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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Morris Burton

Thinking of Becoming a Lawyer? Part 4: Graduate Law School and Become a Licensed Attorney

[This is the final part of a four-part article. If you didn’t read the first one and you’re trying to decide if you want to go to law school or become a lawyer, go here:]

Law School

The next step in the process of becoming a lawyer is to graduate from law school with a Juris Doctor degree (J.D.).[1] Full-time students would expect to graduate in three years.

There are several surprises for the new law student.

The first thing that many students have not thought about is that, generally, all the students in law school were good students in college. The competition in law school is stiff and you have to be prepared to work hard. Even a student with a high GPA who did not need to work very hard as an undergraduate will need to work hard in law school. Luckily, despite the competition, law students, especially those in their first year, where they are taking the same classes, often form study groups to help one another.

Being able to read a LOT and write very well is key. Law students may read about dozens of cases every night in preparation for the next day’s classes. They have to know and understand details about the cases, and often, how the cases relate to one another. Law school exams, especially in the first year, are usually essay questions that involve synthesizing a lot of material and being able to communicate persuasively.

As discussed in an earlier blog post, law school classes are taught by the Socratic method, so an ability to think on your feet and under pressure is useful. The professor will usually listen to a student’s summary of a case that was part of that day’s reading assignment. Then the professor grills the student on other details or issues and may also change the facts slightly to see if the student understands how different situations may or may not have changed the outcome of the case. This is helpful for being able to apply legal principles to specific facts later in law school and in the practice of law.

To be able to answer questions in class and make sure they understand what they are reading, students write briefs. Briefs are supposed to be that—brief. This involves writing a summary of important facts in the case, the issues that are in dispute, the holding or outcome of the case, and the reasoning behind the outcome. These briefs will help in studying for an exam, as well.

Another surprise is that your grade in most classes is based entirely on ONE TEST. This is one of the biggest differences from undergraduate courses. You may think you are understanding the material and doing well all along, but then find out…not quite. This is good practice, however, for the high-stakes bar exam you will take after you graduate, where it all comes down to a couple of days of testing after three years of hard work.

Most law schools offer very similar first-year courses: Civil Procedure, Criminal Law, Torts, Contracts, Property, Constitutional Law, and Legal Research and Writing. Some schools may require a few extra courses, such as Legal Methods or Trial Advocacy.

This is probably a good time to explain how law students are described. 1L students are first-year law students, while 2L and 3L students are in their second and third years of law school. If a student is going to law school full-time, it will usually take three years to complete the degree.

There are opportunities to gain legal experience while in law school, which will be helpful in getting a job after graduation. Many law schools have free legal clinics connected to them. Students can get legal jobs over the summer breaks. Judicial clerkships are another opportunity to work closely with a judge. My clerkship took place during the academic year and enabled me to discuss cases with the judge and even offered the opportunity for me to draft an opinion that he used to decide a case. Some schools require pro bono (volunteer) work during law school.

There are a variety of competitions law students can participate in, depending on the student’s interests and inclinations. Here is just a sampling: AAJ Student Trial Advocacy Competition, Henry L. Lackey Trial Advocacy Competition, Lone Star Classic, National Animal Law Closing Argument Competition, National Civil Trial Competition, National Criminal Justice Trial Competition, National Medical-Legal Trial Competition, National Mock Trial Competition, National Pretrial Competition, National Trial Advocacy Competition, National Trial Competition, and Criminal Trial Competition.

Even within a school there may be competitions. My law school alma mater now has a moot court competition for the second-year law students. I was fortunate to be able to be a judge last year via Zoom and it was exciting to hear the future lawyers’ arguments!

Law schools have law reviews, which are student-run journals with articles about legal issues or cases. Law reviews publish articles written by law professors, judges, and other legal professionals, as well as ones by students. Usually, students are invited to apply or join the school’s law review at the end of their first year—often because of their high grades or class standing. Being part of the law review is a prestigious honor.

There are usually a variety of extracurricular activities and clubs within a law school. For example, in the law school I attended, there was an agricultural law journal, a law school newspaper, a chapter of the Federalist Society, and the law school fraternity, Phi Alpha Delta, to name just a few. Two fellow law students who were completing the combined J.D./master’s degree in Journalism and I founded a Mass Media Law Society. Getting involved in activities can be enjoyable in its own right, but also provides the opportunity to gain valuable experience or “try out” some possible career paths ahead of time.

After much hard work and hopefully some happy times, the day has finally arrived, and you have graduated from law school! You have a diploma with J.D. on it. You can sit back and relax, right?

Not so quickly. The next step in the process of becoming a lawyer is to take a state bar exam and pass it.

Bar Exam

After law school graduation, most students devote two or three months studying for the bar exam. This is a high stakes exam that will determine if the law school graduate may practice law in the state where he/she desires to. Passing the bar exam is designed to demonstrate competency to practice law at the entry-level in a state.

The coronavirus pandemic made unprecedented changes to states’ bar exams, with exams going virtual for the first time. More than half of the states will still offer a remote exam later this month for the July exams, while 22 are returning to in-person exams.

All law school graduates that want to obtain a license to practice law must apply for bar admission through a state board of bar examiners, usually through the state’s highest court or the state bar association. Each state sets its own criteria for admission to the bar. One requirement that is common is that the applicant received an education from an ABA-approved law school. (This was mentioned in the earlier blog post about choosing a law school.) States also tend to have restrictions on how much of the degree can be completed virtually, as well as accreditation of the undergraduate college attended. Moral character and fitness must also be demonstrated as part of the application process.[2]

Then there’s the testing process. States use the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) or the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), which are designed to test information across states and make grading the tests as fair and uniform as possible. Each state that uses the UBE accepts scores from another state if it meets their minimum score, but there may be time limits. Some states also have additional requirements, such as state-specific testing, performance testing, and essays. Bar exams typically take two or three days to complete.[3]

It is not inexpensive to take a bar exam. The fees for first-time examinees range from $150 in North Dakota to $1,500 in South Carolina. If the exam allows or requires laptops, there is an additional fee.

Not everyone passes the bar exam on his/her first try. The results for the February 2021 exam shows overall passage rates from only 39% of takers in Alabama and California, to 86% in Wyoming.[4]

Most states allow unlimited attempts at passing the bar exam. Less than half have limits of 2-6 times, although some of them allow additional attempts with special permission. Unfortunately for those who do not pass the first time, the passage rate for those taking it more than once is considerably lower than for those taking it for the first time.[5] The good news is that overall, the majority of people who take the bar exam in July (the first one after graduating law school) pass it and become licensed attorneys.

Once the bar exam scores come back and all the other requirements are met (such as the moral fitness assessment)—you are now a licensed attorney! Congratulations![6]

[1] If you are interested in an explanation for why the J.D. degree is a doctoral degree but lawyers are not referred to as “Doctor,” here is one college President’s take: [2] All the information discussed in this section (and more) can be found in the document, Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements 2020, at [3] As anyone who follows Kim Kardashian knows, California also offers what is called the “baby bar,” which allows people who did not graduate from law school to sit for a bar exam and become licensed attorneys, if they meet certain requirements. [4] See statistics at [5] See the chart starting on page 14 to see the passage rates comparison between those taking the bar exam for the first time in 2017 and those taking it more than once: [6] Many states require continuing legal education requirements to ensure that attorneys stay up to date in their law practices. Of the states that require CLEs, they usually require about 10-12 hours per year.

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