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

Law Careers in California

California has the highest employment level of lawyers of any state in the nation as of May 2022, per information provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). At that time, 170,306 lawyers worked in the state, averaging an annual mean wage of $201,530 (making California the second highest-paying state in which lawyers work, District of Columbia is the first). Attorneys working in certain areas of the state made even higher than average salaries. For example, those in the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara metropolitan area averaged $267,840 per year; while lawyers working in the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward metropolitan area averaged $239,330 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 almost 170,000 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 cashier’s check or money order only, payable to the State Bar of California. Mail application, fees and documentation to The State Bar of California, Office of Admissions, 845 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles, CA 90017-2515.


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 two 6-semester courses or 4 3-semester courses from the following:
    • Business
    • Science and Mathematics
    • History and Social Science
    • Foreign Language
    • Composition and Literature (Humanities only)
  • If you wish to register for the CLEP tests, you may do so online. Each exam costs $87, which may be paid online. Have your CLEP scores sent directly to the State Bar’s Office of Admissions, 845 S. Figueroa St; Los Angeles, CA 90017-2525, 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 bachelor’s 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.

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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 Berkeley, Chico, Claremont, Davis, Downtown Los Angeles, Fresno, Fullerton, Irvine, Long Beach, Palo Alto, Pasadena, Riverside, Sacramento, San Diego, San Fernando Valley, San Francisco, San Jose, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and West Los Angeles
  • LSAT Preparation Courses, Kaplan, offered at University of Southern California, Loyola Marymount University, California State University campuses, and University of California Irvine, among other locations
  • LSAT Preparation Course, California State University-Stanislaus,

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 June, September, November, and January, and the test is offered on Saturdays and Mondays 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
  • Berkeley City College, Berkeley
  • DOV Educational Services, Burbank
  • Crowne Plaza, Concord/Walnut Creek
  • Irvine Valley College, Irvine
  • Loyola Law School, Los Angeles
  • University of West Los Angeles, Chatsworth
  • California Northern School of Law, Chico
  • California State University, Chico
  • Alameda County Training & Education Center, Oakland
  • Samuel Merritt University-Health Education Center, Oakland
  • Folsom Lake College, Folsom
  • California State University, Fresno
  • Western State University College of Law at Argosy University, Irvine
  • California State University-Los Angeles
  • Southwestern Law School, Los Angeles
  • University of Southern California, Los Angeles
  • John F. Kennedy School of Law, Pleasant Hill
  • California State University-Northridge
  • University of La Verne College of Law, Ontario
  • Chapman University, Orange
  • La Sierra University, Riverside
  • Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park
  • Lincoln Law School of Sacramento, Sacramento
  • University of the Pacific-McGeorge School of Law, Sacramento
  • Skyline College, San Bruno
  • California Western School of Law, San Diego
  • Junipero Serra High School, San Diego
  • San Diego State University, San Diego
  • Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego
  • University of San Francisco, San Francisco
  • California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
  • University of California-Santa Barbara
  • Empire College School of Law, Santa Rosa
  • Santa Rosa Junior College, Santa Rosa
  • Monterey College of Law, Seaside
  • Humphreys College-School of Law, Stockton


You must pay $180 to register to take the LSAT (as of November 2018). 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.

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: Complete Transcript Request Forms for each institution you have attended, whether or not you graduated from that institution. This goes for both domestic and international schools.
  • 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 $195 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.


Under the rules of the State Bar of California, you may attend an accredited or unaccredited law school. The Bar has rules and guidelines for both schools approved by the American Bar Association and those accredited by the State Bar of California’s Committee of Bar Examiners. They also allow you to complete four years of study, with a minimum of 864 hours of preparation, at a registered, unaccredited correspondence or distance learning law school. There are separate rules for approved/accredited and unaccredited law schools. If a law school is approved 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-approved law schools across the country is included here.

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’s Committee of Bar Examiners, 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:

Registered Unaccredited Correspondence Law Schools:

Online Law Degrees

(For students who choose to focus on a subset of law other than an attorney.)

Registered Unaccredited Distance Learning Law Schools:

Registered Unaccredited Fixed Facility Law Schools:

Course requirements

ABA-Accredited Law Schools

ABA Standard 303 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 must provide at least six semester units of competency training through teaching practical skills. 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, professional responsibility, trusts, wills and succession.

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 six semesters of competency training/practice-based skills.

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 six semesters of competency training/practice-based skills.

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 six semesters of competency training/practice-based skills.

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. Also known as the “baby bar,” this exam must be taken in the following situations:

  • You have completed a full year of study in an unaccredited, registered law school
  • You have completed a full year of study through the Law Office Study Program
  • You have completed a full year of study at a State Bar- or ABA-approved law school but don’t have two years of college work.

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.

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). This application may be submitted 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 over two days in various locations throughout the state.


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 Succession, Trusts and Wills, Torts, Remedies, Real Property, and Professional Responsibility.

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.

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 February 2019 administration of the California Bar Exam are listed here.


At the time of your online application, you will be instructed to pay exam fees. In 2018, the general exam fee is $650. If you plan to use your own laptop to take the exam, an extra fee of $150 is charged.

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. The pass rate for first-time takers of the February 2018 administration of the California Bar Exam was 42.8%. For the July 2017 exam, 61.4% of first-time test-takers passed.

Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE)

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. This is a requirement of the State Bar in order to be able to practice law in California, not just a ritual.

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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, as well as discounts for young attorneys starting out in practice.

Well-known law firms throughout California that may be in need of help include Baker McKenzie LLP in San Francisco; Arnold & Porter in San Francisco and Palo Alto; Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, LLP in Los Angeles; Irell & Manella, LLP in Los Angeles and Newport Beach; and Littler Mendelson P.C. 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 [email protected] or call 415-538-2115.

Court Systems in California

The California Judicial Branch is divided into three sections:

  • Supreme Court – the 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:

2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Lawyers reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2023. 

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