State By State Requirements to Become a Lawyer

Steps to become a Lawyer/Attorney in California

Follow the step by step process or choose what situation that best describes you:

  1. Get my California Undergraduate Pre-Law Education
  2. Take the LSAT (Law School Admission Test)
  3. Go to Law School in California
  4. Take the California State Bar Exam
  5. Now that You’ve Been Admitted to the Bar
California map

Featured California Juris Doctorate Option:

Law Careers in California

California has the highest employment level of lawyers of any state in the nation as of May 2011, per information provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). At that time, 67,260 lawyers worked in the state, averaging an annual mean wage of $156,570 (making California the second highest-paying state in which lawyers work). Attorneys working in certain areas of the state made even higher than average salaries. For example, those in the Glendale-Long Beach-Los Angeles metropolitan area averaged $167,300 per year; while lawyers working in the San Mateo-San Francisco-Redwood City metropolitan area averaged $175,130 annually. Additionally, California is the first state in the country that offers certification in legal specialization areas to  members of the Bar, offering them the opportunity to show their expertise in one of 11 areas of law practice (including admiralty and maritime law, bankruptcy law, criminal law and taxation law). Read on to discover how to join the over 65,000 practicing attorneys in California.
 
Step 1

Get Your California Undergraduate Pre-Law Major

The State Bar of California mandates that you must have at least two years of an undergraduate education (equal to 60 semester hours or 90 quarter hours). Alternatively, you may complete the equivalent through passing certain exams in the College Level Exam Program (CLEP) (see below).

If you are not sure that your pre-legal education qualifies, you may apply to have it evaluated by the Bar. This application must be accompanied by your official college transcripts and a fee of $100 by check payable to the State Bar of California. Mail application, fees and documentation to State Bar’s Office of Admissions, 1149 S. Hill Street; Los Angeles, CA 90015-2299.

Accreditation

Check to make sure that your undergraduate institution is accredited by a national or regional accreditation agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. If it is, it will make your later acceptance into an American Bar Association-approved law school much easier.

Requirements and Standards

While the State Bar of California does not specify an undergraduate degree you must have prior to law school admission, there are some guidelines based upon CLEP test exemptions. If you have not completed at least two years of undergraduate studies, the State Bar has ruled that passing the following CLEP tests with a score of 50 or higher on each will fulfill the pre-legal education requirement:

  • College Composition and Modular (you must pass this test)
  • You must pass two of the following examinations, each intended  to be equivalent to a full-year course of 6 semester hours, or four examinations, each intended to be equivalent to a semester course of 3 semester hours:
    • Humanities examination (covers composition and literature)
    • Foreign language
    • History and social science
    • Science and mathematics
    • Business
  • If you wish to register for the CLEP tests, contact The College Board, P. O. Box 6600, Princeton, NJ 08541-6600 or call -800-257-9558. If you take CLEP exams, have your CLEP scores sent directly to the State Bar’s Office of Admissions, 1149 S. Hill Street; Los Angeles, CA 90015-2299, recipient code 7165.

Degree Options

The State Bar of California has ruled that you must complete at least 60 semester hours (90 quarter hours) of pre-legal education, equivalent to at least half the requirements for a bachelors degree. This coursework must be completed with a grade point average that would be acceptable for graduation by the institution at which it was completed.


  
  

Pre- Law Advisor

Some undergraduate institutions employ pre-law advisors, whose job it is to assist students planning to attend law school. This assistance may come in the form of helping you choose wise courses and majors, writing letters of recommendation, and assisting you in gathering documentation when it comes time to apply to law school. If your school offers the services of a pre-law advisor, by all means take advantage of this valuable resource. 

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Step 2

Take the LSAT (Law School Admission Test) in California

The State Bar of California does not mandate that you graduate from an American Bar Association –accredited law school. However, ABA accredited or not, most law schools require that you pass the LSAT, or Law School Admission Test, to gain entrance. Check with your school’s requirements to make sure.

How to prepare

The LSAT website provides sample questions and practice tests to help you prepare to take the exam. Additionally, preparation courses, workshops and seminars are offered in live settings and online:

LSAT Exam Prep Courses in California:
  • LSAT Test Prep Course, Testmasters, locations in Bakersfield, Berkeley, Burbank, Claremont, Davis, Downtown Los Angeles, Fresno, Fullerton, Irvine, La Jolla, Long Beach, Palo Alto, Pasadena, Riverside, Sacramento, San Diego, San Fernando Valley, San Francisco, San Jose, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, and West Los Angeles
  • LSAT Preparation Workshop, BTPS Testing, offered San Francisco State University, and California State University campuses in Fullerton, Long Beach and Northridge
  • LSAT Prep Forum, UCLA Pre-Law Society, 308 Westwood Plaza, Los Angeles, CA 90024
  • LSAT Prep Course, ScoreItUp- University of California-Irvine, Orange County, CA
  • LSAT Test Prep, California State University-Sacramento, 6000 J St, Sacramento, CA 95819

Exam content

There are four sections to the LSAT:
  • Reading Comprehension – You will be presented with four reading passages and 27 questions, totaling 35 minutes. You must also write a 25-minute essay based on a passage. Your abilities to draw inferences from the passages, determine their main ideas, and understand and find information that is relevant will be tested in this section.
  • Analytical Reasoning – This section consists of 25 questions and takes 35 minutes. It will test your abilities to understand the effects of rules on outcomes and decisions, draw relationships between concepts, analyze problems, draw conclusions based on guidelines, and apply logic to complex situations.
  • Logical Reasoning – There are two logical reasoning sections, each taking 35 minutes and consisting of 25 questions. Your abilities to determine the main point of an argument, apply logic to abstract ideas, discover relevant information in a reading passage, analyze arguments, and evaluate arguments will be tested.
  • Essay Section- This section takes 35 minutes to complete, and tests your ability to form an argument based on facts you are provided, support an argument, and  express ideas in writing.

Application process

Applications to sit for the LSAT are submitted online. You may choose a date in the months of February, December June or October, and the test is offered on Saturdays and Wednesdays during those months. Each test center does not offer the test on every date, however, so check with the test center that you prefer for its dates:

  • College of Alameda, Alameda
  • Humboldt State University, Arcata
  • University of California-Berkeley
  • Woodbury University, Burbank
  • University of West Los Angeles, Chatsworth
  • California Northern School of Law, Chico
  • California State University, Chico
  • San Joaquin College of Law, Clovis
  • Whittier Law School, Costa Mesa
  • Folsom Lake College, Folsom
  • California State University, Fresno
  • Western State University College of Law, Fullerton
  • California State University-East Bay, Hayward
  • University of West Los Angeles School of Law, Inglewood
  • Concordia University-Irvine
  • Irvine Valley College, Irvine
  • California State University-Los  Angeles
  • Southwestern Law School, Los Angeles
  • University of California-Los Angeles
  • University of Southern California, Los Angeles
  • Pepperdine University School of Law, Malibu
  • Saddleback College, Mission Viejo
  • East Los Angeles College, Monterey Park
  • California State University-Northridge
  • California Ballroom/Conference Center, Oakland
  • University of La Verne, Ontario
  • Chapman University, Orange
  • University of Redlands, Redlands
  • La Sierra University, Riverside
  • University of California-Riverside
  • Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park
  • Lincoln Law School of Sacramento, Sacramento
  • University of the Pacific-McGeorge School of Law, Sacramento
  • California State University-San Bernardino
  • Alliant International University, San Diego
  • California Western School of Law, San Diego
  • Patrick Henry High School, San Diego
  • Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego
  • University of San Diego, San Diego
  • Hastings College of the Law, San Diego
  • San Francisco Law School, San Francisco
  • San Francisco State University, San Francisco
  • University of San Francisco, San Francisco
  • California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
  • University of California-Santa Barbara
  • Westmont College, Santa Barbara
  • Santa Clara University, Santa Clara
  • University of California-Santa Cruz
  • Empire College School of Law, Santa Rosa
  • Santa Rosa Junior College, Santa Rosa
  • Monterey College of Law, Seaside
  • Humphreys College-School of Law, Stockton
  • Rio Hondo College, Whittier

Fees

You must pay $160 to register to take the LSAT (based upon the April 2012 fee schedule). This fee is payable online by credit card when you register or by check or money order payable to the Law School Admission Council.

Receiving Your Score

Your LSAT score will be emailed to you by the LSAC three weeks after you sit for the exam. You will not be told your score if you call the LSAC office, due to confidentiality clauses. Only you and law schools to which you will apply will receive your LSAT score. You may request that your pre-law advisor receive your LSAT score by filing a release of information form with the LSAC.

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Step 3

Go to Law School in California

Application process

Once you have completed your undergraduate pre-law education and passed the LSAT, you are ready to apply to law school. Certain law schools require documentation that other schools may not. Refer to this list of documents and services required by ABA-approved law schools across the nation.

Credential Assembly Service

All ABA-accredited law schools, and some that are not ABA-accredited, require applicant to make use of LSAC’s Credential Assembly Service when applying for enrollment. This valuable service makes the application process streamlined. If you use the CAS:

  • Transcripts: Ask all institutions where you took classes for credit (whether or not you received a degree) to send official copies of your transcripts to the  LSAC, Law School Admission Council,662 Penn Street,PO BOX 2000-M,Newtown PA 18940-0993. If you attended any schools outside of the United States, those transcripts must go to LSAC, 662 Penn Street, PO BOX 8502, Newtown PA 18940-8502.
  • Letters of Recommendation and Evaluations: Give the LSAC names of people who are going to write your letters of recommendation and evaluate your work and/or character. The LSAC will instruct you to print forms to give to these individuals. These forms must be sent along with the recommendation letters they will mail directly to the LSAC.
  • Cost: The LSAC charges $155 for the Credential Assembly Service, which is payable online. This fee encompasses the summaries of your college transcripts that LSAC will produce, law school reports they will create, letters of recommendation and online evaluations they will process, and electronic applications they will submit on your behalf to the ABA-approved law schools of your choice.  

Accreditation

Under rules of the State Bar of California, you may attend an accredited or unaccredited law school. The Bar has rules and guidelines for both accredited and unaccredited law schools. If a law school is accredited by the American Bar Association, it is automatically exempt from the State Bar of California accreditation rules and considered to be approved by the State Bar. A list of current ABA-accredited law schools across the country is included here.

Featured JD Degree Options:

ABA-Accredited Law Schools in California

The following California law schools hold ABA accreditation:

State Bar-Accredited law schools in California

Accredited law schools have been approved by the State Bar of California, which oversees and regulates these schools. Law schools in California that are currently approved by the State Bar are:

Unaccredited law schools in California

Unaccredited law schools in California must still register with the State Bar. These include correspondence, distance-learning and fixed-facility law schools in the state. Currently registered and unaccredited law schools in the state include:

Correspondence Law Schools:

Online Law Degrees





Other Distance Learning Law Schools:

Fixed Facility Law Schools:

Course requirements

ABA-Accredited Law Schools
ABA Standard 302 lists the curriculum areas that an ABA-approved law school must cover. These include law, legal analysis, reasoning, legal research, oral communication, problem solving, legal writing, history of the legal profession, professional responsibility, and live client interactions through things such as field placement or pro bono work. An academic year must last at least eight calendar months over 130 days. You must complete 83 semester hours of credit to graduate, and the time it takes to receive your Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree must be at least 24 months long but may not take longer than 84 months.

State Bar-Accredited Law Schools
In order to receive a J.D. degree from a State Bar-accredited law school, you must complete at least 1200 hours of study or 80 semester hours of credit over a period of at least 90 weeks of full-time study or 120 weeks of part-time study. This course of study must take you at least 32 months to complete but no longer than 84 months to complete. The school may or may not have an externship or clinical field placement program. The curriculum must include the subjects tested in the California State Bar Exam and a course in professional responsibility. Therefore, subjects that must be taken are Constitutional law, contracts, criminal law and procedure, evidence, real property, remedies, community property, torts, business associations, Federal civil procedure, California civil procedure; Community Property; Federal evidence, California evidence,  ethics, California Business & Professions Code, ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, and ABA Model Code of Professional Responsibility) trusts, wills and succession under the California Probate Code, and the Uniform Commercial Code.

Unaccredited Law Schools: Fixed Facility
To graduate from an unaccredited, fixed facility law school in California, you must complete a four-year program requiring at least 270 hours of class attendance per year. The curriculum must cover the subjects tested on the California State Bar Exam (see above), and include a course in professional responsibility. It may or may not include an externship/internship/clinical field placement program.

Unaccredited Law Schools: Correspondence
To graduate from a correspondence law school in California, you must complete a four-year program requiring at least 864 hours of preparation and study per year. The curriculum must cover the subjects tested on the California State Bar Exam (see above), and include a course in professional responsibility. It may or may not include an externship/internship/clinical field placement program.

Unaccredited Law Schools: Distance Learning
To graduate from a distance learning law school in California, you must complete a four-year program requiring at least 864 hours of preparation and study per year. The curriculum must cover the subjects tested on the California State Bar Exam (see above), and include a course in professional responsibility. It may or may not include an externship/internship/clinical field placement program.

Study in a Law Office or Judges’ Chambers
Under Rule 4.29 of the State Bar of California, you may complete your legal education in a law office or judges’ chambers. This must be equivalent to four years of legal study in an unaccredited law school. You must study for at least 18 hours a week for 48 weeks to equal one year of study. Your study must be supervised by an attorney or judge who has been a member of the state bar in good standing for at least five years, who personally supervises you for at least five hours each week, and examines you at least once per month. This supervisor must report to the Bar every six months on a special form the number of hours and type of study completed.

Foreign Law Schools
If you attended a foreign law school, you may qualify for California bar admission if you meet one of the following requirements:

  • Have a law degree from a foreign law school and have completed one year of legal education at an ABA-approved or State Bar of California-accredited law school
  • Have a legal education (without a degree) from a foreign law school and have studied law in a U.S. law school, law office or judge’s chambers, and have passed the First-Year Law Students’ Examination

First-Year Law Students’ Examination

Under certain circumstances, you may need to pass the First-Year Law Students’ Examination. It may be taken once you have completed a full year of study in law school. Given in June and October every year in Los Angeles and San Francisco, this seven-hour exam includes essay and multiple-choice questions. Subjects that are covered are criminal law, contracts and torts, plus the Uniform Commercial Code Articles 1 and 2.  Deadlines to register for the June administration are April 1 and for the October administration, August 1. You may apply for this exam online.  Make sure to register with the Bar as a law student before filing to take the exam.

You do not need to take the First-Year Law Students’ Examination if any of the following conditions apply:

  • You have completed at least one year of law school at an ABA-accredited law school and have been advanced to the second year of instruction
  • You are exempt because ;you have a law degree from a foreign law school and have completed at least one year of legal education at an ABA-approved law school

Degree Programs

Under State Bar of California rules, it is preferred that you have a Juris Doctor (J.D.) or Bachelor of Laws (L.L.B.) degree from a law school that is accredited by the American Bar Association or the State Bar of California in order to become a member of the California Bar. Alternatively, you may provide proof that you have studied law for at least four years in a registered, unaccredited school (or in a law office or judges’ chambers as specified above) and passed or received exemption from the First-Year Law Students’ Exam.

Moral Character Determination Application

The State Bar of California requires that all applicants for bar admission submit a Moral Character Determination application. They recommend that you begin this process during your final year of law school, as it may take up to 180 days to get the results. If you pass the bar exam but do not have a completed moral character determination, you will not become a bar member.  Make sure that you have first registered with the Bar as a law student (which you should have done when you took the First –Year Law Students’ Exam). Once the application has been submitted online, you must print, sign, and mail a paper copy to the State Bar’s Office of Admissions, 1149 S. Hill Street; Los Angeles, CA 90015-2299. Any supplemental forms you may be asked to print and submit may be found here. Fees will be disclosed when you apply online.

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Step 4

Take the California State Bar Exam

Once you have completed your pre-legal and legal education and met the state bar’s requirements, and if you are at least 18 years old, you may apply to take the California bar exam.  It is given in February and July on the last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of the month in Northern and Southern California.

Preparation

Free and low-cost study aids for the California bar exam are provided at the State Bar of California website. They include study outlines and sample questions, as well as questions and answers from past exams
The National Conference of Bar Examiners website provides free study resources for the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) portion of the California bar exam.
 
Should you wish to take a bar exam preparation course or workshop, many are available throughout California. They include:

Exam content

During the first day of the exam, you will have three essay questions in the morning and one performance test in the afternoon. Subjects that you can expect to encounter include Constitutional law, contracts, criminal law and procedure, evidence, real property, remedies, community property, torts, business associations, Federal civil procedure, California civil procedure; Community Property; Federal evidence, California evidence,  ethics, California Business & Professions Code, ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, and ABA Model Code of Professional Responsibility) trusts, wills and succession under the California Probate Code, and the Uniform Commercial Code.

On the second day of the exam, you will take the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), of the National Conference of Bar Examiners. This is a six-hour long exam consisting of 200 multiple-choice questions. You will be tested on your knowledge of Constitutional law, contracts, criminal law and procedure, evidence, real property, and torts.

The third exam day, you will have three essay questions in the morning and one performance test in the afternoon. You can expect to be faced with the same subject matter you prepared for on day one of the exam.

Application Process

You must first register as a law student with the State Bar of California Office of Admissions. You may register online to do this, as well as register online to take the California Bar Exam. Your registration with the bar must be approved within 10 days of submitting your bar exam application. You must provide your social security number before you will be allowed to register. Do not use a Tax Identification Number. Once your online application has been successfully submitted, you will receive a confirmation email from the state bar. The bar will then send forms to all schools you attended asking them to certify that you have met the pre-legal and legal education requirements. Schools must also submit official transcripts to the bar’s Office of Admissions.

Testing centers for the July 2012 administration of the California Bar Exam are listed here.

Fees

At the time of your online application, you will be instructed to pay exam fees.  In 2012, the general exam fee is $614 if paid on time. A late filing fee of $50 will be incurred if you file 30 days late, and of $250 if you file more than 30 days late. If you wish to use your laptop in the examination, an additional fee of $139 is added.

Pass Rates

Your exam results will be mailed to you no later than four months after you take the exam. You may also access them online on a date that will be issued to you post-exam. Pass rates for first-time takers of the February 2011 administration of the California Bar Exam were 54.7%. For the July 2011 exam, 68.4% of first-time test takers passed.

Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination

In addition to passing the Bar exam, you must pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). This exam is typically taken after completing the first year of law school. Information and study guides for the MPRE can be found at the National Conference of Bar Examiners website.

Licensing and Admission to the Bar

You must apply for admission to the Bar within five years of passing the bar exam. You will be notified of the time and place for you to participate in a ceremony and take the oath of office.

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Step 5

Now that You’ve Been Admitted to the California Bar

Congratulations, new member of the California Bar! If you are in your first five years of practice or under the age of 36, you are also automatically a part of the California Young Lawyers Association. This group offers valuable resources to young lawyers in the state, including The California Guide to Opening and Managing a Law Office, You Passed the Bar Exam – Now What? and various resources and discounts for young attorneys starting out in practice.

Well-known law firms throughout California that may be in need of help include Baker & McKenzie in San Francisco; Arnold & Porter, LLP in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley;  Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, LLP in Los Angeles; Irell & Manella, LLP in Los Angeles and Newport Beach; and Littler in Sacramento, San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco.

Requirements for maintaining license

California attorneys are required to complete 25 hours of approved minimum continuing legal education (MCLE) every three years. You must report your MCLE online through My State Bar Profile system. You will be assigned a Compliance Group by the State Bar based upon your last name, and must report MCLE for a three-year period based upon your group’s deadline.

Legal Specialization

The State Bar of California offers the nation’s first legal specialty certification program that is affiliated with a bar organization, through the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization. If you are interested in practicing in a specialized area of law, you can show your expertise through examination and become certified to practice in that area. Currently, 11 areas of specialized certification are offered in California:

  • Admiralty and maritime law
  • Appellate law
  • Bankruptcy law
  • Criminal law
  • Estate planning, trust and probate law
  • Family law
  • Franchise and distribution law
  • Immigration and nationality law
  • Legal malpractice law
  • Taxation law
  • Workers’ compensation law

Additionally, the State Bar of California recognizes the following national certification organizations for lawyers:

For more information on legal specialization in California, contact LegalSpec@calbar.ca.gov or call 415-538-2120.

Court Systems in California

The  California Judicial Branch is divided into three sections:

  • Supreme Court – highest court in the state, can review decisions of the Court of Appeal and all death penalty sentences. Located at 350 McAllister Street, San Francisco, CA 94102-4797
  • Courts of Appeal – this court reviews superior court decisions contested by a party to the case. There are six appellate districts in California, each with a Court of Appeal:
    • 1st District- 350 McAllister Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
    • 2nd District-
      • Divisions 1-5, 7, 8 - Ronald Reagan State Building 300 S. Spring Street 2nd Floor, North Tower Los Angeles, CA 90013
      • Division 6 - Court Place 200 East Santa Clara Street Ventura, CA 93001
    • 3rd District- 621 Capitol Mall, 10th Floor, Sacramento, CA 95814
    • 4th District-
      • Division 1- 750 B Street, Suite 300,San Diego, CA 92101
      • Division 2- 3389 Twelfth Street, Riverside, CA 92501
      • Division 3- 601 W. Santa Ana Blvd., Santa Ana, California 92701
    • 5th District- 2424 Ventura Street, Fresno, CA 93721
    • 6th District- 333 West Santa Clara Street, Suite 1060, San Jose, CA 95113
  • Superior/Trial Courts58 courts throughout California, one in each county, that hear civil cases, criminal cases, family, probate and juvenile cases.

Elective membership organizations

Now that you are a member of the California Bar, think about joining a professional support organization such as:

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California Resources

General Resources

Law Exams

Lawyer Career Specialties

  California Statistics:
 
CA Active Lawyers 67,260
Average Annual Wage $156,570
  

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