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What Education or Type of Degree Is Needed to Be a Lawyer?

Potential lawyers earn Juris Doctor (J.D.) degrees to practice law. The education path typically takes a total of seven years to complete, including four years undergraduate coursework and three years of law school. After earning J.D. degrees, some lawyers choose to specialize in a particular area of law by earning advanced degrees.

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Undergraduate Degree

A bachelor's degree is required for admission into law school. Although the American Bar Association (ABA) notes that there's no specific undergraduate major that best prepares aspiring lawyers for law school, it suggests that students complete coursework that stress problem-solving, writing, critical reading, research and oral communication (www.americanbar.org). Accordingly, students may consider completing courses in English, political science, business, economics and mathematics.

Juris Doctor (J.D.) Degree

Admissions

Admission to J.D. degree programs is generally competitive. All ABA-approved law schools require applicants to sit for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Along with LSAT scores, admission is determined by an applicant's education, work experience, propensity for law and general character. Some applicants may be required to sit for interviews and submit certified transcripts.

Curricula

J.D. degree programs usually take three years of full-time study to complete. The first year of law school typically focuses on general law courses, such as contracts, criminal law and legal writing. In the final years, students usually study a specialty, such as corporate or labor law.

Additional Studies

To gain additional experience with law and the legal process, students may participate in moot trials, contribute to law journal publications and receive hands-on, supervised training in legal clinics. Some programs also incorporate clerkship programs, in which students work with attorneys at law firms and legal departments. Clerks may be responsible for drafting legal documents, working with judges and conducting legal research.

Advanced Law Degrees

Lawyers who wish to specialize in specific concentrations of law may consider enrolling in Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree programs. These programs generally last one year and focus on specialized fields, such as business or international law. Requirements vary according to law school, but typically entail 21-26 course credits.

Some law schools may offer joint J.D./LL.M. degree programs, which take 1-1.5 years of study in addition to J.D. degree programs. The ABA does not accredit any legal education programs besides J.D. degree programs.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

In 2013, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported an annual median wage of $114,300 for lawyers in general. The top paying industries at that time included physician offices, resin, rubber and synthetic fibers manufacturing and securities and commodity brokerage and intermediation. The BLS predicted average growth of 10% for lawyers from 2012-2022. Strong competition for jobs was expected, and lawyers with experience who are willing to relocate will have the best employment prospects.

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