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What Are the Professional Requirements for Becoming a Lawyer?

You must meet the professional requirements to be a lawyer to practice law or call yourself an attorney. These range from meeting educational standards and passing the bar exam to moral character and background checks. Below is a description of the standard prerequisites for the practice of law.

Understanding what lawyers must do before practicing law may help you find a qualified attorney. It may also help you decide whether to join the legal profession.

See FindLaw's Guide to Hiring a Lawyer for more resources. Other resources include Researching Attorney Discipline and State Bar Associations.

Bachelor's Degree

Anyone pursuing a law degree must complete a bachelor's degree program. No specific type of degree is required. Common prelaw undergraduate degrees are criminal justice, political science, and intellectual property. But, a criminal justice degree is not required for a career in criminal law.

After completing your bachelor's degree, you must take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). The LSAT score is one of several tools law school admissions staff use. The Law School Admission Council administers the LSAT. Students can use the results for admission to any law school.

Law School

In most states, attorneys must graduate from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association. States can set their own additional requirements. For instance, The California Bar requires:

  • Three or four years of study at an ABA-accredited law school or,
  • Four years of study at a state bar fixed facility (not online) accredited law school or,
  • Four years of study with a minimum of 864 hours of preparation at a registered unaccredited distance-learning or correspondence law school or,
  • Four years of supervised study with a state judge or attorney, or,
  • Any combination of the above

Almost all attorneys get their juris doctor (J.D.) degree, but it is not required to become an attorney. Some leave law school without taking the bar and become paralegals, legal assistants, or law professors.

Bar Apprenticeship

Four states, California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington, have alternate ways to get a legal education. These programs go by different names but are similar in scope. Would-be law students must study or work full-time under the supervision of an experienced attorney or judge. The supervisor and the student must report the student's progress to the state bar.

Once students complete their studies, they can take the bar exam with other law school graduates. In California, students who attend unaccredited law schools must take the "baby bar" during their first year of law school. No other state has this type of exam.

State Bar Exam

Even with a J.D. degree, you must pass the state bar examination to practice in your chosen state. Once you have passed the bar in one state, it becomes easier to take the bar in other states.

A traditional bar exam takes roughly 18 hours over three days. The bar association offers the exam twice yearly, in February and July. The exam includes standardized questions and essays on multiple areas of law to assess a person's understanding of the law and problem-solving ability.

Uniform Bar Exam

The state bar exam used to consist of 50 different tests. As of 2024, 41 states either use or plan to use the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) to test all law students. The UBE consists of three standardized tests: the Multistate Essay Examination, two Multistate Performance Test tasks, and the Multistate Bar Examination. The UBE may contain a state-specific component. Applicants can transfer the results to any UBE participating state.

NextGen Bar Exam

In 2026, five states, Connecticut, Maryland, Missouri, Oregon, and Wyoming, will phase in the NextGen Bar Exam. Bar examiners developed the test after studies of state bar examinations. There were complaints that the exam was not a realistic test of students' law knowledge.

The NextGen Bar Exam assesses applicants' comprehension of:

  • Foundational law principles: such as civil procedure, contracts, evidence, torts, business law, constitutional law, criminal law, and real property. In 2028, the test will add family law.
  • Foundational legal skills: including legal research, legal writing, issue spotting, client counseling, negotiation and dispute resolution, and case management.

Other states may sign on with the NextGen Exam before its roll-out in 2026.

Supervised Practice Portfolio Exam

Beginning this year, Oregon, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire students may become licensed attorneys without taking any bar exam.

The Oregon Supreme Court approved the Supervised Practice Portfolio Examination, which permits any ABA-accredited law school graduates to become licensed attorneys in Oregon.

Applicants must:

  • Have graduated from an ABA-accredited law school
  • Complete 675 hours of legal practice under the supervision of a licensed Oregon attorney
  • Create a portfolio of legal work and submit it for evaluation to the Oregon State Board of Bar Examiners

The Wisconsin and New Hampshire systems are different. College students who want to avoid years of law school but still practice law should contact their state bar association.

Character and Fitness Review

Since law practice involves the property and even clients' freedom, states require applicants to undergo moral character reviews. The review is an in-depth background check and includes:

  • A review of the applicant's law school application
  • Criminal history and rehabilitation
  • Honesty and candor on the application and toward the board
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Allegations of moral turpitude, fraud, or unauthorized practice of law

Applicants also must pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE). This multiple-choice test covers legal issues that attorneys may face during their careers. Attorneys can apply the MPRE results to applications in other states besides the one they take it in.

Oath

Prospective attorneys must take a legally binding oath to uphold the United States Constitution and the licensing state's laws and constitution. Taking the oath is the start of an attorney's legal career. Any notary or judge may administer the oath. States usually have mass swearings-in twice each year following the release of the bar exam results.

License

When an attorney completes these requirements, they get a law license from their state supreme court or highest court. Check with your state's bar association for the specific requirements for a law license.

If you have more questions about the professional requirements for becoming a lawyer, talk to an attorney near you.

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