were considering a career in law. I’ve also had clients and friends ask what I had to do to become an attorney. I thought this would be a fine place to answer that question. I promise to get back to bankruptcy topics next time.

The first step was obtaining a college degree. I got my B.A. from Luther College in Decorah, IA. So far as I know, there is no “pre-law” degree; there are just courses you can take that will prepare you for law school. I was a music major, and I know other attorneys who majored in English, engineering, and political science. I don’t know of any law schools that require an undergrad major in any particular field. I would advise a college freshman considering law school to take extra writing classes, logic classes (or anything else that encourages critical thinking, like philosophy), and history courses.

As you may know, I taught music for awhile after I graduated from Luther. Some people work after graduation, others go straight from undergrad to law school. In either case, law school applicants must take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). The LSAT is given four times per year and consists of five multiple choice sections (35-minutes per section) and a writing sample. Scores range from 120 to 180. The only people who will care about your score are the law school admission staffers. In fact, I don’t even remember my score anymore, even though it was quite important to me back in June of 2004. This site will show you what the average LSAT scores are for accepted students at various schools.

Once you’ve taken the LSAT, you apply to law schools. There are plenty of websites out there that explain how to get into the law school of your dreams, so I won’t bother. Suffice it to say, I was admitted to law school and started in August 2005.

The typical law school “career” is three years of full-time study. Some students choose to work while in school and take a lighter class load, so school might last four years for them. Most schools require the same core classes the first year: Civil Procedure, Torts, Property, Contracts, and Legal Writing/Research.

There’s a lot of flexibility in the second and third years, when students take more classes that focus on specific areas of law. For example, I knew I wanted to practice bankruptcy law when I got out of school. In my second year, I took Bankruptcy, Creditor/Debtor Relations, Income Tax, and Secured Transactions. The rest of my classes in my second and third years were a mix of requirements (i.e. Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Evidence) and personal interests (i.e. Family Law, Legal History, Estates & Trusts). I really enjoyed law school and made some great friends. It was difficult, especially with the four-hour one-way commute each week, but definitely worth the hard work.

After graduation from law school, the only thing standing between me and a new career was the bar exam. Wisconsin allows those who graduate from one of the two state law schools (UW-Madison and Marquette) to practice law without taking the bar exam, but the rest of us are required to pass the exam. The bar exam is a two-day test that is given twice each year. I won’t bore you (or frighten you) with the details. Let’s just say that I didn’t do much but study from graduation in mid-May until the exam in late July. I found out in early September that I had passed and would be sworn in on October 6.

So that’s the story. College, LSAT, law school, bar exam. Those are the four basic steps to becoming a lawyer. It took a lot of hard work, but it was worth it to me. I hope you found this interesting. If you’re interested in going to law school, or are just curious about my experiences, please comment below. I’ll do my best to reply within a couple of days. Thanks for reading!

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  1. What’s neat about being a lawyer is to work with people and try to supply perspective and answers about real life problems. I see lawyering as problem solving, and educating clients. Thirty two years in and I still love it.

    • The fact that every case is different is also interesting. As you know, there are no routine cases that can be handled without putting thought into every step.

      For those of you who don’t know, Cathy Moran is a nationally respected bankruptcy attorney working out of the San Francisco area. Not only does she handle bankruptcy cases for clients, she also devotes a lot of time to teaching and mentoring new bankruptcy attorneys. I’ve learned a lot from her. Thanks for reading and commenting, Cathy!

  2. Wow..loved reading this and it was very helpful. Trying to start from the bottom and make it to were you to great successful people are. So many of my questions you have answered without me having to ask. Really needed to year that. Im starting at a community college..in what ways will that make my journey even more harder if any at all?

    • I don’t think it will make things harder, but it might take a little longer. Most accredited law schools require a bachelor’s degree. If your community college only offers an associates degree, you would likely need to get your bachelor’s degree before applying to law school.

      Once you’ve got a bachelor’s degree, use this helpful checklist provided by the Law School Admission Council to determine what other documents you need: http://www.lsac.org/jd/apply/lsat-cas-checklist.asp

      Thanks for reading and good luck!

  3. I feel like a college senior about to embark on an “unexpected journey”(to borrow the phrase from The Hobbit), but, I must take a reality test. Do you know of any person 54 yrs., or older, who had a year of college(or probably less),extremely studious & curious, enjoyed reading law journals, articles etc., decided to go to college got their degree, sat for the lsat, admitted into law school, passed the bar and is actively practicing law? Or in all practicality, thought it a bit “too-late” in life to be of any service to anyone in that regard? (Secretly hoping you do?) Thanks for considering my Q.

    • I don’t know of anyone who started the process at that age, but I would be willing to bet it’s happened. If you were to start undergrad at 54, you could graduate at age 57 (assuming you already have some credits under your belt). You could finish law school at 60, take the bar exam that summer, and be practicing by the fall.

      Given the expense involved and depending on the length of time you’d want to practice before retiring, it might not be a cost effective plan. But money isn’t the only consideration. If you can afford it and enjoy learning, why not go for it? A lot of people simply like to learn. I wouldn’t do it if the plan is to bank a couple of million dollars for retirement. But I wouldn’t hesitate if the goal is to take up an exciting challenge and practice law for 10 years or so. Good luck!

  4. I’m only 12 and going to the 6th grade and I’m thinking about being a lawyer when i grow up and i have a few questions

    1.How long do you have to go to school?
    2. How do i know that i would be a great lawyer?
    3.What advice would you gave me to help me become a greet lawyer when i grow up?

    • 1. Typically seven years after high school. You would have to get your bachelor’s degree (usually 4 years of college) and then three years of law school.

      2. I can’t answer that. But if you have the ability and desire to learn, you should do well in law school. Whether you could translate that into becoming a great lawyer would partially depend on the training you received in your first job. Law school usually teaches you how to think like a lawyer, but only experience teaches how to practice law.

      3. Do your best in high school so you can get into a good college. In college, do your best so you can get into a good law school. Take a lot of writing courses, as you’ll be doing a lot of writing in law school. A few classes in politics/government/history would be good to help you understand the Constitution and the basis for our laws. In law school, take classes in all different areas of law. Unless you have a passion for one area of practice, you might find that you have a real talent for contracts, real estate transactions, or tort litigation.

      Good luck!

  5. Thank you for your post! I am an adult college student who works full time and also taking college courses. I have been with the same insurance company for 15 years and love the negotiation/investigation part of the process. Right now I am smack in the middle of dilemma of what I really want to do with my degree/life. What I mean is, what would be fullfilling to me overall. A lawyer is one of the options I think I would succeed in. I am pursuing my BA in Business Management at this time and I know it is just a technicality. I could stay with my own company and eventually move into leadership but I want to know what further options/roles I could pursue. This post has helped me with options to consider and gives me a realistic view of the requirements needed. Again, Thank you!

    • Thanks for reading. Good luck in whichever path you choose!

  6. Love this! I have been reading some pretty harsh articles about how terrible a decission it is going to law school.

    I am a thirty four year old machinist. Defended myself successfully three times. Beat a city prosecutor, insurance company, and a real estate company. I am a published writer, and scored between 170 and 178 on my practice LSATS…finally starting law school in the fall or next spring…i hope its the right choice

    • Thanks for reading. I suppose it’s a terrible decision for some people, but it worked out well for me. As long as you have good writing skills and enjoy reading, I see no reason why it wouldn’t work out for you also. It’s not easy, but it can be rewarding. Good luck!

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