Requirements for a Career in Law

Becoming a lawyer takes work and dedication, but with the right information anyone can prepare for law school. Discover the requirements for a career in law.

portrait of Hannah Biggs
by Hannah Biggs

Published November 3, 2022

Edited by Margaret Weinhold
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Requirements for a Career in Law
Image Credit: Phynart Studio / E+ / Getty Images


Many people are interested in pursuing a career in law — and for good reason. Those who are successful have opportunities to be very well-paid and do work they're passionate about.

But being a lawyer is not the only way to have a successful legal career. Paralegals, law assistants, judges, and clerks all play important roles in guiding clients through the legal process. If you're interested in history, politics, criminal justice, and problem-solving, you might want to consider a career in law.

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What Are Common Law Careers

A person pursuing a career in law has several different options when deciding between careers. Some popular positions include lawyer, judge, paralegal, and legal assistant. And there are options to explore at various experience levels.

Paralegal and legal assistant positions tend to be entry-level jobs. According to Payscale, paralegals made an average of $49,020 a year, and legal assistants earned $42,710 as of 2022.

Lawyers' salaries vary depending on their experience and the type of organization they work for. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), lawyers made a median annual salary of $127,990 a year in 2021, and the top 10% made more than $200,000.

After experience working as a lawyer, a person interested in becoming a judge can seek election or appointment, depending on the court. A judge must have a Juris Doctor (JD) and a minimum of two years of legal experience, although many have more, often decades.

The legal field needs professionals with all levels of experience. Entry-level workers who wish to advance their careers generally have many opportunities to advance their careers.

Which Degree Should You Get to Work in the Legal Field?

Becoming a lawyer requires two degrees over seven years at a minimum. A bachelor's degree generally takes four years to earn, and law school takes three years to complete.

You can choose to obtain an associate degree in law to get your career started. But most people who know they want to become lawyers will start with their bachelor's.

Associate Degree

An associate of law degree can prepare students for the duties of specific jobs in a law office, such as clerk, office assistant, or paralegal.

An associate in applied arts (AAA) usually consists of 60-70 credits completed over two years.

Admittance into this program typically requires a high school diploma or equivalent. Previous coursework in government, history, and economics can also give applicants a leg up. Community colleges and some four-year schools offer AAA degree programs.

This degree is often used as a stepping stone toward a law degree.

Bachelor's Degree

A bachelor's in law is referred to in a few different ways: bachelor of science in legal studies, bachelor of arts in law, or a bachelor's in criminal justice.

Whatever degree you choose can prepare you for law school or entering the workforce. After earning a bachelor's degree, you can pursue a legal role in a law office, such as clerk or paralegal. In these bachelor's degree programs, students learn the theories behind the legal system, as well as their real-world impacts.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), tuition cost $9,400 at four-year public institutions in 2021 and $37,600 at private schools in the same year. Bachelor's degrees typically take four years to complete.

Doctoral Degree

A Juris Doctor qualifies a person to practice law in the U.S. This degree takes about three years to earn.

Keep in mind: The acceptance rates to law school tend to be competitive, and costs vary depending on the program.

A JD program is designed to teach students how to think like lawyers. It will include lots of reading, writing, and critical thinking exercises.

During the first year, students take foundational coursework, such as constitutional law and civil procedure. They then move on to their concentrations — such as tax or international law — in their second and third years.

Master's Degree

A master of law(LL.M.) is completed after a JD and allows a lawyer to dive into their specialty.

This one-year program allows students to focus on concentrations such as environmental law, criminal law, human rights law, or technology law. Students who pursue this degree part time can complete their programs in two years.

Acceptance rates for these programs are often competitive — sometimes as low as 10%.

Steps to Become a Lawyer

It probably comes as no surprise that the most popular role in the field of law is lawyer. These professionals earn high salaries and have the potential to work on interesting cases.

Becoming a lawyer takes time, though. It requires a minimum of seven years of education, the passage of two exams, and knowledge of professional organizations to gain experience.

Required Degrees

To become a lawyer, you must have a bachelor's and a JD. The bachelor's degree can be in any discipline. Many law school students don't have undergraduate backgrounds specifically in law.

The next degree must be a JD from an accredited law school. Students may choose a concentration, like environmental or criminal law, but it's not required.

Students can then go on to earn an LL.M., which is optional, but allows them to specialize in a specific area.

Required Exams

The process of becoming a lawyer varies by state, but generally requires the law school admission test (LSAT) and the bar exam.

The LSAT is taken as an entrance exam before law school. The test is meant to gauge a student's success in law school and focuses on reading comprehension, logic, and reasoning.

The LSAT is a popular admission requirement, however, there are some law schools, such as Harvard and Georgetown, that do not require it.

The bar exam is required to practice law in all states. And most states have adopted the uniform bar exam, which qualifies a person to practice almost anywhere in the country.

Exceptions to this include California, Nevada, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Delaware, Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Hawaii, and Florida. If you wish to practice law in these states, you will need to pass their specific state exams.

Professional Law Organizations

Joining a professional law organization is an opportunity for lawyers, students, and professionals to network, find clients, or take on leadership roles within the organization.

The right professional law organization for you depends on the type of impact you wish to have on the legal community.

One of the best-known professional law organizations is the American Bar Association, a group for current law professionals and students that work to increase diversity.

Other Associations With a Specialty in Law Include:

  • American Health Law Association
  • American Immigration Lawyers Association
  • American Intellectual Property Law Association
  • Black Entertainment and Sports Law Association

What to Include in Your Law Resume

A good law resume is professionally formatted, written concisely, and focuses on experience. Sections should be written simply, using headings and bullet points.

You should include relevant experience, awards, honors, certifications, skills, volunteer work, and education. Experience traditionally comes before education unless you have graduated less than a year ago

Talking points should demonstrate relevant professional skills, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, conflict mediation, technical skills, languages, and legal research.

Pro tip: Using action verbs can make your resume seem more polished and capture reviewers' attention.

Frequently Asked Questions About a Career in Law

Is a career in law worth it?

Yes. A career in law is worth it because of the higher-than-average pay, wide selection of career options, and intellectual stimulation on the job.

But remember that law school is expensive, and the hours can be demanding. However, if you're passionate about launching a career in law, it can be a rewarding career path.

What type of lawyer gets paid the most?

One of the biggest draws toward a career in law is the potential for a high salary. According to Payscale, those in corporate counsel made an average of $124,110 yearly in 2021, and lawyers in general counsel made an average of $171,450.

Earning potential also significantly increases with experience. Many law firm partners make close to $200,000 annually.

These high-paying jobs usually require applicants to possess an excellent GPA from a top-ranked law school, as well as experience with a winning track record.

What undergraduate degree is best for law school?

If you're planning to attend law school, you should start preparing during your undergraduate years. Popular majors for law school include political science, history, economics, and engineering.

Majors focusing on reading, writing, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills can best prepare you for law school. But remember to choose a topic you're passionate about — it might be more useful than you think.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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