Lawyers are among the most respected professionals in the United States, possessing advanced knowledge and skill that puts them in the center of important debates and decisions. To earn this title requires no small amount of effort – in fact, receiving one’s degree and licensure as a lawyer is among the most strenuous educational processes one can take on.
Becoming a lawyer is a challenge by any measure, but driven individuals can take on their education with the knowledge that it will lead them toward a high-power career that will sustain them for years to come.
So where does one start their educational journey as a lawyer? It all depends on your existing educational experience.
Anyone at any level of education can pursue a career in law, but in order to become a licensed lawyer, one needs to complete law school and earn a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree.
If you are far off from that goal, don’t fret: there are ways to begin pursuing your legal education well in advance of beginning graduate school.
This article will cover the fundamentals of a legal education at all levels, helping you understand how you can pursue a career as a lawyer from wherever you are right now. It will also cover alternative career paths in law that do not require a J.D. degree but involve other forms of career training.
To learn about what educational journey is appropriate for you, read on.
The Juris Doctor (J.D.) Degree
When people refer to law school, they are describing graduate programs that culminate in receiving your Juris Doctor (J.D.), which is the degree that makes you eligible to become a licensed lawyer. These programs are for students who aspire to become attorneys, practicing law in various fields. J.D. programs offer comprehensive legal education, equipping students with the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in the legal profession.
A full-time J.D. program is typically three years long, during which time students will receive a thorough education in the law, with subjects including the U.S. Constitution, legal procedure and process, and different types of law, from criminal to contract and everything in between.
One will graduate from a J.D. program with an extensive knowledge of the law as well as the research and writing skills needed to take on the immense responsibilities of an attorney.
Beyond the classroom, law students will usually also take on field work and internship opportunities designed to give them exposure to the ins and outs of attorney’s day to day jobs. These opportunities can often help aspiring lawyers determine which branch of law they would like to specialize in, setting them on the path they will follow for their careers to come. These can include private practice, government service, corporate law, public interest work, and academia.
Requirements for J.D. Programs
A J.D. is a graduate level degree, meaning you are required to already hold a bachelor’s degree in order to apply. You are not required to hold a bachelor’s in a law-related subject in order to qualify for J.D. programs, and in fact, many law schools encourage those with different academic backgrounds to join their programs, as a diversity of disciplinary perspectives can produce a variety of lawyers with different areas of specialization.
(That said, if you don’t yet hold a bachelor’s degree but feel certain you would like to eventually attend law school, there are ways to focus on law in your undergraduate schooling that can help prepare you for a J.D. program. Read the section below for more information.)
In order to apply for J.D. programs, one must take the LSAT. This is a challenging standardized test that is designed to show your competencies in reading, writing, and critical thinking. When applying for law school, set aside serious time to study for the LSAT, as it is critically important to the application process. For more information on the LSAT, read our guide here.
Duration and Classroom Models
A full-time J.D. program will usually take three years to complete, with a select few accelerated programs taking only two years. There are also part-time programs available that usually take four years to complete. These are designed for those who must juggle school with other responsibilities, from their current professional careers to raising children and more.
With the rise of remote learning, more and more law programs are available online or in hybrid in-person/remote models. These can be great options for students for whom attending class in person might be too time consuming, costly, or otherwise inconvenient. However, it’s important to note that the field work / practicum aspect of law school is a critical part of the program, one that can land you your first paid work opportunities in the law arena.
When selecting your JD program, it is imperative to choose schools that are accredited by the American Bar Association. These are the only schools that will make you eligible for licensure as a lawyer, so it’s crucial that you do your research and select wisely. You don’t want to complete the rigorous education of law school only to find you’re not able to practice law.
The Bar Exam
Upon graduating from law school, there is one final significant step for aspiring lawyers: completing the bar exam. This is a notoriously challenging test that requires extensive preparation, as it is designed to measure your legal acumen and expertise. Your JD program is likely to help you prepare for the bar exam, but many students set aside significant amounts of time to study and prepare on their own.
State Licensing Requirements
Finally, to become a working lawyer, one must complete the licensing requirements of their state. These can vary depending on your location, so it is important to look into the exact expectations of the place where you intend to practice. If you are attending law school in the same place that you would like to establish your career, it should be quite easy for you to find this information.
Pre-law Undergraduate Programs
For students who want to pursue careers in law but do not yet hold bachelor’s degrees, it is possible to begin your legal education as an undergraduate by selecting a pre-law concentration or finding a pre-law advisor at your school.
Pre-law undergraduate programs will not make you eligible to become a licensed lawyer, but they can give you extensive grounding in the law that will allow you to start law school ahead of the curve.
Some who hold pre-law bachelor’s degrees are also able to qualify for accelerated JD programs, as they will have covered the introductory coursework of law school in their undergraduate programs.
While pre-law concentrations are not required – and in fact, graduate programs allow students of any disciplinary background to apply – the American Bar Association has stated that government, history, English, political science, and economics can be especially useful to students who would like to specialize in law down the line.
Alternative Paths in Law
Beyond the traditional law school paradigm, it is also possible to pursue other careers in law that are not full-blown attorney positions. These can be lucrative and rewarding careers that draw from similar skills and bodies of knowledge as those of an attorney but require less time in school and less testing. Some also choose to use these professional experiences as stepping stones to their eventual jobs as lawyers.
Those who wish to work in law without necessarily taking on the extensive educational requirements of law school have an excellent opportunity in the paralegal career path.
Paralegals play critical roles on legal teams, contributing greatly to case management and client communication.
This is a job where you can build your legal acumen and see how your efforts have contributed to positive outcomes in serious legal work. While paralegals were once seen as assistants to lawyers, their roles have expanded greatly, making it a job that some choose to stick with for the entirety of their careers.
While there is no formal expectation for the education you must have as a paralegal, there are degree programs that can help you gain the specific skills and knowledge you need to become an attractive candidate at law firms. These include:
- Paralegal associate programs
- Paralegal undergraduate concentrations (such as a Bachelor’s in Paralegal Studies)
- Paralegal certificate programs
For more information on becoming a paralegal, visit our guide here.
Online Law and Legal Studies Programs
In addition to paralegal roles, there are many jobs in the world of law that do not require one to hold a J.D. degree or to pass the bar exam. These are excellent options for people interested in developing sustainable and engaging careers in the world of law without necessarily undertaking the rigorous workload required to become an attorney.
Those who are interested in these non-attorney legal careers can still receive a fantastic and thorough education in law without attending a J.D. program.
They typically decide to pursue undergraduate degrees in legal studies. These can include Bachelor of Law (LLB) degrees, which will not qualify you for attorney licensure but will build your expertise in the law, making you eligible for excellent career opportunities.
Some of the job titles of non-lawyer careers in law include the following:
- Legal secretary
- Court reporter
- Court stenographer
- Law clerk
This education can also be valuable for people working in other professions who are interested in focusing their work on law-related subjects.
Career Spotlight: Legal Journalists
Do you have a love of writing, research, and the law, but think your skills would be better suited to a career outside of the traditional law arena? One fantastic option is to become a legal journalist. These professionals do important work in illuminating complex legal issues for the general public, putting a spotlight on the most important legal cases of the day. This is a job that requires an intensive knowledge of the law and tremendous skills as a writer, as you will oftentimes be translating “legalese” into terminology that is more accessible for people who don’t have law degrees.
Legal journalists can be incredibly impactful in society, awakening the public to causes that they otherwise might not be able to follow and understand. These can include supreme court decisions, issues related to civil rights, voting-related policy, and more. If you would like to be an advocate for accountability and transparency in the law, this is an excellent and deeply rewarding career path for you.
Learn More About Lawyer Educational Paths
For even more information about the educational paths available for lawyers, take a look at our individual program pages. To start, choose the education level that best describes you:
Is there any way to become a lawyer without a J.D.?
No. A J.D. degree and qualifying bar exam are widely accepted as the benchmarks for establishing a serious career as a lawyer. However, there are ways to work slowly toward receiving your J.D., as well as law-related careers such as those listed above that can be compelling opportunities for those who do not wish to attend law school.
Is law school free?
Typically, it is not, though many schools offer scholarships and there are many private and nonprofit organizations offering tuition awards to qualifying students. If you are not able to get your J.D. degree program funded, you can take solace in the knowledge that law programs prepare you for high-earning careers that often get started as soon as you are done with your graduate program. Some are even able to find paid internships while in school. These can go a long way in offsetting the cost of law school.
Can paralegals attend accelerated law school programs?
Usually, paralegals will still be expected to attend three-year J.D. programs, though they are likely to come in with a greater level of knowledge of the law – in particular case procedure – than many of their classmates. This is because while paralegals do often gain a significant foundation in constitutional law, there are no formal metrics to measure what one has learned in their experience as a paralegal.