Do you want to fight high-stakes legal battles in the courtroom, hold people accountable in civil and criminal matters or otherwise help people navigate the legal process as it pertains to business, adoption, immigration and many other types of matters? If your goal is to be a lawyer, you’re going to need an advanced degree. You should also be prepared for a long process. The education needed to become a lawyer takes a total of seven years, at the minimum, and you must pass the bar exam to acquire a license to practice law in any state.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Lawyer?

Lawyers in the United States must go to law school, where they complete a graduate-level education that culminates in a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. It takes three years to complete law school and earn your JD.

The law schools you apply to should be accredited by the American Bar Association. Many candidates apply to several law schools because getting into law school—and particularly, top law schools, according to U.S. News & World Report—is difficult. To help them choose which law schools to apply to, students should read reports and journals that provide an overview of the best law schools.

Regardless of which law school you end up attending, your first year of study will likely cover similar coursework, according to the Law School Admission Council. First-year students may take classes in the legal method, legal writing, civil and criminal procedure, criminal law, constitutional law, property law, contracts and torts. In addition to learning the factual information presented in their courses, first-year law students also learn how to use the case method approach to education and how to think like a lawyer—which means thinking critically and analytically about changing regulations and their underlying concepts.

You should expect to spend many hours studying while attending law school. The doctoral-level studies required of law school students are a full-time commitment, and students are typically advised against working while in law school. Because you won’t have time to work to support yourself—not to mention paying law school tuition—you should check into financial aid and other programs. Law programs require a lot of dedication and study, so you must work hard to keep your grades up during your first year of law school, not only to succeed academically but also to help you qualify for grants that can make your education more affordable.

At some point during your first year of law school, you will need to take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination, which nearly all jurisdictions in the United States require. Minimum passing scores vary by jurisdiction but typically range from 75 to 86. The lawyers association website PSJD lists passing score requirements for each jurisdiction.

Consider working at summer internship programs in between law school terms. You will gain some experience and build business contacts that can help you when you graduate. While a law school degree is essential to work as a lawyer, law firms also prefer to hire new attorneys who have some real-world experience working in a legal practice environment. 

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Lawyer?

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What Major Do You Need to Be a Lawyer?

The Juris Doctor may be the only degree you officially need to become an attorney, but you can’t get to graduate school without first completing your undergraduate studies. Every law school requires a bachelor’s degree from a university or college. These degree programs typically take four years of full-time study to complete, but it’s not unusual for students to take four-and-a-half, five or even six years to finish their bachelor’s degrees, especially if they change majors during the course of their studies or are enrolled part-time.

Generally, you don’t need a particular major or program of study to get into law school. Juris Doctor programs accept students from a wide array of undergraduate academic backgrounds, each of which offers its own benefits. Among schools that offer pre-law programs for undergraduates, pre-law isn’t a distinct major but instead a track through which students in any liberal arts major may choose to prepare for law school, often through specific coursework, internships and professional development and networking opportunities.

No matter what subject you decide to major in, it’s a good idea to study English, government, history and public speaking. These courses will help you prepare for a law career. Philosophy, economics and mathematics are also important subjects to consider.

During your last year in college, you should register to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). This is a standardized test that provides information about your acquired reading and verbal reasoning skills. The results of this test are used as one factor in determining whether you are accepted to law school. The test is offered several times a year at universities and colleges across the country.

Your undergraduate major and your GPA aren’t the only factors that matter in law school admissions. Aspiring attorneys should get involved in student activities such as debate teams, student government councils and other organizations.

The Best Undergraduate Degrees to Become a Lawyer

During the 2018 through 2019 academic year, the Law School Admission Council reported on the number of law school applicants from more than 150 majors, as well as their average LSAT scores, their undergraduate GPAs, their acceptance rates into law school and other data. According to this report, the top five most popular undergraduate majors for law school students were political science, psychology, criminal justice, English and economics.

Political Science

According to the Law School Admission Council, political science was, by far, the most popular major among law school applicants. Not only did political science majors account for upwards of 17 percent of law school applicants, but 77 percent of these applicants got accepted into law school.

Students with a background in political science tend to perform well on the LSAT admissions exam. They also develop a thorough understanding of the legal system, the judicial system and the lawmaking process. An undergraduate political science curriculum will typically involve coursework in subjects like American government, political theory, political analysis, comparative politics, public policy analysis, American constitutional law and legal process, American judicial behavior and contemporary political ideologies.

Psychology

Among individual majors—those that were not seen so infrequently that they were lumped into the category of “other”—psychology is the next most popular educational path for aspiring attorneys. There were 3,850 law school applicants with a bachelor’s in psychology degree for the 2018 through 2019 school year, compared to 12,967 applicants with a political science degree. Of the psychology majors who applied to law school that year, 2,482, or more than 64 percent, were accepted.

Psychology is the study of thinking and behavior, so it makes sense that developing a strong foundation of knowledge about how people perceive information and why people act the way they do can help you succeed in the study and practice of law. Your knowledge of psychology can help you understand how to put together convincing legal arguments, whether you’re handling criminal matters or civil ones. Psychology is a popular major in general—not just among aspiring lawyers—with 103,801 students earning bachelor’s degrees in this area during the 2017 through 2018 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Plenty of undergraduate psychology majors go on to pursue careers in other areas, so students won’t feel out of place pursuing this program of study even though they don’t plan to become psychologists.

Criminal Justice

If your legal interests lie in the area of criminal law, you might think a criminal justice major would be an ideal choice for preparing to go to law school. This major is almost as popular among law school applicants as psychology, with 3,673 applicants reporting a background in criminal justice for the 2018 through 2019 school year. However, criminal justice majors are significantly less likely to get accepted to law school, with an acceptance rate of just over 50 percent. It’s no coincidence that, on average, criminal justice majors report considerably lower scores on the LSAT compared to applicants from other academic backgrounds that also boast higher law school acceptance rates.

English

Studying English literature has long been a popular choice among students intending to go to law school, and that trend is still going strong, with 3,402 of the 2018 through 2019 applicants reporting this program of study. If you want to go to law school, you must be willing to undertake a curriculum filled with intensive reading and writing demands, so majoring in English is good practice for this path. Your coursework in literature will also require you to develop your analytical skills and your verbal reasoning skills, which are critical for success as an attorney.

Economics

Economics majors report earning high LSAT scores, and more than 69 percent of the 3,235 law school applicants with this major were accepted into a program. When you consider what economics is the study of—the production, distribution and consumption of resources like wealth, goods and services and human behavior in the face of decision-making regarding resources—this makes sense.

Majoring in economics requires students to develop analytical skills that can be applied to quantitative and qualitative situations, both of which you may encounter in the practice of law. For example, if you work in an area of tort law such as personal injury, you might use your quantitative analytical skills to calculate a client’s damages while also using your qualitative analytical skills to put together compelling theories of negligence to prove liability on the part of the defendant.

Ideally, aspiring lawyers will decide they want to pursue this career by the time they are in high school, so they can work to achieve the strong grades, impressive involvement in extracurricular activities and good study habits that can help them get into the best colleges and universities and get on the path to a legal career. 

What to Expect From a Career in Law

Once you finish law school, you will need to determine which type of lawyer you want to be. Some attorneys are general practice lawyers and handle all kinds of legal matters. However, many attorneys focus on building experience and a reputation in the practice of certain types of legal matters. For example, you might become a criminal defense lawyer if you want to represent people charged with crimes. Lawyers who are hired by the government to pursue criminal charges against individuals are known as prosecutors.

Many legal matters pertain to civil, rather than criminal, law. Examples of areas of civil legal practice include real estate law, personal injury law, divorce law and business law. Law school gives you the foundation you need to pursue work in any type of law. As you gain experience in legal practice in one or more of the different specialties of law, you become more knowledgeable about the intricacies of complex legal matters in these areas.

Generally, focusing on specific areas of law will make you better suited than a general practitioner to help clients resolve more complicated legal issues within those specialties. If you’re planning to choose a branch of law to focus on in your career, make sure that you select an area of law that coincides with your interests, skills and personality.

For individuals who can’t bear the idea of having to represent a client accused of committing a heinous crime, criminal defense work is not the right fit. Similarly, if you’re thinking of working in an area of law in which you regularly assist clients dealing with painful situations—like personal injury law, wrongful death law, estate law or family law—then it’s going to be more important that you show compassion and act with empathy than it would be if you were instead handling matters involving business contracts or intellectual property protection. Finding an area of law that fits you, as an individual, is integral to your long-term happiness and success in your career.

The median salary for attorneys was $126,930 per year, as of 2020, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. The job outlook for this career path is also positive, with the BLS expecting opportunities to increase by 9 percent between 2020 and 2030, resulting in a total of 71,500 new job opportunities. 

Related Resources: 

What Jobs, Other Than Being a Lawyer, Will Having a Law Degree Help Me?

I Want to Be a Lawyer. Is a Degree in International Relations Going to be Helpful?

Is the Study of Government Helpful for Me If I Want to Be a lawyer?

What Degree Do I Need to Be a Paralegal?

20 Non-Law Firm Jobs with a Law Degree

For Further Reading: 

Top 10 Graduate Degree Programs in Criminal Justice